The “Fan-owned” Museum

For my sins I am a Portsmouth Football Club supporter. Last month following the club’s relegation to the fourth tier in English football and having been in Administration for three years, the club was bought by its fans. Portsmouth (Pompey) is the largest club in English football to be fan owned.

Promoted to the premier league in 2003 it had successive overseas, owners, eager to cash in on the boom in English football. The club grew unsustainably  buying players with huge wage demands but unable to host crowds of more than 20,000 in a dilapidated stadium. The club could not generate the income needed to pay its bills despite cash from a generous SKY TV deal. Owners came and went, buying the debt and stripping assets. The club’s high point came in 2008 when it won the FA Cup.

Two years later Pompey were relegated, having been deducted 10 points for being in Administration. Two more periods of administration led to two more relegations. So by the end of 2012/13 they ended up in the old fourth division, with no owner and no players of note. However throughout these tribulations there was one constant, the loyalty of the fans to the club.

Last season Pompey consistently had the highest attendance in League One, despite finishing bottom. A mass appeal to buy the club was supported by rich and poor alike (although three wealthy fans led the campaign). Underpinning the campaign was support from the City Council who recognised the importance of the club to the local community. They loaned the Portsmouth Supporters Trust and a local developer the cash so they could buy the freehold to Fratton Park, the club stadium.

Play up Pompey

Play up Pompey

Supporters were able to buy shares at £1000 each and shares can be held by consortia of fans. Though not wildly democratic, fewer shares will mean the governance of the club will be more manageable. The fans won’t pick the team, but they’ll hold the management directly to account, especially in areas around ticket pricing and the behaviour of the club within the community.

Fan owned football clubs have many guises ranging from mass membership organisations like Barcelona, where to the chairman is elected by the members, or the model more common in Germany where the fans are majority shareholders. In Germany, Bundesliga tickets are far lower than in England, yet their clubs like Shalke, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich have outperformed English teams recently.

Portsmouth FC start the 2013/14 season in the fourth tier of English Football and with a handful of players. Supporters are realistic that a swift return to the Premier League is unlikely. Fans realise they won’t get much, if any return on their investment – but they know that it’s their club.

There are many museums are facing similar threats. With unsustainable growth, costs quickly outstripping ability to develop assets and direct support from both the state and philanthropists declining, could ‘fan owned’ museums emerge? Fan ownership would make for a more engaged role for the users. It might democratise the museum, make it more participative and more mindful of the trends and concerns which affect their communities. Fan ownership might create a more habitual and demanding visitor, influencing its operations, from the food in the cafe to admission charges. If visitors have a stake in the finances of the museums, they’ll be more aware of the limitations and possibilities of the organisation.

On the other hand might fan ownership make the museum more conservative in its programming, playing safe to please its shareholders. If taken at face value, the recently commissioned public attitudes survey commissioned by the Museums Association, suggested that public think that the museum’s priority should be the preservation of heritage and education. Activities such as promoting well-being and social justice were less of a priority.

Public funding is in short supply and the government is pushing museums to attract philanthropists. But should our museums tilt toward mass ownership, rather than rely on the largesse of a handful of rich benefactors. Given the choice of a museum like Portsmouth or Chelsea, I know which I’d prefer

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