Master Planning for Museums

How We Think About Museum Planning

At the heart of our museum planning process is our belief that museums should be defined by who they serve, not by what they have, or what they do.

Our work usually falls in between the strategic plan that outlines a museum's goals, and the architectural and exhibition plans that detail specifics. Our Museum Master Plans are a blueprint for how to turn those goals into reality.

A Museum Master Plan Asks "What Happens if...?"

Understanding the interests, needs, and desires of each museum’s many different consituent groups is the critical first step in museum planning.

Most museum planning projects seem simple at first: "We need more space,” or “We need to rethink our visitor experience,” or “We need to generate more earned revenue.” And the ideas come easily enough: add on a new wing, develop a new exhibit, or increase marketing.

But often the simple ideas simply don’t work.

The new wing will disrupt visitor circulation, research shows that visitors want a different experience than what we planned, or earned revenue proves to be elusive.

Rather than jumping to conclusions, we dig in and explore multiple alternatives until we find the simple, elegant solution that best meets community needs.

Sometimes, a Museum Master Plan is the first step in planning a new building or a major expansion.  Just as often, it results in a new programmatic direction, a new business model, or as the foundation for a fundrasing campaign.

Why Invest in a Museum Master Plan?

Planning is cheap. Executing is expensive.

Taking the time to develop a Museum Master Plan allows a museum to think through and test alternatives before commitments are made for a change in direction or for new design and construction.

Our Museum Planning Process

We ask and answer six main questions:

What are the museum’s mission and vision?

Collect? Preserve? Exhibit? Educate? Inspire? Provoke?

What are the museum’s resources and constraints?

Collections? Exhibits? Staff? Board? Site and building?

Endowment? Membership? Community support?

Government funding?

Who are the museum’s constituents?

Tourists? Local residents? Families? Seniors? Children?

Collectors? Scholars?

What kinds of programs will best meet the community's needs?

Collections? Long-term Exhibits? Temporary Exhibits? Classes? Lectures? Demonstrations? Publications? Online activities?

What kinds of facilities are needed to meet the programmatic needs?

How much space is needed? What kind of building would be best? Is the existing site adequate? If not, should the museum be re-located?

How does the money work?

Where does operating revenue come from? How many staff are needed? Is a capital campaign feasible? What are the operating expenses? How do we balance investments in exhibits, architecture, and endowment?

While every planning process is customized for each museum, a typical process will include the following components:


Discovery tells us where you are now. Discovery is deeply inclusive; we want to hear every opinion and harvest every idea. It identifies opportunities, issues, and constraintsThis phase helps us to understand the crucial questions that must be addressed as we begin the planning process.  

Community Engagement

Understanding the needs of different community groups and finding

ways the museum can meet those needs is crucial to a successful plan.

We engage directly with community members and community leaders

in a series of interviews, workshops, and targeted surveys to fully

understand how the museum can best serve each group.


With Benchmarking we study and visit comparable museums to identify

successful models, understand best practices, and to learn what works.

As important is benchmarking museums that have failed to meet their

goals to understand the pitfalls to avoid.


While the first three steps are about the present, visioning is about your future. We use what we've learned in a workshop to help you shape a broad vision that draws on your resources, meets community needs, addresses issues and concerns, is informed by benchmarks, and makes a compelling case for the museum’s future growth and development.

Development and Analysis of Alternatives

We work with you to develop multiple scenarios that illustrate

the outcomes of different approaches to exhibits, programs,

operations, and facilities. These scenarios illustrate how

changes in scale and scope, program selection, target

audience, construction cost, marketing budgets, and other

variables will affect the sustainability of the museum.

We then discuss the pros and cons of each scenario and continue

to test variations until we find a solution that balances compelling

programs (vision) with reasonable and sustainable capital costs

and operating budgets (pragmatism).


Documentation brings all of the pieces together into a compelling, yet realistic and sustainable, business model and master plan that will guide the future development of the organization, its site, and buildings.

Follow Up

We work with you to ensure that the architects

and exhibit designers fully understand all of the

components of the plan and the reasons the

museum made the decisions it made. We also

help the museum in making decisions about

any issues that arise during the design process.

The resulting Strategic Master Plans are comprehensive,

clearly organized, and free of jargon and unnecessary filler. Discussions based on our plans begin with a shared understanding of the issues and move into the implementation stages quickly and effectively.

The most inclusive projects are also the most successful

We work with

you to develop multiple scenarios that illustrate

the outcomes

of different approaches.

The resulting

Strategic Master Plans

are comprehensive,

clearly organized, and

free of jargon and

unnecessary filler.

Where Does Museum Insights Fit?

The work of a major museum project typically takes place in five phases, beginning with the inital idea and ending with implementation. The second phase is the most crucial as it is when the major decisions about the project are made.

Museum Insights typically works in the first three phases of a major project, with the bulk of our work concentrated in the Definition phase.