Museums: Fundraising and Organizational Structures

This is the fifth in a series of five blog posts exploring the examples of prisons, labor camps and other sites of memory that have become museums. These posts were researched and written by Erica Mollon, Master’s student in Historic Preservation and Urban Planning at Columbia University, during her internship with CHwB in Tirana, Albania.

In the last post in this series, we will look at how some of the museums we discussed have handled funding and organizational challenges.

Eastern State Penitentiary, USA

Eastern State Penitentiary's fundraising strategy highlights one specific project each year.  Photo courtesy of

Eastern State Penitentiary’s fundraising strategy highlights one specific project each year. Photo courtesy of

When the Eastern State Penitentiary museum opened in 1994, the building was in bad condition, yet people still signed up for tours. Over the years, it has accomplished many preservation projects, in part because of its fundraising strategy. Each year, a specific task is established – examples include mural restoration, re-roofing a portion of the prison, lighting, and an oral history project – that allows targeted focus on a particular need. A committee, with specific experts, leads each project, eliminating volunteer drain and fatigue while expanding the number of contacts and project donors. Because each project is small and well defined, they resonate with different people and past donors are more likely to re-donate because completion and success are more tangible.

Gulag Perm-36, Russia

At the Gulag Perm-36 museum, the price of admission varies based on the chosen activity of the visitor, but “victims of repression” and other select groups never pay a fee. The museum also receives funding from multiple international organizations that provide it with grant money. By identifying, prioritizing, and concentrating mainly on stabilization projects, the museum has been able to stretch its funding. Because they work closely with other related sites and understand the importance of research as a resource, they can expand their reach, both with potential visitors and funders.

Sighet, Romania

Broken into two separate organizations, the Sighet Memorial and Museum can keep funding needs separated, even while supporting the same goals and functions. The research section of the memorial, The International Center for the Studies on Communism, is broken into several departments, but all support the mission to combat the communist regime’s attempt at the erasure of memory. They started with the research and recording of oral histories for two reasons: 1) it required people to share their stories before it was too late, and 2) it was cheaper than preserving physical places. These oral histories in turn can bring the issue to the attention of potential donors for the preservation of the site.

Ellis Island, USA

Proof that any publicity is good publicity, when Ellis Island became one of World Monument Fund’s endangered places, it provided an opportunity for greater fundraising awareness. As ruined and abandoned places became increasingly popular with urban explorers, the Save Ellis Island foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of the island, allowed photographers in, all in the hopes of garnering even more attention for the cause and increasing private donations. These private donors have funded much of the stabilization work that has occurred on the island.

Save Ellis Island fund-raises for the preservation of the entire island complex.

Save Ellis Island fund-raises for the preservation of the entire island complex.

Tenement Museum, USA

Work at the Tenement Museum was completed in phases as funding became available. The first restored apartment opened for tours in 1992 and the last project in the building opened in 2013. An announcement early this year stated that the museum would expand to a neighboring building. Money for the restoration of the building and for outreach programs are separate, with programs such as the teacher’s workshops getting funding from two separate grants.

Anne Frank House, Netherlands

Beyond funding, creative organizational structures can also benefit museums. A group of directors, a supervisory board, and an advisory board manage the Anne Frank House. Each has a defined role and responsibilities with different groups of people participating at various levels.

Auschwitz, Poland

By incorporating former prisoners in the planning of the museum, Auschwitz successfully transitioned into a museum despite the challenges facing a site of painful memories and threats of unfavorable reuse.

One response to “Museums: Fundraising and Organizational Structures

  1. Fascinating perspectives here. And so many, specific to audiences and cultural contexts. I can identify especially with the value of research and experts, the value of oral history and/or involvement locally or personally. Networks too, local, regional and ones like this are also so valuable. Thank you for creating the forum for exchange of knowledge and experience – happy to continue!

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