The CMS: What’s Essential, What’s Hackable, and What Does It Cost?

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

April 07, 2021

Last week we began with a review of what it means to have a discoverable Collections Management System and the tools necessary to achieve a discoverable museum CMS. This week we’re going to take these essential tools and explore where we can find them, what we can hack to make what we have work, and the kinds of costs we’re looking at. 

For those who don’t have a CMS, have cobbled together tools to function like a CMS, or are looking for a new CMS, there are questions that require answering: “What’s Essential?”, “What’s Hackable?”, and “What Does It Cost?”.

We Need Tools to Manage Our Digital Collections

There is a wide array of museums and cultural heritage organizations with varying budget sizes available to fund the Sisyphean task of digital collections management. Whether you’re a large and well-funded organization, or a lone-arranger at a modest shop, the truth is we could all use more information to evaluate our digital collections management options. There’s no one-size fits all CMS option, so instead this post will provide strategies for how to critically evaluate the essential (to you) functions of a CMS, what tools can be hacked or adapted, and review *all* of the costs to consider when it comes to digital collection management. 

What’s Essential?

What is “essential” when it comes to serving up digital collections online via a CMS?

  • Ability to deliver a digital image surrogate that is next to the metadata
  • Easy to read text
  • Appropriate metadata fields and content
  • Ability to search and browse the collections

As you can see there’s not a lot that’s “essential”—at least not from the perspective of serving up collections to digital visitors.

What’s Hackable?

How can I hack various digital collection tools to accomplish my goals? If you’re focused on basic needs for your museum CMS many off-the-shelf CMS products will work for you. (See below for additional reading on this topic). But, if you’re not quite ready for a CMS there are some creative options to hack:

  • Flickr, YouTube, and similar platform depending on the format of your digital file surrogates
  • Dropbox and other services that provide digital file storage, management, and sharing
  • and similar services that aren’t full CMS suites (yet) but at low-cost, easy to use tools.
  • WordPress and similar easy to use website builders where you can publish digital content and data.

What Does it Cost?

What costs do I need to be aware of when considering my options? Keep in mind prices change and are dependent on your specific needs, and that I’m not privy to every Collection Management Systems’ price plan. However, I’ve paid for, worked with, and seen enough to provide you some fairly dialed in estimates. 

  • Off-the-shelf CMS Options: $1,000-$5,000
  • Flickr, YouTube, and Similar: Free to low cost
  • Dropbox, Google Drive, and Similar: Free to several thousand depending upon storage needs and users
  • WordPress and similar: Free to several hundred depending upon needs
  • Full CMS Suite: $7,500-$20,000+ dependent on storage, users, features, and other electable options


In the end what it comes down to is: your end goal, what tools you need to get there, and how big your budget is. The more money you can invest in your tools the easier (typically) your job is. However, knowing anemic budgets are a perennial issue in our field it may be time for you to get creative and do what you can with what you’ve got. 

Additional Reading

Here are some related readings available via Lucidea’s Think Clearly Blog:

How to Improve Collection Discovery in the Museum CMS

The Benefits of a Discoverable CMS 

Digital Asset Management System Versus a Collections Management System-Part 1

Digital Asset Management System Versus a Collections Management System-Part 2  

Considering Different Options for Delivering a Museum CMS Public Portal 

How to Begin Your Search for the Right Museum CMS

Off-the-Shelf Museum CMS: When to Buy One and Where to Find One

What to Look for in an Off-the-Shelf Museum CMS

How to Sell an Off-the-Shelf Museum CMS to Your Boss


Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Expert Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, collections management, digital museums, and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. Learn about Lucidea’s Argus solution for virtual, multimedia presentation of collections, visitor engagement, and museum staff productivity and impact.

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