The Museum Innovation Model: A museum perspective on innovation

Haitham Eid, Southern University at New Orleans, USA


This paper aims to contribute to the ongoing efforts of the museum sector to build a museum perspective of innovation. More specifically, the paper presents a new framework for innovation in museums called the Museum Innovation Model (MIM). The model emerged as a result of Ph.D. research that included a number of museums in the United States and the United Kingdom. The theoretical framework of the model is based on three concepts—open innovation, social enterprise, and social innovation—each of which, the research observed, are growing trends in the museum sector. The proposed paper offers an overview of each term, with special focus on museums. It also argues that the MIM could be used as 1) a planning tool to carry out innovation or 2) an evaluation tool to scrutinize innovation in museums. MIM is structured to make innovation in museums scalable, replicable, and feasible to start and operate. Beyond the case studies mentioned in this paper, elements of the model can be found in museums of different sizes, management styles, geographical locations, and collections. This is informed by Nesta’s various projects and Chesbrough’s (2003) and (2014) work around open innovation and open social innovation, as well as Janes’ (2010) discussion about the “mindful museum.” Finally, the paper concludes by underscoring that the principles of MIM (i.e., open innovation, social enterprise, and social innovation) are interconnected and together can present a formula for innovation in museums. The formula might be expressed simply as: museums that adopt a social enterprise business model and utilize open innovation strategies are capable of achieving social innovation.

Keywords: Museum Innovation, Open Innovation, Social Enterprise

1. Introduction

In recent years, innovation has become a topic of significant interest among museums and has dominated the discussion in many museum conferences, workshops, and seminars. This is probably because innovation, if applied correctly, can help museums achieve their organizational mission more effectively and efficiently. In business, innovation is an important part in the process of creating value proposition in any organization. To avoid variability of results and possible failures, adopting a comprehensive framework to carry out innovation is crucial. Therefore, this paper uses conceptual structures from business and museology literatures, as well as three case studies at three museums in the United States and United Kingdom, to introduce a model for innovation in museums, called the Museum Innovation Model (MIM).

MIM recognizes museum innovation as the new or enhanced processes, products, or business models by which museums can effectively achieve their social and cultural mission. The conceptual structure of the MIM consists of three major concepts: open innovation, social enterprise, and social innovation. These concepts are interconnected and together can present a formula for innovation in museums. The formula might be expressed simply as: museums that adopt a social enterprise business model and utilize open innovation strategies are capable of achieving social innovation. It may be helpful at the outset of our attempt to introduce the model, to offer an overview of the definition of each term.

2. Open innovation

Open innovation refers to the framework that allows organizations to create channels by which outside and inside ideas can be transmitted to and from the organization during the innovation process. Henry Chesbrough (2003), the originator of the open innovation theory, defines it as “a paradigm that assumes that businesses both can and should use external ideas as well as internal ideas, and internal and external paths to market, when seeking to advance their technology.”


Figure 1: open innovation (Chesbrough, 2003)

As figure 1 shows, the boundary between the firm and its environment (represented in dotted lines) is porous. Hence, creating outbound and inbound paths for internal and external ideas/projects to move out of and into the organization is an essential concept in the open innovation model. Some researchers such as Lindegaard (2010) refer to these paths as bridges.

3. Social enterprise

Social enterprise is a hybrid business model that encourages social organizations to use business strategies and market tools to achieve their social, cultural, or environmental objectives (figure 2). In that sense, social enterprises are expected to have double bottom lines: profit making (as a means) and the creation of social value (as the ultimate goal). Social Enterprise Alliance (SEA), the membership organization for the social enterprise sector in North America, defines it as “businesses whose primary purpose is the common good. They use the methods and disciplines of business and the power of the marketplace to advance their social, environmental, and human justice agendas” (Social Enterprise Alliance, 2012).


Figure 2: the mix of business strategies and social missions in the social enterprise business model

4. Social innovation

Social innovation is about new or more effective solutions to pressing social problems. This research paper understands the term as an expression of both the outcome and the process by which the solution is being created. The Center for Social Innovation (2013) at Stanford University defines it as “a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than current solutions. The value created accrues primarily to society rather than to private individuals.”


Figure 3: Nesta’s model of social nnovation

As illustrated in figure 3, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta) in the United Kingdom has presented a six-stage model for social innovation. The model describes how social innovation starts in its infancy as an idea and goes through a dynamic process, to the final stage, which is the ultimate goal for the innovation where systematic change takes place (Murray et al., 2010).

Now, we will present three case studies that investigate how open innovation, social enterprise, and social innovation can be manifested in a museum context, with a special focus on digital.

5. Case study 1: Open innovation at the Department of Digital and Emerging Media at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum (New York, United States)

The Digital and Emerging Media department at Cooper Hewitt stands behind the exceptional success of digital at the museum, from interactive displays to the museum website and the collection management system. The department describes itself as “a space for exploring what it means to be a museum in the Internet age” (Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, n.d.). Many members of the team at the department are well known in the museum sector for their innovative work. The department is also referred to as Cooper Hewitt Lab, where they operate and conduct meetings. At the time when this study was conducted, Australian-born Seb Chan was the head of the Digital and Emerging Media department. The work conducted by Chan’s team is highly regarded in the museum sector and considered by many museum professionals as innovative.

The team has a high spirit of belonging and interconnectivity with the outside world in general and the museum sector in particular, as evidenced by the way the team members envision their role. They ask questions like: “How can we make our services more informative, more explorable, and more interconnected with other museums?” (Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, n.d.) This connectivity extends in two different directions: outbound (inside-out), and inbound (outside-in), both of which are important concepts in the open innovation theory. This research has identified several open innovation paths at Cooper Hewitt Lab, and we will be able to examine one of these paths below (i.e., open sourcing).

Inbound open innovation activities can be defined as the process by which museums can attract, acquire, and utilize knowledge that exists outside the museums to advance their internal innovation processes, while outbound open innovation activities are the processes by which museums make their internal knowledge available to other museums and organizations to accelerate innovation.

Open sourcing: Making source codes available for developers

The Digital and Emerging Media department creates codes for the museum’s internal use, serving a wide range of technical services from the museum website and the collections management software to the interactive displays. This research reveals that Cooper Hewitt Lab makes some of its source codes available on GitHub for developers to add and improve. GitHub is a platform for sharing, building, and managing open source codes. Aaron Cope (2014), then head of Engineering (Internets and Computers) at Cooper Hewitt Lab, considers the open source movement a way of giving back to the community and the sector: “The other big change, and this has been in almost all industries, has been open source. Advocating for and supporting [open source]; and suddenly it is a culture of giving back. We go out of our way, as much as possible, to give source code back to the community.”

Generally, the open source movement has produced some innovative, well-known programs and software such as Linux (computer operating system), FireFox (internet browser), and OpenOffice (office suite). Wallen (2013) notes that “[t]here are thousands upon thousands of open source projects that bring about innovation. Some do so on a small scale, while others are thinking massive and global.” Moreover, Ebert Christof (2007) argues that open sourcing drives innovation and “[t]he free and open source software movement has had phenomenal impact on the industry evolution.” Thus, open source has the potential to advance museum innovation in the sector and improve innovation capabilities in individual museums. Cooper Hewitt Lab is one of the most important contributors to the open source movement in museums.

An example of its contribution is the code it used for Chromecast experimentation, where members of Chan’s team worked with Google engineers to find more cost-effective digital signage alternatives for museums. The lab advertises its contribution and solicit inputs from the wider community: “We have put all of this code up on our GitHub account and we encourage [you] to try it out and let us know where and when it does not work and to contribute your fixes” (Cooper Hewitt Lab, 2013). The strategy of sharing source codes does not only help others to improve their operations by using the code (outbound), but also improves the code itself (inbound). Skilled developers from around the world can contribute to the source code, which leads to incremental improvements. There are many individuals with very high-level skill sets in the world. Allowing them to contribute to the museum internal research and development can help museums increase their ability to innovate. Kris Arnold (2013), a Web developer at the Dallas Museum of Art and previously at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, explains:

A lot of the projects I worked on at the Indianapolis Museum of Art we open sourced. Anybody could download them for free. Open sourcing code is not just writing it, throwing it up on GitHub, and you are done. It is talking to people; helping them through setting it up, installing it; maintaining the product. Through that process other people are contributing back.

Arnold’s comments confirm our assumption mentioned above, which argues that open source can facilitate a two-way path for innovation. The outbound path ultimately occurs when the source codes are made available for others to use. On the other hand, the inbound path is represented in the contributions made by the community of developers to the source code.

In conclusion, we were able to discuss a two-way open innovation path at Cooper Hewitt Lab. This path represents inbound and outbound activities, which can be summarized as followed:


Figure 4: open sourcing as a path for open innovation

Museums differ in terms of the nature of their collections, sizes, missions, governing and management styles, and the communities they serve. Therefore, inbound and outbound open innovation activities can (and perhaps should) differ from one museum to another. If open innovation is a framework that can possibly interest any museum, that museum may want to invest the time and efforts necessary to plan its tailored open innovation strategies, which allow the museum to innovate and effectively achieve its mission.

6. Case study 2: The role of digital in the social enterprise business model at the Imperial War Museums (IWM) (London, United Kingdom)

IWM is a cluster of museums and historical sites consisting of five museums (including a historical ship): IWM London; IWM North in Trafford, Greater Manchester; IWM Duxford near Cambridge; the Churchill War Rooms in Whitehall, London; and the historic ship HMS Belfast, moored in the Pool of London on the River Thames. The Imperial War Museums are among the pioneering and perhaps the earliest museums in the United Kingdom to use a social enterprise business model to build financial resilience. As early as 1999, IWM established its commercial division, IWM Trading Company Ltd., which is ultimately responsible for running and managing the commercial activities of IWM. The museum states on its website:

The majority of the funding for our core activities is raised by means of charitable giving, philanthropic support, sponsorship and donations, admission charges and IWM’s commercial activities. These commercial activities are conducted through the IWM Trading Company Ltd., and include retail, corporate hospitality, public catering, air shows, private tours, pleasure flying, publishing, licensing of the collections. (IWM, n.d., a)

According to the 2011 Museum Annual Report, IWM generated £4,000,000 revenues from retail activities, and the overall profit was 18 percent higher than the previous year. Although IWM London was closed for more than seven months during 2014, the museum was able to make £2.8 million in net profit, according to its 2013–2014 annual report. This is partially because the museum was able to capitalize on its digital assets: “Growing interest in the First World War is reflected by a high volume of image and film sales and significant licensing deals” (IWM, 2014). Additionally, the museum plans to increase its profit from commercial activities to £4 million by the next financial year. IWM hopes to achieve that goal “through the development of commercial functions, to ensure that we operate a flexible and responsive commercial operation and build our digital sales capability” (IWM, 2014). More specifically, the museum plans to enter new markets and increase its online inventory of digital assets for potential customers:

We have been developing a new Image Sales Licensing website which will launch in the summer. This will see our commercial operation shift from a manual service to a digital service where our images will be readily available to download. Commercial partnerships with organisations such as Getty Images have already seen our iconic images made widely available in new markets which until now we have had little presence in. (IWM, 2014)

By definition, the IWM represents a functioning social enterprise. The museum uses business strategies and market principles to generate revenues, and uses the profit to support its core social mission (double bottom line). Through this business model, IWM (2014) seeks to build financial resilience and create a sustainable business model. Generally, digital can contribute to the suitability of the social enterprise business model at any museum through direct and indirect approaches. The direct approach is represented, as in our example here, in the museum’s strategy to license digital images and videos which directly generate earned income for the museum. The indirect approach is ultimately the role digital plays to enhance the visitor experience, thereby attracting more people to pay admission, encouraging them to stay long enough to purchase products from the restaurant and the museum store, and getting them enthusiastic enough to possibly become museum members.

The contribution of digital to the social enterprise business model at IWM is not just limited to generating revenues for the museum. Digital is also essential in helping IWM to achieve its core mission to showcase the stories of those individuals who participated in different wars. For example, IWM started a project to centralize, and so to present to the public, all documents, stories, and information about those who participated in the First World War. These were dispersed in different museums, libraries, and organizations. Reflecting an open innovation strategy, the Lives of the First World War project is a website on which each “individual whose contribution to the First World War is recorded in official documents will have a personal Life Story page […]” (IWM, n.d., b) Members of the public can register on the website and add personal stories on the Life Story page. By 2015, the website had amassed 7,662,316 life stories, 119,427 individuals had been remembered, 602,777 facts had been added by the public, and 2,033 communities had been created. This incredible social impact would have been very hard to achieve without a conscious digital strategy that recognizes its core values.

In conclusion, IWM runs a successful model of social enterprise, where a commercial division of the organization, IWM Trading Company Ltd., manages the business activities of the museum. Through this model, IWM hopes to build financial resilience or, as some social enterprise advocates say, do well while doing good. Digital relies on the center of the model and has been one of the reasons IWM was able to increase its profit in 2013. Also, digital has been used to expand the impact of IWM’s mission beyond the museum’s wall and reach a far larger audience.

7. Case study 3: The Tech Awards: A social innovation program at the Tech Museum of Innovation (United States)

The Tech Museum of Innovation is located in the heart of Silicon Valley, the famous technology hub in the southern San Francisco Bay Area. The museum devotes itself to educating the public about science and technology, and inspiring the innovator in everyone. For fifteen years, the Tech Museum has been running The Tech Awards, “a premiere event and program that celebrates those who are using technology to solve the world’s most pressing problems” (The Tech Museum, n.d.). As we recall, the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford University recognizes social innovation as “a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than current solutions. The value created accrues primarily to society rather than to private individuals.” In 2015, the Tech Museum through a specialized judging committee named ten social innovators as the laureates of The Tech Award and granted each winner an unrestricted cash prize of $50,000. The Tech Award consists of five categories: Intel Environment Award, Microsoft Education Award, Katherine M. Swanson Young Innovator Award, Sobrato Organization Economic Development Award, and Sutter Health Award. These categories encourage the technological innovation in areas around environment, education, health, and economic development. The Intel Environment Award, for example, indicates:

Although technological innovation has sometimes been at odds with sound environmental practices, technology can contribute to clean water, improved air quality and sustainable development. This category includes the challenges of balancing population growth with available resources, protecting animal and plant life, as well as addressing the escalating demands for safe and efficient energy. (The Tech Museum, n.d.)

The Tech Museum established high-level standards in order to be eligible for its prestigious award. The criteria indicates that “[t]he project must address a well-defined problem on a global scale” in one of the five categories mentioned above (The Tech Museum, n.d.). Also, the museum asks that “[b]oth the technology and the application are ground-breaking and stand out from current solutions, [t]he innovation is being used in the field and the impact is already measurable [and] [t]he annual budget is less than $50 million” (The Tech Museum, n.d.).

One of the two winners in the Intel Environment Award category is DayOne Response Inc. Tricia Compas-Markman, CEO of DayOne Response Inc. realized that the availability of clean drinking water is the biggest challenge faced in many disaster zones around the world (e.g., earthquakes, floods, community displacements, etc.). Compas-Markman, who is a civil engineer by training and has more than six years of experience working on water treatment technologies, recognizes that “each year more than 255 million people are affected by natural disasters, and without access to clean water they face potentially life-threatening waterborne illnesses” (The Tech Museum, n.d.). She decided to address this issue and created an innovative water purification system resembling a backpack. The lightweight system (or the water bag) is capable of purifying water in thirty minutes and meets the emergency drinking water guidelines of the World Health Organization and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A close analysis of the water bag case, as well as the five categories of The Tech Awards, reflects the museum’s vision that technology can be an important tool to create sustainable and efficient solutions to some tough social problems (i.e., social innovation). In other words, the Tech Museum of Innovation was able to identify and exemplify the intersection between social innovation, museums and digital (Eid, 2015).

8. The Museum Innovation Model (MIM)

The Museum Innovation Model benefits from the theoretical approaches mentioned above about open innovation, social enterprise, and social innovation, as well as the case studies at Cooper Hewitt, the Imperial War Museums, and the Tech Museum of Innovation. The following figure illustrates the structure of the model.


Figure 5: the Museum Innovation Model

The model views open innovation, social enterprise, and social innovation as interconnected and together which can form a framework that can help museums to innovate. This vision of interconnectivity is supported by substantial evidence. For example, Chesbrough (as originator of open innovation) and Minin (2014) together tried to offer insight on how open innovation strategies can also help social organization to innovate. In doing so, they introduced the term Open Social Innovation (OSI) for the first time. They defined OSI as “the application of either inbound or outbound open innovation strategies, along with innovations in the associated business model of the organization, to social challenges” (Chesbrough & Minin, 2014).

This is significant as we witness an extraordinary phenomenon where the term is being mirrored in the social sector by the same person who coined it in the business context. Additionally, one of the case studies Chesbrough and Minin (2014) used to introduce their OSI concept is Ashoka, a social enterprise organization based in the United States. Ashoka’s mission is “to support social entrepreneurs who are leading and collaborating with changemakers, in a team of teams model that addresses the fluidity of a rapidly evolving society” (Ashoka, n.d.). In their article, Chesbrough and Minin argue that social enterprises become more effective and capable of creating a larger social value if open innovation strategies are applied. They explain the importance of Ashoka’s case:

Still, what makes the Ashoka’s case such an interesting example of OSI is that its success arrived later when the organization truly opened up its original functioning model. Let us consider the details of such transition from a fellow-centered to a collaborative-entrepreneurship based model. (Chesbrough & Minin, 2014)

Chesbrough and Minin are not only mirroring the concept of open innovation in the social sector, but are also linking it, more specifically, to the social enterprise business model. The use of open innovation strategies by social enterprises can potentially help organizations to carry out innovation and reach their missions, as suggested by Chesbrough and Minin.

Additionally, to illustrate the usefulness of OSI for social enterprises, Chesbrough and Minin (2014) used Nesta’s social innovation model (figure 3) to explain what role open innovation can play at each stage of the model. They argued:

Open Social Innovation framework is particularly useful to accessing prototypes (stage 3), sustaining innovative efforts (step 4) and scale-up activities (step 5) within either the current business model or a potentially novel business model to meet the needs of under-served target populations that pure-market mechanisms are not able to address. (Chesbrough & Minin, 2014)

We previously mentioned Nesta’s social innovation model (figure 3), but what is significant here is the link made by Chesbrough and Minin, bringing together the three concepts of open innovation, social enterprise, and social innovation. Essentially, what we are witnessing here is an amassing of connections among open innovation (a tool for implementing innovation), social enterprise (a business model that potentially makes organizations more resilient and effective), and social innovation (which represents the outcome or the bottom line for social organizations). These concepts might be seen to work together to provide an innovation model for those organizations that work in the social and cultural sector.

Some museum experts realized the potential that some of these concepts can bring to the sector. For example, David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool, confirms that Stephen Weil (scholar emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Education and Museum Studies and longtime deputy director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden) was a believer in the museum as social enterprise, stressing the social value of museums. Fleming states, “In fact, Stephen was relentless in pursuing the notion of the Museum as Social Enterprise, and in stressing that without social value the museum is nothing” (Fleming, 2006). Fleming continues to explain Weil’s vision,

In one essay he came up with at least seven phrases to describe what he wanted: he wanted “social activism”; he wanted “social enhancement”; he wanted “social advancement”; he wanted “social service”; he wanted “social development”; he wanted “social change”; he wanted a “social outcome.” (Fleming, 2006)

As mentioned earlier, social enterprise is a hybrid business model that combines the social activities of non-profits and the business strategies of companies in the private sector (figure 2). Weil’s focus on the social aspect of social enterprise—which is, no doubt, part of the concept—and the avoidance of the enterprising dimension can create unintentionally a confused image of the concept. Robert Janes (2013) shares Weil’s perspective and points to the new social entrepreneurship movement in museums. Janes argues that “[t]he intersection of the two—a desire for social change coupled with new and better solutions and initiatives—is now called social entrepreneurship, a concept that is slowly taking shape in the museum world” (Janes, 2013). In another article, The Mindful Museum, Janes (2010) offers examples of what he believed mindful museums are. His examples included museums and cultural organizations seeking to positively impact issues related to poverty, starvation, and preservation of water among other things. Actually, what Weil and Janes are attempting to describe is the museum as social innovator, a museum that is conscious of current social challenges and actively engaged in finding solutions, as we saw in The Tech Awards program at the Tech Museum of Innovation.

Regarding open innovation, Janes (2015) thinks that the idea of allowing the museum to open up and take the chances to collaborate with other organizations inside and outside the sector is very important. Moreover, he criticizes the traditional museum model, which is based on a preoccupation with internal affairs. He states, “I think the museum community really suffers from insularity. They are so insular about talking to outsiders”; even about working together as museums” (Janes, 2015). Confirming his interest in the open innovation concept, Janes (2015) refers to the finding of Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant, who argue that one of the most important factors that makes a successful social organization is “they focused very clearly on the outside world, on engaging all the sectors, and on influencing others to become advocates for their cause” (Crutchfield & Grant, 2012). The study is a project of the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and is published in a book titled Forces for Good. Notably, Crutchfield worked for Ashoka as a managing director for many years. Also, she studied at the Harvard Business School under the late Gregory Dees, who immensely contributed to the way we understand social enterprise today. Dees started his academic career at Harvard University and moved to Duke University, where he became Rubenstein Senior Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship with Duke’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative and the founding faculty director of the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.

Janes’ observation about the importance of museums to “open up” is crucial to the fact that it is coming from a legendary museum expert (i.e., Janes) who also wrote about social enterprise in museums. Add to this our discussion earlier, which uncovered the attempt of Chesbrough, who coined the open innovation theory, and Minin to mirror open innovation theory to the social sector, and more specifically link it to social enterprise business model, as shown by Ashoka. Moreover, organizations such as Nesta in the United Kingdom are experimenting with the application of open innovation in the social sector, including museums. Nesta developed “The Open Innovation Programme,” which encouraged ten large UK charities to “work in new ways, with new partners and test their innovative ideas” (Nesta, 2013). Nesta’s program on open innovation, excitingly, included National Trust, a national organization that manages hundreds of museums, historical houses, and monuments in the United Kingdom. The study investigated how National Trust used open innovation strategies to create a program called “Big Family Day Out.” More specifically, National Trust, which was described by the report as an organization that is “confidently developing its own projects,” challenged some of its old practices by opening up its business model, using external resources, and benefiting from new partnerships. In another study, Nesta reports that “[i]n the next few years, organisations will become more open and networked. Those unwilling or unable to make the change will be left behind” (Nesta, 2010). This is alarming to those organizations that still operate with a closed mindset. Within this context, the Museum Innovation Model views open innovation as a crucial concept in understanding and applying the model.

In summary, one can see how open innovation, social enterprise, and social innovation are interconnected and, together, present a formula for innovation in museums. The formula might be expressed simply as: museums that adopt a social enterprise business model and utilize open innovation strategies are capable of achieving social innovation.

Applications of the MIM

This discussion has demonstrated the potential universality of the concepts (i.e., open innovation, social enterprise, and social innovation) on which MIM is based. This leads me now to project how the model might be flexible enough to be applied in museums with different sizes, management structures, geographical locations, and collections in custody. At this stage, there are no studies that can show how the application of the model in art museums, for example, can differ from history or science museums. Similarly, there are no studies that make a connection, if any, between the application of the MIM and the size of the museum. However, numerous examples in the museum sector suggest that MIM can be equally valuable for different types of museums.

The Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL), for example, is located in Suffolk County in the East Anglia region in the United Kingdom. For almost half a century, the museum has been telling the story of the rural and early industrial history of the region, which has been reliant on farming as a major economic activity. Clearly, MEAL is different in size, collection, and management style than the museums presented in the case studies in this paper. However, the museum identifies itself as a social enterprise. The museum website states, “The Museum of East Anglian Life is a social enterprise sharing the compelling story of East Anglian lives through historic buildings, collections and landscape” (Museum of East Anglian Life, n.d.). When Tony Butler was appointed to be the director of MEAL, he felt that the museum had much more potential beyond being just a traditional visitor attraction. Butler states, “We looked at how we could use all these physical assets for public good. We thought there were lots of opportunities for training and skills development. We felt there were lots of opportunities to bring people together” (Butler, 2014).

To achieve Butler’s vision, MEAL developed an agricultural project. Nonetheless, the business model of the project was unlike the typical agricultural projects we normally see in the private sector. Butler tried to achieve the highest social impact possible. To illustrate this point, Butler (2014) explains, the museum “started training people with learning difficulties and mental health service users in horticulture.” More specifically, in an open innovation strategy, the museum collaborated with West Suffolk College and three special schools—Priory, Hillside, and Riverwalk—in west Suffolk to provide opportunities for students with a wide variety of difficulties and disabilities to experience vocational and life skills in a range of different settings. The project targeted fourteen- to sixteen-year-old audiences, aiming to help the students develop an understanding of specific skills related to the Suffolk region, construct a critical understanding of the past, and maintain effective social and cultural skills. In ten weekend sessions led by museum staff and volunteers, students were able to participate in hands-on activities and learn specific skills such as bodging, making traditional Suffolk rusks and butter, making butterflies from willow, and traditional hurdle making and printing using historic printing presses. Students also grew “plants and flowers using the traditional seeds and varieties, using traditional implements of the collection, and then selling them to the public” (Butler, 2014).


Figure 6: students with learning difficulties and mental health services learning skills at MEAL

Additionally, starting in 2007, MEAL worked with HM Prison Hollesley Bay, a local prison in Suffolk. Butler explains his project:

We would take people from a local prison who would work with us as part of their setting programs, spend six month with us, on day release, gaining these skills in construction, land management, [and] work with animals that they then use when they are released. (Butler, 2014)

However, this approach has disturbed some members in the community. It seems that having convicted felons work in the local museum can make some people worried about their safety and the well-being of their families. Butler had to lead a campaign to address the concerns of the community and highlight the benefits of the project. He affirmed to the East Anglian Daily Times, the local newspaper, that “[w]e are really aware this is an important public space and do not want to compromise the safety of our visitors” (Howard, 2007). Butler set up strict criteria to fulfill his promise to the community and make sure his social enterprise/innovation project would not cause any undesirable outcomes. The museum decided not to accept any sex offenders, violent criminals, or arsonists. More specifically, the program will target those who are first-time offenders, usually for fraud and minor offences. Butler continued to explain the logic behind his social enterprise venture:

It will be good for everyone and help the socially disadvantaged. It will help us provide additional services for the public, nice gardens, flowers, hanging baskets, and we will be very, very strict about who we take on from the prisons. (Howard, 2007)

It appears that Butler’s campaign convinced the community of the project’s merits. Local prisoners started contributing to improving the museum and producing products while learning new skills. When Butler accepted the responsibility of directing MEAL, the museum was near bankruptcy. Within his ten-year tenure at MEAL, he was able to transform the museum into a thriving institution with £4 million capital development.

In the case of the Museum of East Anglian Life, it is not hard to identify the elements of the Museum Innovation Model (i.e., open innovation, social enterprise, and social innovation). MEAL uses open innovation strategies by partnering with local schools, colleges, private companies, and even prison to improve the well-being of its community and actively engage in finding solutions to social problems. This conscious objective to achieve sustainable social innovation is combined with the desire to build the financial resilience of the museum through commercial projects.

The work of Tony Butler at MEAL (and now at Derby Museums) shows that the concepts of open innovation, social enterprise, and social innovation can prove valuable to museums of different sizes and collections. Janes (2015) goes as far as observing that the culture of openness is found more in small museums. He argues, “The boundaries have to be as open as possible. And there are some museums like that, but they are small. The big ones still have a big problem. And I do not know what is going to cause them to change” (Janes, 2015). Additionally, he thinks that much of the social innovation work in the museum sector is done by smaller museums. He gives the example of Fort Calgary Historic Park in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Janes (2015) explains their social innovation approach: “They have a lot of land along a fertile river bottom that was just sitting there. They have now developed this land into vegetable gardens to feed the homeless and provide food to other social agencies in the city.” The fact that small museums do not have the complex management structure, perhaps, makes them more flexible to work with other organizations and more agile to respond to social needs in the community.

What is noteworthy from the previous examples and the comments by Butler (2014) and Janes (2015) is that we now can realize the possibility of identifying the concepts of open innovation, social enterprise, and social innovation in different types of museums, regardless of the museum’s size and the nature of the collection. Additionally, the previous examples give us a clue that the MIM is not just for digital and can have a wide range of applications.

In practical terms, the Museum Innovation Model has the potential to be used as a planning tool to carry out innovation in museums. Consider a new exhibition as an example. The model can assist organizers to ask helpful questions related to open innovation, social enterprise, and social innovation, which may lead to transforming the project from a traditional exhibition to an innovative one (figure 7).


Figure 7: implementation of the MIM

For example, when open innovation is being considered, one can ask: What skills and expertise does the museum maintain internally that can help carry out the project? What skills and expertise does the museum not have that can be externally acquired? What organizations can the museum approach to help with what is needed? What type of relationships (long-term, short-term, partnerships, sponsorship, etc.) is the museum seeking with these organizations?

When social enterprise is considered, one can ask questions such as: How can the project help the museum generate earned income? Can the project help the museum market other products or services? What types of customers are being targeted? Can the project indirectly help the museum improve its enterprise? How will the earned revenues be used to create social value?

When social innovation is considered, we may ask questions like: What social value is being created through the project? What social issues is the project trying to address? How can the project make the social value sustainable? How will the social impact be evaluated?

Ultimately, each museum project is unique, and all these questions may not necessarily be relevant or the goals achievable; however, being conscious of these dimensions can help museum teams generate innovative projects. Also, if the process is reversed, the model can be used as an evaluation tool to scrutinize innovation in museums through the prism of open innovation, social enterprise, and social innovation.

9. Conclusion

The Museum Innovation Model is a framework that can help museums of different sizes, collections, management styles, and geographical locations to execute and/or evaluate innovation. The model utilizes the concepts of open innovation, social enterprise, and social innovation to make innovation in museums scalable, replicable, and feasible to start and operate. It is evident that these concepts are intersected and should be viewed as a whole. Therefore, the following formula expresses the connections between the three concepts of interest: museums that adopt a social enterprise business model and utilize open innovation strategies are capable of achieving social innovation.


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Cite as:
Eid, Haitham. "The Museum Innovation Model: A museum perspective on innovation." MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. Published January 14, 2016. Consulted .