Report on Study Tour of European Air Museums
During April/May 2001 an investigation of the management methods of Air Museums in 9 European countries was undertaken. The object was to gain information to assist Australian Air Museums improve their operations in the areas of public relations (including education), attendance building methods, fund raising, acquisition/retention and restoration of historic display aircraft.
There was a universal acceptance of my investigation at each of the approximately 20 museums visited and either the chairman/director or a senior staff member allocated as much time as needed to meeting with me. Most were very keen to obtain ideas from other museums already visited. I did not meet anyone in Europe who had heard of the Winston Churchill Fellowship scheme but a combination of the name Churchill, the word Fellowship indicating some form of academic credibility and my previous personal contacts in the historic aviation world removed any potential barriers.
Prior to departure a number of museums were identified as desirable role models for Australian application and contact and correspondence was initiated. Every one of the 12 museums approached replied with a warm invitation to visit. Countries visited were Finland, Italy, Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, and France. En-route (by car) a number of other museums were recommended and visited, expanding the total to around 20.
While driving 10,000 km in 5 weeks every opportunity was taken to call in to, mostly small, airstrips which housed flying vintage aircraft. Many of these planes either belonged to established museums or to owners who had joined to form informal “museums” in a hangar to allow the public to view this active part of aviation history.
Every style of museum was visited ranging from huge national displays to tiny privately owned collections of a few significant types. Interestingly, they all have the same three problems, regardless of whether they are publicly funded, privately supported or operating commercially: –
1) Not enough money.
2) Not enough space.
3) Not enough people.
I consider the study a well worthwhile undertaking. As of September 2001 I have been able to present new ideas to Australian Aeronautical Society, National Aviation Museums Conference, Australian Aviation Historical Society, Antique Aircraft Association of Australia and a number of Qld, Vic and NSW Air Museum management staff directly.
*Departing Brisbane 4 Apr 01 I flew directly to Helsinki, Finland where two museums at Jyvaskyla in the North and Helsinki were visited.
*An air flight from Helsinki to Rome was then undertaken and a small car hired from the airport to complete the rest of the trip. I visited museums in Urbe (Rome), the Italian Air Force museum north of Rome then on to the Caproni Museum at Trento in the far north of the country.
*Departing Italy a visit was made to two interesting small museums in Southern Austria before proceeding to Germany to keep an appointment at the National Science Museum in Munich.
*An interesting visit to the old socialist regime air museum in Prague was well worthwhile to see completely different concepts in management practices, before returning to Germany and the National Museum in Berlin. A number of small collection visits were made while enroute through Germany.
*A two-day visit to the Danish Old Timers Museum was of great benefit and had particular application to Australian organisations.
*Meetings were held at several small, but well run, collections in the North West of Germany that had been recommended and some interesting points on small-scale operation administration were identified.
*Two outstanding operations were visited in Holland. The National Aviodome Museum at Amsterdam Airport and the Old Timers Collection at Lelystadt in the north. Both operations have completely different but successful ways of operation, one aggressively commercial, the other community oriented.
*Appointments were kept in the North of Belgium then at the National Military Museum in Brussels.
*Several small collections were visited in Northern France before spending a considerable amount of time with the Director of the National Air Museum in Paris. The study tour concluded with a day spent with the staff of the huge Salis Collection at La Ferte Alais South of Paris.
The main booking system of the Churchill Fellowship administration worked well via QANTAS central booking. Daily sustenance allowances for the various countries are adequate to cover expenses in a fixed operation. Anyone moving as I did, unable to always have time to search out the cheapest pensions and B&B’s will be required to add to the expense allocation. The low Australian dollar does not help matters.
Findings and outcomes
During the course of the tour I came into contact with dozens of interesting ideas which will be of benefit to Australian aviation heritage preservation and promotion.
The primary objective of most organisations visited is two-fold.
Firstly: The collection, restoration and preservation of aircraft, memorabilia, documents and the recording of the history of all aspects of national and international aviation.
Secondly: To promote their cause through publicity but primarily, through focused educational programs ranging from handing a pamphlet to a single person to large international shows.
The methods of achieving these aims are many. Most museums adapt their programs to meet specific financial and local social needs. All museums are restricted in the scope of their work by a lack of staff and funding.
Rather than present pages of tedious detail listing every museum visited and describing their every action I have compiled a number of the more general ideas used (often by more than one organisation) which may be applied to the Australian situation.
Already in my talks and visits to various Australian aviation organisations I have offered particular detail applicable to their operations which may not be applicable or appropriate to everyone. I have found great value in informal discussions with Australian aviation historical staff and committees in responding to questions related to their specific needs.
Rather than having a “How to run a Museum” manual or adopting the role of a museum expert I am finding the value to the community of my Churchill Fellowship is in my ability to say “Your problem is like the one they had at the Old Timers Museum in Denmark, they told me they addressed it by doing……… It would probably be worth talking to Jens Linqvist, the curator, about it”.
Museums are generally involved in educational programs for the promotion of their ideals and to build on their attendance pool. Secondary aims of education programs include building support from government and sponsors and enhancing their standing in the community. Education programs also produce increased museum membership and volunteer labour.
The most successful museums visited, both large and small, had active regular education programs. This feature is almost totally lacking in Australian aviation museums that rely upon the irregular visit of the odd school class and an annual open day.
The most vibrant museums had activity programs (heavily slanted towards children) every week during the summer season. Children must be doing something and for most, a class visit to a museum just to have a look, has its greatest value in a day away from the classroom.
Many museums had programs every weekend, which ranged from dress-up days in the museum’s flying suits and airhostess uniforms, building kites and model aircraft to drawing classes using the planes as subjects. Even a “learn to wash a jet fighter” day attracts crowds of eventually soaked children and as well as getting the planes clean, gives the kids a sense of accomplishment and a chance to touch and feel a real aircraft.
Very popular are “Learn to fly an aircraft” days where every plane in the museum has an adult volunteer taking a small group of children through what the aircraft did, who used it and how it flies. The kids are then dressed in flying gear of the period (often fudged due to lack of sufficient correct period attire) and, under supervision, actually occupy crew positions in the planes. This is anathema to many Australian museums that shudder at the thought of anyone touching their aircraft.
There are waiting lists at the 3 museums visited that run this program. As well as educating the kids who tell their friends, each child is accompanied normally by both parents (who buy entrance tickets), local newspapers nearly always take advantage of a photo opportunity.
The most important benefit of this type of activity completely escapes most people running Australian museums. In this country, where every museum relies upon volunteers, there is a limit to how many people are prepared to stand around day after day collecting the odd entrance fee, dusting off the planes and sweeping the floor. The technical restoration volunteers (mainly old engineers) have their day occupied constructively but the bulk of the old pilot and aviation enthusiast volunteers are hard pressed to keep occupied and interested.
These regular activities create lists of volunteers, wanting to be rostered on, double that found in non-activity periods. The museums are meeting their obligations not only to the youth of the community but also giving a lot of older people a sense of purpose and fulfillment.
As finance is the major impediment to a museum’s growth and ultimate success the organisation must attract as many people through the door as possible. Australian museums have a lot of difficulty doing this and few look beyond placing some signs on the roadway and a few brochures in the local motels.
One of the most impressive methods of attracting customers was seen in Northern Italy. The area around Trento is basically rural with no big cities or population centres. Despite this, there are a large number of museums within a 100-km circle ranging from the
Caproni Aircraft Museum through Science, Historical, Agricultural, Music and Folk museums.
Under the direction of an enthusiastic woman from the Provincial Government community department the museums have formed a loose co-operative. Without waiting for the people to come to them they have gone to the people.
A comprehensive booklet has been produced and sent to EVERY schoolteacher within a couple of hundred kilometres. Each museum has a page to extol their benefits to pupils on school excursions with glossy photographs etc. There is a large map of the area showing each location.
The value of the booklet lies in its booking page. The museums have consulted and arrived at a calendar of the school year with special events and programs appearing on every day with no museum clashing with another. The events range from special displays, which run for some time to physical activities. There is a chart linking museums, which are near to each other to allow the children to have two visits in one day.
All the teacher has to do is to select a date, select a museum and tell any of the museums (even those not being visited) or the Provincial Community Affairs office how many children are going from where. The book gives charges (reduced rates), what should be worn, whether to bring or buy lunch and any special requirements. On the appointed day as many busses as required appear at the school and the children are met by guides as they arrive at each museum.
The great benefit of this co-operative proactive scheme is it produces customers and fulfills the educational aims of museums. It makes it simple for teachers to select school outings; it makes it easy for those teachers who consider organising field trips is just too hard. Nearly every teacher who comes says that, despite living in the district for years, they were unaware there was such a rich selection of heritage in their area until the booklet arrived.
It creates further customers when the children go back and tell their friends. Museums reported that for several weeks after a school visit they see the same pupils at the museum, except this time with their (paying) parents and siblings. This in turn generates more adult customers when the parents tell their friends.
To attract a continuous flow of customers museums must appeal to all age groups. This is an extremely difficult task as a high proportion of visitors is a family group which have both wildly enthusiastic visitors and those suffering terminal boredom within the party. Few Australian museums address this problem and see nothing wrong with mum and the little kids sitting outside in the car while dad and the older ones look at aeroplanes. There have been a few attempts at putting a couple of swings outside to keep the non-starters happy but this is keeping them out of the museum.
A number of the more advanced, not necessarily larger, European museums have embraced technology. They have designed computers to attract the children but do not just give them games. Initially they provided aviation video games which resulted in crowds of kids sitting pressing buttons as they do at home, often not even setting foot inside the museum display areas.
A good deal of thought has gone into the computer programs giving the children a competitive/scoring game to attract their interest. But now to win, the player is required to get information from the museum display area, construct an aircraft on a mini CAD system or search through an aviation database to get answers to problems.
As an addition to the teacher’s central museum visit booking system the museums provide the teacher’s with an interactive questionnaire for each child which can be later marked and discussed in the classroom.
The Aviodome at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam is one of the world’s most professional displays and they realise everybody must be catered for if family groups are to be attracted. Older children and their fathers have no trouble in finding interest in an aviation museum while considerably fewer women and almost no small children have the same amount of interest. By emphasising the human side of aviation and particularly the achievements of women they have expanded their interest base beyond nicely restored bits of machinery.
Children are each given a sheaf of questionnaires when they arrive. All around the museum there are hidden various objects for the children to find. It might be a mole burrowing up beside the wheel of a Spitfire or a Tarantula in the cockpit of a Fokker in a jungle setting.
Each person must seek out the aircraft nominated, forcing them to take an interest in the displays, then search the display for the missing object. A picture of the particular aircraft is beside each question to allow small children to make identification. A small idea like this can make a good family outing and the museum is full of people of all ages closely studying each display to find the missing object. The prize for successful completion is a Museum sticker with the marking standard directly related to the age of the participant!
The survival of any museum rests on its ability to pay its bills, acquire and maintain its displays and construct suitable cover for its inventory. No museum can survive on ticket sales at the door; there must be additional income.
Professional operations like the Dutch Aviodome have numerous commercial ideas.They deliberately set out to target the highest profile business people in the country and started a Businessman’s Club. Once a month they hold an extended lunch in the museum conference area for around 100 people. The food is gourmet and the wine first class. The people attending (and you must book well ahead) or their companies, pay quite large sums to be members of the club.
Under the guise of supporting the national aviation museum, the top echelon of businessmen, government ministers and well-known personalities get to “network” on neutral ground.
As a spin-off, these companies then become targets for the museum sponsorship people and there are a number of businessmen who get pleasure from seeing their company logos displayed at the luncheons as major sponsors.
Against the protests of some committee members, the museum sacrificed some of its valuable display space to create a conference area and, as a result of small but efficient staff, have it occupied with conferences, business luncheons and even weddings, the whole year around. They now have sufficient funding, far above what could have been expected from normal museum fundraising, to commence building a huge new museum with 4 times the floor space at Lelystadt.
Every government has numerous grant schemes for charitable organisations and very often Australian museums miss out because ‘they did not know about them”. Many of the very successful small and medium museums in Europe could not hope to survive due to their remote locality. At a number of these there is a member of the staff or a volunteer whose primary role is to do nothing but search methods of applying for various grants, loans and donations. It is amazing how many of these funds lie dormant or have few applicants purely because they are not widely advertised.
Last ditch protection
Quite a number of museums in Europe, on the brink of collapse, have been saved by local government takeover. This has happened at least once to my knowledge in Australia but may be an option, not of desperation, but to move ahead.
A political maneuver at the Caproni museum in Italy where family members of the privately owned collection commenced a breakup and sale was foiled by the chairwoman handing the entire collection to the provincial government for free on the understanding it would be supported and expanded. The government became the owners of one of the world’s significant collections for nothing. The family retained positions on the management board and the new owners justified the expense of subsidising the museum as a significant attraction and income producer for the province.
A significant Australian museum in desperate financial straits may find succour in a similar agreement. The business plan for a sale to local government does not have to meet the same commercial criteria as a pure company operation. Considerable value can be placed on “community benefit” and the ability to attract people to the Shire and spend in the area while they are visiting.
This report is necessarily very broad-brush and unable to cover in detail the numerous variations in operation seen during the study tour. What that tour did achieve was a realisation that aviation museums situated in areas much more sparsely populated than those surrounding most Australian museums can be successful.
They can be a part of the general community, not just enthusiasts’ stop-off points.
Not one of the successful museums visited (and there were some struggling ones) failed to provide some form of colour and movement. They had aircraft being restored with public access to workshop viewing areas, they had displays, games, competitions and many flew some of their planes on a regular basis.
It is not good enough to adopt the Australian standard as followed by the majority of our aviation museums of opening the door, starting a video and just waiting for the people to come. They will come in small numbers but they won’t come back because they have seen everything there is to see. They will not encourage to their friends. The continuous struggle to keep volunteers will go on.
With a few ideas, little expenditure and a few satisfying projects for the volunteers the people will be enthused, the workers will be enthused. The museum will start to be alive instead of a repository for dead aeroplanes.
I will not be able to change the total system of operation of any museum as a result of the study tour. Hopefully by offering small ideas, observations on how others have tackled specific problems and advice derived from seeing how others survive we might just be able to save some of Australia’s aviation heritage now being lost through lack of inspiration.