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Master Planning for Museums

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Museum Master Planning Chart

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Museum Master Planning?

Museum master planning is the first major step in planning for significant change.

Isn’t Master Planning just another

name for Strategic Planning?

Not at all. The two types of plans are distinctly different.

• A strategic plan is about broad goals and specific objectives.

• A master plan is about implementing those goals and objectives.

• A strategic plan says "this is what we want to achieve."

• A master plan says "This is what we are going to do to achieve that."

A Strategic Master Plan fits between these two to ask “What happens if ...?”

How is our Museum Master Plan

different from a Feasibility Study?

In many ways, a Museum Master Plan is a feasibility study. It is designed to test whether a certain set of assumptions will result in the outcomes the museum desires. The difference is that most feasibility studies focus on just a few financial variables and make broad assumptions about other areas, particularly about the audiences, exhibits, programs, and other activities that will be the focus of the museum’s work.

A Museum Master Plan works with all of these variables to find the mix of programs, operations, and facilities that works most sustainably for each unique museum. A feasibility study can work well for a museum that is very similar to another one (like many children’s museums). It doesn’t work as well for the complex set of variables that most museum projects must consider.

What are other types of museum plans?

There are multiple different types of museum plans. A partial list would include:



          Visitor Experience

          Operating or Business Plan










A Museum Master Plan typically considers all of these areas and will identify areas that need more detailed study by specialized consultants.

What other consultants might be involved?

The planning process is different for every project and the people or organizations to include really depends on the project’s goals.  Because master planning usually precedes large or complex projects, it frequently includes multiple consultants, often an architect, exhibit designer, economist, and a master planning firm. The team might also include a visitor studies component, a collections specialist, retail/food service consultants, branding and marketing specialists, or a landscape architect.  

We know what we want to do. Shouldn’t

we just hire an architect or exhibit designer?

That depends on what you need to accomplish. If you are certain that you need a new building or addition and know exactly what should be inside it, hire an architect. If your focus will be exclusively on a particular exhibit, hire an exhibit designer. If you know you need a new image, hire a branding consultant.

If your project involves multiple disciplines, a master planner can help find the right balance of architectural, exhibit, program, operational, and capital changes that will best help you achieve your goals.

Who should be involved in master planning?

We have consistently found that the most inclusive planning projects are also the most successful and, as a corollary, that the most successful cultural institutions are those with the broadest support from their many different communities.

Building broad constituent support through a collaborative planning process creates a solid foundation for the sustainability of the museum over the long term.

Aren’t master plans only for large museums?

Not at all.  We have have done master plans for museums ranging from a million square feet to 1,200 square feet.  The same processes and principals apply to each.

Can a master plan convince potential

funders to help pay for a project?

Absolutely! A good master plan will have inspiring ideas and convincing illustrtions. As important, it will have clearly articulated budgets (capital and operational) that are grounded in reality and can be defended as both reasonable and feasible.  Pretty pictures add the sizzle that will inspire interest, but the hard work of program and operational planning is the substance that convinces potential donors that their donations are a good investment.

There is no single model for a successful museum. 
Museums differ across so many different variables that it is impossible to say that what works for one place will also work in another. Unlike chain stores or franchises, there is no operational formula that can be tweaked for the characteristics of each location. Understanding the complexity of museum business models is typically the single biggest challenge for stakeholders taking on a museum planning project.

Planning is cheap.  Executing is expensive. Work through potential mistakes during planning (which is relatively cheap) and you won’t have to pay for them during design (which is expensive) or construction (which is brutally expensive) or after opening (which can be disastrous). The most extensive master planning efforts cost less than 3% of a capital project. Planning is an investment that will pay for itself many times over.

And a corollary: You can never do too much planning. Even if the project doesn’t move forward, the process helps educate the staff and stakeholders and the next planning iteration will be more successful. The result? The more planning you do, the more successful the project will be.

Sustainability is more important than feasibility. A feasibility assessment might look out five years, which is fine for a for-profit business.  For a museum, long-term economic sustainability is more critical (especially as related to exhibits and programs) and should be a significant component of the planning. 

Always ask to see sample work products from consultants. If all of a consultant’s reports look alike, the firm uses a boilerplate approach to planning. You want to go elsewhere because the firm is more interested in making money by recycling their past projects than they are in finding solutions for your unique set of needs.

When interviewing any professional services firm, insist on talking to the people who will actually be working with you every day. Put a clause in your contract that includes the names of these individuals and allows you to pull the contract if others (typically less experienced) are assigned to do your work.

What have we learned along the way?

In 30 years of working with museums, we’ve learned a lot.

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