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Museum Funding: A 360-degree View

Costs, Benefits, & Sponsors of Museum Digitization

An investigation leaded by Indrajeet Yadav, Editorial direction Julien Vandanjon, assisted by Alicia Piot-Bouysse.

Digitization of museum collections becomes more necessary than before in order to reach out to a larger, “virtual” audience, what with the COVID-19 pandemic unleashing pandemonium on the global economy and barring tourists and locals from visiting museums – the veritable bastions of art and culture. Even otherwise, digitization is essential to conserve cultural heritage. It comes at cost though. And with European governments getting thrifty about donating to museums, the question of museum funding grabs the centre stage!

1.0. Executive Summary

Necessity: The Mother of Museum Funding

Vision, patience, perseverance, rare skill, proper tools . . . and the money to put all these together. That’s just about the ingredients that go into creating a work of art. Few are blessed with the eye to appreciate art or the resources and the readiness to back artists as they hog along the precarious road to engender dazzling pieces of art. 

Art needs patrons with deep pockets and large hearts. It always has. So is the case of museums – the arena for conservation, restoration, and digitization of art! Enthralling as it is, art is no exception to fundamentals of economics. Starting, running, and growing any business requires capital, enterprise, land, and labour – the four factors of production.   

Customized Room Setups for a contemporary exhibition at Mima Museum in Brussels, Belgium ©photography by Julien Vandanjon-Rancoule

Museum numbers across the globe shot up from 25k in 1975 to over 95k today as per UNESCO figures. This huge and critical spread of cultural conservation and transmission drives a colossal cash flow from visitors. Nevertheless, many are still NOT self-sufficient and require constant money influx from public and private donors to survive.

Some cultural institutions may be commercially successful. But their primary objective is to preserve cultural heritage. Visitor fee does not figure in the list of top revenue sources for museums. Plus, attendance falls during economic booms and peaks during slumps, forcing museums to ask for funds when donors are least inclined.   

European museums have witnessed a steady decline in government grants over the past 15-odd years. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic that slowed down the global economy and forced lockdowns. Tourists and local travellers can no longer visit these cultural bastions in person as before. So much so, the American Alliance of Museums believes one-third American museums may never reopen

The question of museum funding is one of paramount importance. 

Digitization of museum collections, therefore, becomes necessary in order to “virtually” reach out to a larger audience. Many museums have already embarked on this path with optimistic results. However, digitization is an expensive, time consuming process requiring specialist skills. 

Again, the availability of funds becomes the starting point!

2.0. Cost Conundrum

2.1. Museums as Primarily Non Commercial Institutions

Uffizi (Rome), Louvre (Paris), The Met (New York), and British Museum (London) are among the most visited museums of the world. Even if some cultural places attain spectacular commercial success, they are not necessarily a commercial product. Their primary function is to store and preserve memories, artefacts, and natural wonders of the human heritage. 

It is for this reason that London’s National Gallery of Art, the Vatican Library, the Smithsonian, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, and the Getty Research Institute, as part of the Open Content Movement, presented on their websites thousands of images for download

Recently, France Institut National Géographique (IGN) unlocked terabytes of cartographic and mapping databases to all publics and opened a thousands of projects for education , museography and research. “Free” resources sometimes spring up, allowing smaller entrepreneurs and institutions to benefit from a suction effect…

Sample of a map digitization from an NGO for Digital Education
Geomorphic Reconstruction for educational purposes in Réunion Island, France Offshore territories ©digitization by Julien Vandanjon-Rancoule for Capeline-Afac974

Depending on the country where they are based and their cultural and political history, cultural places like museums may provide free access to visitors or levy an affordable fee. They do this despite logistics of running the ship forcing them to raise visitor fees to huge amounts – which will reserve museums for tiny, wealthy elite.

2.2. Operational Budgets 

American art museums earned only $8 on average per visitor in 2017. Their running costs were $55 for every visitor. Quite clearly, visitor fees will never make museums self sufficient, let alone help them finance digitization and other technological upgrades. Unless, they escalate visitor fees to the point that museums become the preserve of the super rich. 

The Association of Art Museum Director surveyed 210 art museums in North America and presented their operational budgets as:

  • Above $45 million: 8%
  • $20 to $45 million: 12%
  • $10 to $20 million: 21%
  • $5 to $10 million: 21% 
  • Below $5 million: 39%

2.3. Types of Museum Finance 

Primary funding sources for museums are:

  • Endowments are the lifeline of museums, a stable and dependable source. Caution dictates an endowment 3 to 5 times the operating cost. However, only 10-12% of funds for United States’ museums came from endowments in 2009.  
  • Donations from public and private entities. Public donations accounted for 28% of museum funding in the United States in 2009, while private donors contributed 32% in the same year. 
  • Taxation takes the form of:
    • Grants by public bodies from tax revenues (covered under public donations). 
    • Tax breaks available particularly to non-profit museums.
    • Tax concessions made to museum donors.  
  • Investment Returns from the endowment funds channelized into stocks and/or bonds. Runaway inflation after World War II ate into bond returns, making museums look beyond bonds. 

About 12% of museum funds are sourced from investment income. Diversification dictates a 10% cap on investment in a single company and maximum 30% in a single sector. 

Rules of thumb require investment income to take care of 15-25% of operational costs and 95% of it must be ploughed back in the endowment. 

  • Profit was an average 28% of the annual budget of American museums. Memberships, publications, and gift shops generated a lion’s share of the profit. 
  • Debt is a risky, but sometimes necessary resource. 
  • Corporate Sponsorship is around $1 billion a year in the United States, a figure that makes public and private donations pale away in comparison. 

2.4. Donors & Philanthropists 

European public authorities are the most generous of museum donors. It was public support that established numerous European museums which also had many royal collection bequeathed to them. 

Parthenon sculptures galleries donation mention at British Museum
Donation Credit for the Parthenon Galleries at The British Museum, London ©photography by Julien Vandanjon-Rancoule

Governments in United Kingdom have traditionally been a tad more frugal than their continental European counterparts. The North American establishment is the most parsimonious on this count. American museums don’t mind this, for wealthy private donors have since long supported museums, libraries, and universities.  

Of their total receipts, UK museums obtained 25-65% from public sources in 2018; North American art museums managed only 15%. Other ways via which North American art museums received funds are private donors (33%), earned income / profits (27%), endowment income (22%), and university-college support (3%). 

But with European governments embarking on an austerity drive and tightening their purse strings, museums across the continent are borrowing a whole bunch of leaves out of the fund raising manual of their American cousins. This is of course, a paradigm shift.

Take the case of Spain’s Museo Nacional del Prado or the Prado Museum. Government’s share in its funding halved from 64.9% in 2006 to 32.4% in 2015. Amsterdam’s refurbished Rijksmuseum obtained 70% of its financing from the government in 2012. This dropped to 40% around 2015-16

Prado Museum set up a website for American Friends of the Prado where American patrons make tax free donations. Rijksmuseum loaned its “Small Wonders” collection to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Such lending nurtures European-American ties. Small Wonders is a selection of medieval prayer objects. 

With $300 million raised till date from American benefactors since 1989, the Tate Americas is among the top fundraisers for English Tate Museums. Then, there is the American Friends of the Orsay which musters $1-1.5 million annually for Paris’ Musee d’Orsay. 

2.4.1. Public Donors

Centralized funding by the European Commission (EC) is available for European museums via:

  • Horizon 2020 is EU’s largest ever research-innovation scheme with €80 billion allotted for 2014-20. The EC also released €1 million specifically to assist digital transformation of museums reeling under the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  • Creative Europe is a €1.46 billion program to aid Europe’s creative and culture sector by financing culture professionals, artists, films, and book translations.  
  • Erasmus Plus supports Europeans wanting to study abroad in EU member states. Running since the late 1980s, the latest version operated from 2014 to 2020 with a €14.7 billion budget. 

Museums staff can study abroad to acquire fresh skills and knowledge as the Cyprus Food and Nutrition Museum did. They can also build adult education programs. 

  • Europe for Citizens had a €187-million-plus budget for 2014-20. Commenced in 2007 to boost awareness of the EU and its operation, history, and institutions to built European identity. As custodians of culture, museums can play a vital role towards these objectives. 

A 2018 NEMO report laments deficient museum participation in these four EC-managed programs. NEMO is Network of European Museum Organisations. 

American museums obtain grants from the following public donors at the federal level: 

  • The National Endowment for the Arts
  • The Institute of Museum and Library Services
  • The National Science Foundation
  • The National Endowment for the Humanities

Many state and local level bodies are also involved. For example, the Los Angeles County shared around 33% of the yearly expenses of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Board of Trustee members are often the most dependable of private donors.

2.4.2. Private Donors

Top donor foundations to European museums in 2019 include: 

  • The Rothschild Foundation Handiv Europe under its Museum Grants Program
  • Welcome Europe by the European Foundation for Culture
  • Creative Europe Awards that present €10,000 each to winners
  • National Culture Fund (NFC) in Bulgaria
  • The Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP), Albania
  • The Balkan Museum Network

Charlotte Montgomery has compiled an exhaustive and excellent list of United States institutions engaged in donating to museums on the American Alliance of Museums’ webpage. Some donor foundations include: 

  • Knight Foundation 
  • Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Ford Foundation
  • Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
  • Bloomberg Philanthropies
  • Wells Fargo Foundation 
  • John Templeton Foundation 
  • The Rockefeller Foundation
  • W. K. Kellogg Foundation

3.0. Digitization of Museum Collections 

Digitization enables massive specimen data gathering, interlinking specimens across museums, and places such data at the disposal of researchers. Maximizing collection of and access to data are the focal objectives of specimen digitization. 

Virtual Reality (VR) / Augmented Reality (AR) deserve a special mention. Breathing “digital life” into historical places, people, and objects, VR makes the audience a part of the artwork, no longer passive visitors. AR gets digital versions of artists to stand by their work and narrate its story. It can also place explanatory notes next to artworks. 

Audience require only a tablet or smartphone to experience AR. Feeling VR necessitates special gadgets such as controllers and headsets. Needless to say, such immersive experiences shoot audience interest and numbers through the roof thereby creating all the positive vibes. 

3.1. Customized Nature of Digitization 

Digitizing artworks is as bespoke as the genius of the master artist who created them. The similarities do not end here though. As with the original, producing the digital copy is a painstaking job that calls for a hefty budget. 

Book Scanner in operation
Atiz Bookscan rig setup from Parks Library Preservation Blog Post

Moreover, each piece of art is unique, requiring a different digitization budget based on (the list is more related to library digitization, but serves as a valuable guide):

  • Type of artefacts involved.
  • Preservation operations, if any. 
  • Required image quality.
  • Engagement of skilled technicians, if any. 
  • Location of the collection. 
  • Diligence level of record keeping. 
  • Storage location of digital files.
  • Discoverability of the digitized collection, online and offline. 
  • Long term roadmap of the museum. 
  • Metadata requirements. 

3.2. Costs of Museum Digitization 

Nick Poole of the Collections Trust created a report The Cost of Digitizing Europe’s Cultural Heritage for the Comite des Sages of the European Commission in November 2010. The report estimated the following costs for digitization of:

  • Europe’s entire Cultural Heritage viz. Archives, Museums, Libraries, and Audio Visual (AV) Material at €100 billion spread over the 2010-2020 decade or €10 per year. 
  • Preserving and Publishing this digitized collection at €10-25 billion over the same decade if a Central Repository Facility is provided. 

Actual costs of digitization were forecasted to be €105.31 billion with Archives gobbling up the lion’s share at €41.87 billion and Museums coming a close second at €38.73 billion. Libraries and AV material were respectively placed at €19.77 billion and €4.94 billion. Economies of scale will reduce this cost down to €100 billion.

3.2.1. 3D Scanning & Photography Technologies 

Researchers at the Moore Laboratory of Zoology at the Occidental College in Los Angeles recently developed a 3D photogrammetry technique that creates a 3D model of a specimen within 60-120 minutes. Its software comes at $1400 a year. Hardware costs $3000 and takes up little physical space. 

Funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 program, a 2019 study titled Rapid 3D Capture Methods in Biological Collections and Related Fields explored the application of 3D digitization technologies and related workflows to natural history specimens at various European museums to identify the fastest and cheapest methods to mass digitize them. 

Table 1. Cost of Implementing Digitization Technologies in Museums

Sr. No.TechnologyMuseums of ApplicationCost / Time(per Specimen)
1.Multi Plane Photography (individually and in combination with Focus Stacking)RBINSMfNRMCA€1-5 / 1-10 minutes: RBINS & RMCAN.A. / 1-6+ hours: MfN
2. Photogrammetry (individually and in combination with Photo Stacking)RBINSMfNRMCA€10-100 / 1-6 hours
3.Structured Light ScannerRBINSRMCA€10-50 / 10-60+ minutes
4.Infrared ScannerRBINSRMCA€5-50 / 1-30 minutes
5.Laser ScannerMNHNNHM€10-50 / 10-60+ minutes
6.Micro Computed Tomography (CT)HCMRRBINSRMCAMfN€50-500 / 1-6 hours

Museum abbreviations used are as follows:

  • RBINS: Royal Belgian Museum of Natural Sciences 
  • RMCA: Royal Museum of Central Africa
  • MfN: Museum fur Naturkunde Berlin (Berlin Museum of Natural History)
  • NHM: The Natural History Museum London 
  • MNHN: Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle (National Museum of Natural History) 
  • HCMR: Hellenic Centre for Marine Research

3D digitization workflow covers four broad areas:

  • Acquisition encompasses data gathering for 3D model generation. Includes:
    • Curation before Digitization
    • Setting up the Image Station
    • Scanning the Specimen 
  • Processing deals with converting raw data for creating the 3D model and derivatives. Consists of:
    • Extraction of Information via Derivative Image Extraction
    • Model Texturing and Colouring via Information Extraction 
  • Curation handles conservation of raw data and 3D products with their metadata and other relevant information. It may incorporate more processing for the extraction, explanation, and verification of data. Sub processes are:
    • Identification of Assets
    • Storage cum Archiving
    • Recognition of Optimal Characters
    • Entering and Editing Data
  • Publishing handles broadcasting the 3D products to the audiences. Encompasses:
    • Publishing 3D Models
    • Displaying 3D Products 

3.2.2. Digital Imaging of Library Collections

Benchmarks for generating digital files of archival standards are established by the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative

For Digital Images:

  • $175 is the average cost to photograph an 18-inch-by-24-inch or 24-inch-by-36-inch artwork. Discounts can be available for large volumes, and a 2000-artworks collection will come at $95 per item, totalling to $190,000.

Capturing high-resolution images and large sized works of art entails greater expenses while those needing a single photo – for bureaucratic or insurance purposes – require lesser charges (all statistics at 2014 prices). 

  • $316 is the normal charges for a stitched, leather covered 120-page hardcover book with fine photographs. The price tag for 20 copies will be about $5000 or $250 per book. Designed covers demand greater fees. Similar, soft cover books cost around $158 (all statistics at 2014 prices based on the rates charged by PhotoBook Press, a photo book maker). 

$160 is the usual rate to print a 24-inch-by-36-inch snap on top-quality, etching paper of archival grade. The price jumps to $192 for printing the image on special fabrics and to $176-184 for canvas (all statistics at 2014 prices based on the rates charged by Iolabs, a customized printing service provider).

3.3. Real Examples of Artwork Digitization 

As mentioned, the immersive experience that AR/VR provide makes them a popular attraction. Some of the best known EU-funded projects in this regard are:

  • DigiArt: Lets museums completely digitize artefacts ranging from handheld artworks to large historical sites. A €3-million-plus, largely EU-funded project, it captures and processes data, creates stories, and enables 3D visualization and 3D interaction. 

VR/AR places the artefact in an immersive backdrop. Story telling provides the broader context. Data and linkages are superimposed on the artefact view. And by connecting hyperlinks of various artefacts, it creates “the internet of connected historical things.” 

Starting from June 2015, DigiArt operated till November 2018 and was successfully tested in three museums with diverse collections viz. Scladina Cave (Belgium), virtual bone museum of John Moores University (Liverpool), and Aigai Palace (Macedonia). As complete as it gets!

  • EMOTIVE Project: A €2.6-million-plus, EU-financed exercise, it strikes an emotional bond with audience and fires their imaginations. Using VR/AR, it had four historical figures narrate the story of the Antonine Wall at a demonstration in Hunterian Museum at Glasgow University. The Romans built this wall in 142 A.D. to protect Scotland’s coastline. 
  • GIFT Project: Another EU-funded €2.4-million-plus initiative, which, surprisingly, is averse to a totally digital experience. Rather, it establishes a physical-digital synergy for museum visitors for a more enriched, emotional, and meaningful experience. Patrons get to create 3D models of exhibits, customize their tour and create, and test which ideas for interaction work.   
Immersive AR/VR  visit experience “Bilzen Mysteries”  in Bilzen, Belgium ©photography by Julien Vandanjon-Rancoule and Chloé Pecquenard, Sleepyhead.studio

Museums making best use of AR/VR include:

  • Louvre (Paris): None of the 20,000 daily visitors can get enough a glimpse of da Vinci’s timeless masterpiece, Mona Lisa, also the world’s most famous painting. The VR tool, Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass changed this from October 2019. It brings Mona Lisa back to life, leaving more and more mesmerized.  
  • The Tate Modern (London): Utilized VR to recreate a 3D model of Modiglani’s century-old studio down to the last detail
  • The National Museum (Singapore): Created Story of the Forest, 3D versions of the 69 images from Collection of Natural History Drawings by William Farquhar. With this AR tool, visitors can chase and catch the interacting plants and animals while also gaining knowledge about them
  • The Smithsonian Institute (Washington, D.C.): Employs Skin and Bone, an AR app, to recreate 13 animals in full flesh-and-blood from their skeletons in the collection. 

Knight Foundation provided generous grants in 2019 to the following American museums for AR/VR based innovative programs:

  • Museum of Art and Design ($120,000) for Forensic Architecture: True to Scale, which explores the use of architectural sensibility and software to expose evidence on violence by public and private institutions.
  • American Museum of Natural History ($175,000) to check if immersive technology (Virtual Reality [VR] and Augmented Reality[AR]) plus data visualization can provide better context to audiences.
  • Museum of Moving Image and Scatter ($175,000) to investigate the use of future technology in facilitating open discussions and social engagement in museums. 
  • The Coloured Girls Museum ($175,000) for improved audience experience using AR/VR.
  • Japanese American Museum of San Jose ($10,000) to upgrade interaction with neighbouring community via art and AR. 

4.0. Final Comments

Audience can experience online The National Gallery of London’s Artemisia Exhibition at just £8 (€9). Walking visitors through 30 works of the 17th century artist is Letizia Trevis, the exhibition curator. The museum executed the plan in late 2020 when it was closed. Sponsored partly by Google Arts & Culture, it opens a fresh revenue stream for the museum. Digitization does pay dividends!

Nick Poole’s The Cost of Digitizing Europe’s Cultural Heritage study presents the collateral benefits of digitization. Epic projects have a way of opening many doors and damping costs. Mass digitization would reduce the cost of digitizing Europe’s cultural heritage from €105.31 billion to €100 billion on account of:

  • Evolution of cheaper and better technology and equipment, including more accurate software. 
  • Greater availability of existing skills from cultural organizations. 
  • Development of more cost-effective, mass-application technologies.
  • Creation of a secondary, commercial service market for digitization

In conclusion, the 2019 study Rapid 3D Capture Methods in Biological Collections and Related Fields explored asserts that mass 3D digitization of natural history collections is not feasible with the current level of resources. Please note the words, with the current level of resources. Clearly, there is a need to furnish greater resources to museums. 

This investigation cost a lot a time and efforts to the team. Thank you for you reading, please feel free to share and comment below or, more probably on social media. We like your feedbacks !

art, culture, digitization, finance, funding, grants, heritage, money, museum, pandemic, technology

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