Wednesday, July 13, 2016

How Can Museums Become Places Alive With Questions?

Photo credit: Robert Stadler
Years ago at a small conference for teacher resource centers, I sat down with my co-worker Cathy at breakfast across from Bena and Heidi. Conversation during the course of our breakfast covered a lot of territory. It seemed like we were talking a lot about our work at The Teacher’s Workshop in Madison. When breakfast was over and it was time to move to the first session there was an awkward moment. Bena and Heidi then shared that they were doing a small experiment. They decided to ask us questions and see how long it would take for us to ask them questions. I am chagrined to admit that we hadn’t asked them a single question.

There are countless reasons why asking questions is important. Valued as tools for thinking and engaging socially, questions are critical to learning, innovation, success, and even to happiness. We ask questions to help resolve uncertainty; to fill the gaps between what we know and don’t know; to direct our attention; to explore alternative points of view; to find relationships among ideas, objects, and situations; to open up to possibilities we can’t yet fully imagine; and to probe discrepancies.  

There are abundant resources and ideas about questions and inquiry. Models for the inquiry process surface on education, business, and arts websites. One model says, “The first step in the inquiry process is the art of asking Good Questions.” Another lists what makes good questions: avoid questions with a yes/no answer; don’t ask a question you know the answer to; ask one question at a time; don’t fish for the answer you want. Along with lists of ways to ask better questions, there are lists of questions to develop skills at different levels of thinking. Author Daniel H. Pink talks about the “art of asking questions” and extending the power of questions beyond science.

The reality is, questions are ubiquitous. Tests are full of them as are applications for passports, on-line security (what is your mother’s maiden name?), and tax forms. We are asked at the grocery check-out line if we found everything we were looking for. Parents quiz their children about what they did at school and teachers ask questions in the classroom.

Nevertheless, questions are often not very productive, not asked of the right person, courageous enough, or well timed. I know. While I deeply believe in the power of questions, I often frame a question only when I get stuck and have nothing else to try. I have written blog posts about questions, imagining that by doing so readers might ask more and better questions. It’s as if knowing how to ask good questions means we will do so; as if having an exercise routine means we will work out; or knowing arugula is healthy means we will eat lots.

Increasingly, I wonder more about why we don’t ask more–and better–questions in museums and less about what a good question is and how questions can be useful in our work.

How Can Museums Become Places Rich With Questions?
If questions are critical to learning, innovation, success, and even to happiness, then shouldn’t museums be full of questions? 

How, though, does a museum cultivate an inquisitive spirit collectively, purposefully, and over time? Models and lists may be useful tools for framing questions. Good intentions may be essential for advancing questions. Even together, however, they are limited in how they can infuse a museum’s life with questions. It’s not enough for a few enthusiasts in a museum to advocate for questions and inquiry, to have a single inquiry-based program, or to bring questions to a major decision occasionally. As places where people engage in daily practices to develop engaging experiences around a larger purpose to generate greater public value, museums must encourage and advance questions wholeheartedly, actively, in each of those ways: through people, practices, purpose and culture.

A Disposition to Ask Questions. Do you know someone who readily asks good questions? Someone who is curious? Likes the challenge of a chewy question?

Hire that person; cultivate that trustee; recruit that volunteer. Those people have a disposition to ask questions. A disposition is a habit or behavior displayed frequently and in the appropriate context. An inclination or a tendency to act in particular way, dispositions are voluntary. They are also environmentally sensitive; they are acquired, supported, or weakened by the conditions of the surrounding environment, by the interactive experiences in settings and engagement with significant adults and peers.

People inclined to ask questions raise them at staff or board meetings, in an interview, on a project team. They test assumptions, share a question they have been mulling over, structure a wandering discussion with questions, and search for answers. When a strategic plan is being framed, a capital project is discussed, or the budget is reviewed, they introduce questions to dig deeper, engage other perspectives, and explore misconceptions. What are we not thinking about? Do we have the necessary capacity to do this? Are these projections too rosy? What’s our plan B? They ask whether the museum is comfortable with the input on content funders expect to make.

Leaders ask questions whether they are board or staff leaders, thought leaders, or leaders advocating for inclusion, quality, or change.

Because dispositions are affected by the surrounding social and intellectual environment, the presence of colleagues, trustees, and volunteers who ask questions makes a difference in a work environment. I imagine others have noticed that each post on Rebecca Herz’s blog, Museum Questions, is a question such as, “What is the role of museums in educational change?” Colleagues asking questions seek others to share questions with; they engage others in inquiry. In doing so they help grow the disposition and skills in others to ask and pursue questions. These may be questions that engage various perspectives and bring in fresh ideas; express an interest in other people, what they think, say and who they are. Questions set a tone that people matter, that new ideas and all kinds of learning matters.

Daily Practice with Questions.Museums do use questions as part of daily practice across many areas. Questions are fundamental to the inquiry process, an approach to learning familiar in science centers and museums and across various settings. Q?rious is a science education program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History that, along with question-driven inquiries, invites students to ask questions of scientists.

Some museums use practices, like Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), as a programmatic approach for tours. VTS is a question-based methodology used in art and other museums and nature centers to explore selected works of art or the natural world. An educator, docent, curator, or naturalist facilitates discussion of 3 open-ended questions with a group: What's going on (in this picture)? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find?

“Questioning and posing problems” is one of a set of 16 Habits of Mind (HoM), also considered dispositions. Some museums’ learning frameworks are built around HoM and some around inquiry. The framework’s key ideas inform program and exhibit planning and evaluation. (Interestingly, Bena mentioned in the opening story happens to be the co-author with Art Costa of the 16 Habits of Mind.) In fact, what is evaluation but a response to a question, how well and in what ways did we accomplish what we hoped we would? Prototyping asks questions iteratively about whether the visitor gets the idea or understands what’s happening in an exhibit.

Presumably, the more questioning strategies a museum integrates into its daily practices, the greater the benefit from the power of questions it is likely to enjoy. It’s not, however, simply that a museum uses VTS, prototypes, has an inquiry model, or uses all three. A commitment to asking questions is often confined to the education department. Questions may be geared towards getting others to think about our interests. Even chewy, engaging, and open-ended questions tend to be limited episodes when they are not intentionally related to larger intentions.

For impact, these practices and approaches must be played out in the context of strategic, pedagogical, experiential, audience, and financial goals that serve the museum’s enduring interests.

An Internal Culture that Values Questions.In a speech to graduates at The California Institute of Technology, surgeon, researcher, and author Atul Gawande distinguished truth seeking and truth: pursuing ideas with curiosity, inquisitiveness, openness, and discipline as part of a larger group. Gawande’s distinction is also useful in characterizing a museum that, collectively and explicitly, places a value on asking questions, searching for answers, having impact, and learning together.

Does your museum have an expressed commitment to constructing knowledge, growing, and taking action through questions, dialogue, listening, observation, disagreement, and challenge? In what ways is this reflected in its vision, mission, and values? How does your museum live this value or set of values daily? How does it infuse its internal culture with an organizational disposition to question? How does it integrate and make room for supportive practices across the museum? Committing to an institutional value around questioning inevitably creates multiple shifts from individual advocates and isolated practices to teams of people engaged in cross-functional mission and question driven practices.   

A museum’s questions reveal much about what it holds in high regard. Do you explore such questions: What do we care most about being really good at? What do access and inclusion look like in our museum and for our community? Do we push on being more relevant for more people and for more people who are different from us? How much risk are we willing to take? How might we mitigate this risk? Are we asking questions about the source of funding and the strings attached to a particular gift from a funder?

A museum that is awake to its own curiosity asks tough questions and pays attention to the responses. Is your museum’s strategic planning process question driven or framed by assertions about quality, being a premier regional resource? When you ask questions do you pay attention to the answers or are they ignored when inconvenient? Has your museum been in a situation when someone raised the question that no one has been willing to ask? For instance, “Do we really need a building this big? Will we be able to sustain operations? Be a thriving museum with this big of a building?” Do you question the easy answers? “Yes, we have an emergency plan, but have we tested it?”

Questions make us all learners.  If your museum considers itself a learning organization, how does it learn?

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Art of Relevance – and More

I am admittedly drawn to many of the big roomy ideas that float through museums: public value, curiosity, engagement, interactive, relevance, play, creativity, participation, dialogue. At the same time, I cringe when I hear or read these same words and ideas used constantly whether appropriate or not. Too much use without rigorous and thoughtful consideration to probe a word for meaning flattens our language and our thinking.

Actually, I very much like big roomy ideas that are probed, pummeled, unpacked, and played out to deepen and internalize understanding and transform a casual word into a powerful tool for thinking, working, and creating change. Nina Simon has done this and more in her most recent book, The Art of Relevance. As CEO at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH), at science centers and children’s museums she has worked, as a consultant with museums, and as author of Museum 2.0 and The Participatory Museum, Nina has honed her sensibilities about and a belief in the potential of relevance to transform lives and institutions.

What Is Relevance?
Before delving into her extensive pursuit of relevance, Nina takes time to explore it from various perspectives. She begins by grounding this construct in the work of two cognitive scientists, Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber. Two criteria make information relevant to someone: new conclusions that matter to that person (positive cognitive effect) and the effort required to absorb it–lower effort, higher relevance. Thinking about eating bacon, choosing a movie, and commemorating the origin of surfing in the Americas, Nina uses the criteria to explore the construct and its capacity across a range of situations: a painting, a museum tour, cemetery caretaking, soup, or a Laundromat. 

She also takes a few passes at what relevance is and isn’t. Relevance, for instance, is not about familiarity, but familiarity does reduce effort, encourages trying, and assists in making meaning. She challenges easy assumptions: what we do is relevant to everyone and relevance is universal.

After framing relevance, Nina looks at efforts to build relevance in a wide range of situations and settings. She has selected stories of individuals and groups at museums, libraries, visitor centers, zoos, theaters, and parks. Sketch-by-sketch, she makes relevance less abstract, exposing its inherent complexity, and recognizing the hard work involved in someone’s unlocking meaning.

• The Monterey Bay Aquarium shifts their research work to advocacy by responding to their visitors’ interest in positive action.
• The New World Symphony in Miami does the work to reduce the effort for young urban adults to find relevance in classical music.
• The Foster Youth Museum In Oakland evolves forms of displays to empower foster youth to share their stories.
• The Cleveland Public Library makes room for outsiders by serving lunch to low-income kids during the summer.    

These stories, fascinating, poignant and heartening, help clarify how connections are being made and being made to matter to a person or community. Embedded in the stories are innovative and alternative methods and techniques for relationship and community building useful in other institutions. Periodically, Nina returns to the two criteria for making information relevant and sharpening our own sense of relevance.

The mini-case studies of people, places, partners, and projects become even more valuable with Nina’s reflective analysis woven into each. Here is where she makes fine distinctions. Here is where she highlights the importance of place, choices that made a difference, the limitations of painfully broad descriptions of communities, and the value of personal stories. Here is practical advice for getting started, moving ahead, or working around obstacles: get outside, listen, meet people, identify leaders. Just as Nina wholeheartedly describes a project, idea, or change, she wholeheartedly tugs at its parts to expose obstacles, highlight what works, and make connections.

In a sense, the book is personal and that matters in bringing depth, honesty, and complexity to an idea that could remain in pop culture land. Nina refers to this book as “field notes” from her journey in pursuit of relevance. Her experiences as an insider and an outsider, the twists and turns of projects, and her evolving working definition of relevance personalize the work and make it accessible. She breaks down MAH’s Community First process, questions, uncertainty, admiration, and insights. A champion of relevance, she also acknowledges its limitations.

A clear intention to apply her insights on relevance appears to be built into the book’s structure, approach, and language. On the front page of each chapter, 2-3 succinct ideas summarize the chapter, previewing for us what’s ahead. Rigorous thinking, abundant examples, and engaging stories help illustrate complex ideas.

Throughout, she finds ways to involve us in ways that matter, placing us in the shoes of a zoo director or reminding us that, “We are all grumbly insiders about something.” She has a fluency with images weaving an image of relevance as a key throughout the book. Skillfully and creatively she extends it to a door that opens to a room full of experience, welcoming, wonderful, valuable. The room, she notes, can be made bigger–together.

The book is compact. You could breeze through it, but­ you wouldn't ’want to. You’d miss what Nina has carefully tucked into her stories, drawn from her experiences, and her encouragement to create relevant work.

… And More
In The Art of Relevance Nina unpacks, explores, and reflects on relevance in ways that can bring a museum’s core ideas to life, beyond what is often imagined. She not only does this well, but she does more.

She shows what skills and strategies like empathy, perspective taking, commitment, and collaboration look like and they work they do to make a difference. In relating relevance to mission, core values, defining communities, programming, and measuring success Nina is creating a constellation of ideas that guide organizations in planning, navigating dynamic environments, and making a difference. Sharp observations, like the urge to entertain as a serious distraction from relevance, are critical considerations for marshaling focus and building momentum to transform lives and institutions. 

The Art of Relevance has made me reflect on past efforts to forge meaningful connections with partners, draw outsiders in, bring community voices into the planning process, and sustain relationships. It has made me think of revisiting past Museum Notes blog posts and about new perspectives for future ones.

When you begin a quest for greater relevance, you don’t just answer one question. You answer more, learn more, think more about change. In the book’s Preface, Jon Moscone, director of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco notes that, “The challenge of relevance is complex and deep.” I would add, “and forever.” Relevance takes hard work, time, and dedicated friends and partners. It will be easier with The Art of Relevance.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

What Does Your Museum Make Possible?

After the Mona Lisa 2.0 by Devorah Sperber. North Carolina Museum of Art
The question, what does your museum make possible?” arose as I read a tribute to David Carr, scholar, thinker, and friend of libraries and museums. In Think With Me: David Carr’s Enduring Invitation in Curator (Vol. 59, No. 2), three of Carr’s admirers and museum colleagues, Beverly Sheppard, Marsha Semmel, and Carol Bossert, remember and reflect on Carr’s graceful, insightful, and sometimes provocative ways of thinking, teaching, and mentoring.

When I think of David Carr, I think of his interest in pushing beyond what appear to be the limits of knowing and thinking. I remember the poetic provocations he made seemingly effortlessly in his writings and speaking. Working with him on the Reading the World issue of the Journal of Museum Education that I guest edited in 2004 generated an expanded view of literacy in museums. David explored how reading text, objects, and collections are starting points for taking the experience of the museum beyond its walls.

Libraries and museums, Carr thought, “must encourage us to explore the unfinished nature of our lives, and to generate more questions.” They “must become places that assist the mind’s unfolding–they must recognize knowledge as a process, not a thing.” Museums and libraries he described “as being about what they made possible, not what they contain, presenting their collection as springboards to deepen thought and courageous questions.” (Curator Vol. 59. No. 2. p. 115)

In the Context of the Possible
Thinking with David about what museums make possible is an open invitation to consider their value. How can museums matter to their visitors, partners, and communities? What are promising benefits of visiting a museum, exploring an exhibit, being part of a project or program, discussing ideas with friends or family, studying the catalogue, reflecting on a visit?

Exploring what museums can make possible helps us understand what these benefits might look like for children of different ages, youth from low-income homes, and seniors experiencing isolation; for first time visitors and long-time friends; for regular museum-goers and experience samplers. With images such as these in mind, we can start to envision, size up, and describe likely impacts. Only then we can begin to intentionally contribute to those changes by creating the conditions that increase the chances they will be called forth. Although we may not be able to measure the changes precisely or for several years, a frame around value helps us communicate how museums matter with greater clarity and confidence internally and to supporters and decision makers.  

Setting this thinking in the context of the possible provides a poetic starting point for exploring and capturing museums’ value. It keeps in mind the full measure of a museum’s aspirations even as it follows them to their impacts. A focus on the possible balances quantifying a museum’s value and condensing it to a number, or even a set of numbers.

What can–and do–art, science, history, natural history, cultural, and children’s museums, zoos, aquaria, and visitor and nature centers make possible? How do they inspire, motivate, transform, and challenge children, youth, and adults to think, question, learn, make different choices, act, and perhaps, occupy their lives differently? How do they contribute to individual and common good? 

Some of What Museums Make Possible
Below is a sampling of what museums make possible for individuals, family and community groups, and the larger community.

1.     Give insights into how parts of the world work. As places of things, museums are full of real objects, varied materials, tools, technology, and phenomena. With the freedom to explore, experiences of planned discovery allow children, youth, and adults to interact with natural phenomena and scientific ideas. In maker spaces, they experiment with raw materials and their properties; use shop tools; and engage with skilled facilitators. They find a framework of knowledge in a collection of objects or how parts of the world relate and are ordered.

2.     Offer moments of freedom and respite. The quiet of a gallery, view from a tower, expanse of a sculpture garden, and calm of a nature trail create a separation from the day’s routine and demands. Moments of escape and solitude can empty the mind, transport us to distant places and times, invite contemplation and reflection, make space for new thoughts, and restore us allowing us to inhale more.

3.     Help solve community problems. Museums work with community partners to manage, if not solve, community challenges like homelessness, inclusion, workforce development, health, or environmental problems. The B.B. King Museum and Interpretive Center’s 7-week summer camp in Indianola, MS for children and youth 6 – 15 years has focused on childhood obesity making connections with local music and dance traditions. 

4.     Grow new knowledge across many fields. In the research they conduct and participate in, museums generate knowledge. They contribute to scholarship in carrying out and publishing research on their collections and sites. Some conduct research on learning, embodied cognition, play, or biodiversity. Many more are sites for college or university research. Development of research agendas by museum associations suggests more and more extensive research in museums and a greater role in growing valuable knowledge.

5.     Support life-long learners. Many of the tour guides adding depth to our exploring exhibitions in museums, parks, and zoos are docents. Trained volunteers, they undergo extensive and intensive training in interpretation and communication, the museum’s collections, access and interactive learning. Docent training at the Minneapolis Institute of Art lasts 6 months and involves reading and shadowing experienced docents. Life-long learners, docents facilitate others’ learning.

6.     Develop social capital. Youth development programs that use a positive youth development framework contribute to the development of healthy, contributing youth from all economic, ethnic, and family backgrounds. Such programs in zoos, science museums and centers, art and children’s museums can be year-round and multi-year. Some, like the New York Hall of Science, feed a Science Career ladder at the museum.

7.     Take on big ideas that can make big changes. Along with its community partners, the Children’s Museum of Tacoma has been working to make valuing childhood a community value, co-sponsoring an annual symposium and opening a preschool. Since 2009 The Wild Center in the Adirondack Mountains has been hosting summits on climate change. Museums working with multiple partners using the Collective Impact model to close the achievement gap among children are setting example for other cities.

8.     Increase a sense of agency and competence. Museums provide a chance to learn what others can’t teach us. Changing the outcome of an experiment, assessing physical risk on a climbing structure, balancing across a fallen tree, shaping a pot from clay, building a circuit, or participating in a community project with the museum can be challenging. Attempting something new, sticking with it, feeling successful help boost a sense of agency and confidence.

9.     Change the direction of a life. In sharing their collections, presenting exhibitions, telling stories, giving tours, and presenting speakers, museums inspire interests, ideas, and questions pursued by children, youth, and adults throughout life. Touched emotionally by stories, inspired by a painting or print, developing a hobby, starting a personal collection, connecting with nature, or even becoming a TV anchor after sitting in front of an exhibit camera as a child, museums affect the direction of a life in small and large ways.

10.  Expand the local learning landscape. Museums occupy several noteworthy places on their local learning landscapes. They are sites for field trips that connect with the classroom curriculum and offer professional development for teachers in STEM, early literacy, local history and art. Centers for professional development like the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute play an on-going role in supporting teachers and transforming classroom teaching. Across the country children attend museum schools and preschools at dozens of museums.

11.  Spark extraordinary insights. Museums create larger-than-life experiences where we encounter what is unfamiliar, different, sometimes seismic in connecting with nature, cultures, space, history, or global events. The traveling Bodyworld exhibition revealed extraordinary and sometimes disturbing views of inside the human body. The Wild Center’s Wild Walk takes us among the treetops for an expansive view of the Adirondack Forest. There is a moment of shock and horror coming upon 4,000 victim’s shoes confiscated by the Nazis at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

12.  Invite joy. Everyday in museums, children, youth, and adults find and express delight and joy. They smile and laugh; children skip across the lobby. In the moment, in the presence of beauty, something unexpected or awesome, they feel pleasure, appreciation, and delight. Often visitors leave with great reluctance. Some express their happiness simply like the 4-year old boy at Minnesota Children’s Museum telling his mother, “My heart is happy here.”

13.  Enlarge the imagination. Moments of wonder, amazement, and awe occur in museums. Our sense of creativity and imagination expands as we look at paintings, explore innovative technologies, watch animals, see a dinosaur skeleton, and grasp the range of human accomplishments. We discover that Samuel B.F. Morse, developer of the Morse Code, was also a portrait painter; that Omar Khayyam, Persian poet and author of the Rubaiyat, was a world class mathematician. We return to a sublime moment in childhood standing at Louisa May Alcott’s writing desk and feeling her presence. We view Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester, a 72-page scientific treatise written backwards in brown ink more than 500 years ago.
14.  Strengthen families. Families are a core constituency of museums; they understand the importance of serving them well and in many and meaningful ways. They offer amenities and choices that make a visit easier, more convenient, and enjoyable for families. They are intentional in developing experiences that engage adults and children together, research family learning, and host family events and celebrations. Museums also provide specific experiences to support families. Some serve as off-site locations for supervised visitation and supervised parenting time. Many offer parenting programs, train staff to facilitate parent-child interactions, and offer parent resources and activities to do at home.

15.  Call us to act.  Time spent in the museum is just the beginning of a succession of possible responses. Museums spark wanting to know, thinking, trying and testing, framing questions, and acting. Visitors may follow up with conversations with others at home, work, or school; visit another museum, a library, or historic site; make different choices; and get involved with an interest group. Although we don’t know how it happens, visitors don’t necessarily leave the museum behind.

With gracious persistence, David Carr promoted the value and necessity of going beyond, exploring the unfinished nature of our lives, and generating more questions. He encouraged us to find ways to start thinking of something we do not yet understand. Along with pushing beyond what we do and know, he asked that of museums and libraries, setting them in the context of the possible. Thinking about what museums make possible is a promising start, but only a start. Thinking with David will help museums make more possible.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Transition Planning

Artist: : Eron Davide Salvadei

In a large capital project, the transition plan is typically over shadowed by the series of plans that precede it. Earlier in the process, the strategic business plan, master plan, architectural plan, case for support, and fundraising plan are developed. Coming much later in the process, when it feels as if so much has been done that little could be left, the transition plan appears on the radar screen.

Obviously, a great deal of very critical planning has already been done. But the final steps of translating and operationalizing the project’s aspirations and intentions into the new space are indispensible. How will the vision for a stunning new wing, a LEED building, a sculpture garden, or 30,000 square feet of new exhibits approach their hoped-for potential if membership cycles span months the museum is closed, staff is not trained, programs are untested, and storage for back-up materials has yet to be found. How will the museum know whether the first year has been a success?

Connecting Resources Across Time
Transition planning connects the people, tasks, resources, and time a museum needs to move through a succession of milestones to complete a major capital project: leaving one facility, moving into another, opening to the public, and operating during the first 12 months.

A standard definition of the transition plan is elusive and, perhaps, for good reason. Realistically, transition plans vary because every project is different. The transition for a museum starting up is very different than for an established museum opening a new wing, one bringing a large outdoor area on line, or new construction involving relocation to a new site.

Regardless of project specifics, transition planning shares some similarities. The time from winding down the old and becoming skilled at operating the new is about expanding ownership of and deepening familiarity with the museum’s new home, from a small group of people who have guided the project to a broader circle of staff. It is deals with consolidating what is known about the present museum operation, the new facility and operation, and determining what needs to be accomplished during the transition phase. It relies on identifying the information and expertise necessary to plan for the changes ahead and building comfort with uncertainty and change.

Looking more closely, a plan that covers this time is a actually set of interconnected plans focusing on multiple phases defined by milestones following a critical path.

Multiple phases. A series of phases typically involve closing down one operation, moving into a new facility, opening to the public, and operating through the first year. Milestones such as letting bids, groundbreaking, occupancy, exhibit installation, and opening events mark these phases.
A set of interconnected plans cover all museum areas including programming, finance, marketing, development, facility, workforce, and daily operations.
• A critical path is the sequence of activities that add up to the longest overall duration required to complete a project. It both determines the shortest time possible to complete a project and also captures the interim deadlines and deliverables.

Times of Great Change
A museum going through this transition will not just have a new address or occupy a bigger space. Whether it rebrands itself or not, a museum will change its identity in small and large, subtle and more obvious ways. A constant shift between past and future and the competing demands of farewells and celebrations ensures a lively stretch of time. To navigate smoothly across multiple phases at a critical time in its growth, a museum must constantly manage complexity, grow capacity, and deal with uncertainty.  

Interconnections among museum areas add a level of complexity to transition planning. Marketing promotes programs; membership rates relate to admission prices and program fees; staffing levels are calibrated to expected attendance. A museum’s hope for a cohesive visitor experience with mission-related activities demands cross-functional planning as well. Planning in one area, development, for instance, will quickly encounter decisions and deadlines in marketing, membership, workforce, and finance.

During transition planning, a museum gathers and organizes information at an increasingly granular level and projects it onto more specific time frames and spaces. Pricing structures, attendance projections, earned revenue goals, and staff levels have likely been determined as part of the project’s strategic business plan. They may have been revisited and updated over the project’s run incorporating new information. But new information continues to arrive and more specific questions arise about building systems, exhibition maintenance, onboarding staff, daily schedules, updated policies and procedures, and opening events.

On the one hand, the physical changes become increasingly apparent. The building goes up, sculptures are installed, exhibits are commissioned. Yet staff must be increasingly precise in how they will operate a building where they have spent little or no time. How will they manage crowding? (By the way, what does crowding look and feel like in that lobby?) What does emergency preparation involve here? How will staff be prepared to greet, serve, and engage visitors, partners, and friends in the membership line, at the bus drop off, in the café, or outside in the new nature area?  

Complexity, uncertainty, and change persist in new forms throughout the first year. Upon opening, a museum will definitely find itself in a territory with few meaningful benchmarks for its performance. Conditions such as location, size, and novelty have changed substantially; donors are transitioning from capital to annual appeals; a big marketing campaign has put the museum into a bright spotlight. Consequently, attendance patterns, average ticket prices, membership renewal rates, store sales, annual gifts, program participation (and more) that the museum will record over the first year will relate only somewhat to past patterns. There is little or no baseline information for measuring, comparing, and guiding museum decisions. There won’t be for a good portion of the year.

Picking Your Path Through Transition Planning
Complexity, uncertainty, and change make transition planning hard enough. Not being a standard part of a large capital project makes this planning even more challenging. Daunting as this might seem, however, a museum can navigate the transition territory picking up on how other museums have done this work.

Start early. Transition planning takes time, time to organize, to work on the transition plan itself, and to implement it. Because every museum project varies, the time to start will also vary. For example, a new museum that hasn’t been in operation may need a transition plan that covers moving into the building, opening events, and the first operating year. A museum building a new building on its current site may close for 2 years and offer programs and pop-ups at community locations; its transition plan may span almost 4 years. At a minimum, a transition plan should cover 9 months before and 9 months after opening.
Involve staff and board. Not all museums are able to develop their transition plans internally. A museum starting up may not have any staff or staff with the experience, breadth, and capacity to develop plans in all areas. It might, however, have staff with knowledge critical to the visitor experience and skills to train staff. Use it. Even when a museum finds that working with a consultant or team of consultants best provides the needed time and expertise, staff and board should be very involved. Their internal and local knowledge is essential to customizing the transition plan to their museum and community. Equally important, they must own and implement the plans.

Scope plans to fit the museum’s situation. A review of existing plans and their scopes should indicate where more current information and a coordinated approach to the transition are needed. Depending on the planning that has been done, plans may be needed for: finance, earned revenue, marketing and communication, community engagement, visitor experience, programs, exhibits, workforce, building and grounds, data and IT, development, or opening events. Especially if staff is developing them, plan scopes should not be too large or too small. Finance could be a single (and massive) plan encompassing earned revenue, development, and workforce. Or there could be separate plans for the store, admissions, membership, and rentals that require greater coordination. Identify plan scopes and who’s responsible for each plan.

Look back and forward. Looking to the future starts with looking back and exploring questions like, what have we learned from successes and limitations at our current site that will enable us to significantly advance our mission and serve our visitors better at our new site? Addressing this question will involve looking at existing data and past patterns, understanding what has worked well, and deciding where changes are needed. Looking ahead to tracking its success, a museum can help itself by identifying performance indicators for each of its plans and how to track them.

Learn from other museums. Examples of transition plans are scarce. A single announcement of a museum’s transition to a new building shows up on Google. A chapter in the 3rd edition of Barry Lord, Gail Lord and Lindsay Martin’s The Manual of Museum Planning touches on getting to opening day. Fortunately, colleagues who have completed the transition to a new operation are generous in sharing what they learned along the way. Whether a capital project is a renovation, expansion, or new building, lessons cluster around: get aligned to focus on the tasks ahead; put staff training at the top of the list of things to prepare for; and be kind to one another.

Be prepared to grow. Transition planning is not just a great opportunity to grow staff, volunteers, and board internal capacity. It’s inevitable and necessary. Plans must focus on additional resources–staff, expertise, space, furniture and equipment, and partners–necessary for the work ahead. More staff, new positions, and expanded expertise among existing staff from leadership levels to entry positions produce growth in many forms. Concomitantly, a new organizational culture takes root in both deliberate and unexpected ways. With new staff come fresh perspectives, familiarity with other resources and practices, and an eagerness to find a place in the organization. Long-time staff holds valuable organizational knowledge and perhaps attachment to long-held practices. The moment is ripe for veteran and new staff to team up and work together in new ways.

Be intentional in every way and at every step. Every decision is as an opportunity to reinforce what matters in this great organizational change. Selecting the transition team, shaping a collaborative process, and sharing information can communicate inclusion, openness and valuing participation. Sharing plans regularly at a Transition Team meeting informs, updates and coordinates them with one another. Being timely in updating plans and the critical path, meeting deadlines, and using information to make decisions moves the museum towards greater efficiency, sustainability, and stellar service. All of which will be in high demand when the doors open and visitors pour in.

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Sunday, May 8, 2016

Community Engagement on Parade

At noon on the first Sunday in May, 50,000 spectators lined Bloomington Avenue in Minneapolis for the mile-long May Day parade that ends with an outdoor pageant and music and dance festival that lasts until dusk. The parade is not always May 1st. It is not always pleasantly cool and sunny. In fact, one year it’s 91º and another year it’s 30º with snow flurries. But the parade and pageant, a distinctive blend of Bread and Puppet Theater, Earth Day, and Mardi Gras, are marvelous–lively, colorful, humorous, joyful, and powerful community experience.

Stilt walkers and hoop spinners; costumed and masked characters; swirling dancers and musicians; and unicyclists in this walking theatrical performance are from the neighborhood, community organizations, and school groups. They are volunteers, friends, teachers, clerks at the store, and artists. Cheered on by the crowd, they become the celebration of spring, dancing down the street, pounding on tambourines, pulling floats, pushing carts, and carrying banners. At the pageant in the park, the Tree of Life awakens from the darkness of winter and rises to the steady beating of drums. A festival of food and music extends the celebration to dusk.

The Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theater’s (HOBT) annual May Day parade is not just a great way to spend a fine Sunday afternoon or a rite of spring. Honoring many cultural traditions, showcasing local talents, and giving voice to many, it is a grand and festive expression of community engagement assuming many forms and reaching back 42 years.

Photo credit: Max Haynes
Preparations begin months in advance and are nurtured by the creative vision and community spirit of Founder and Artistic Director Sandy Spieler as well as HOBT staff and friends. Groups and individuals, newcomers and veterans come together regularly in the social and creative environments of HOBT’s Community Build Workshops. More than two hundred committed participants help in workshops and construct 20-foot puppets and floats that punctuate the parade. On the day of the parade and pageant, 2,000 participants dance and boogie in the parade, carry water, hand out maps, serve as parade marshals, and star in the pageant.

Over 4 decades, the Heart of the Beast has become a catalyst for the creativity and connection that make community visible.

Rich and varied expressions of community and connection are everywhere along the parade route, in the banners and bantering, cheering, and in the strains of the parade’s anthem, “You Are My Sunshine.” The community workshops, much of what happens in the months leading up to May Day, and on the parade route itself is relevant to museums’ efforts to engage more fully with their community and friends. Several qualities strike me as particularly relevant and adaptable.

A roomy vision inspires and invites groups to craft their own messages. Much as a museum’s vision and mission guide and inspire its campaigns, initiatives, and community work, HOBT’s mission to create vital, poetic theater for all ages and backgrounds inspires the annual parade and its theme. Radical Returnings was the 2016 parade theme.

Each section of the parade carries a message which may be poetic, serious, or humorous. Groups of like-minded individuals compose messages to share on banners and signs along with elaborate costumes. The Rivers Have Called Upon Us honored Berta Cáceres the Honduran environmental activist who recently passed away. Dozens and dozens of fantastic costumed crabs, snails, lobsters, and hermit crabs swirled around a banner asking, Feeling Crabby? In the spirit of a community event, the parade is capped off by the beloved and sometimes zany, Free Speech section with banners, signs, and floats announcing causes and issues. 

My personal favorite among the sections: a banner announcing, Safety is measured by human kindness. 

Everyone gets into the act. During the 6 months of public parade preparation (internal work at HOBT begins on the heels of the previous parade), there are multiple opportunities to engage and connect. Opportunities allow both extended and briefer degrees of involvement. This openness to anyone and everyone participating reveals itself on May Day as a celebration by, for, and with the community. Babies through elders march in the parade and sit along the parade route. Spectators see cousins, teachers, and neighbors marching, waving, and singing. Local bands and cultural groups play and dance in the parade and at the park. Hometown music idol, Prince, was honored as a larger-than life puppet leading a parade section. 
"Can you take care of this snail for the rest of us?"

The parade spills into the crowd; spectators become participants. More than a few of the 50,000 spectators become participants along the way. Happy May Day greetings from paraders invite responses from spectators. Strains of “You Are My Sunshine,” fill the air and the crowd sings along and claps. The banner, Howl for the Whole Earth, elicits howls from paraders and spectators that last long after the banner has passed–just for the fun of it. In a quieter moment, a giant fish approaches a young child holding a very large snail made of clay in its hands. The fish asks the child, “Can you take care of this snail for the rest of us?” A quiet conversation follows. The child accepts and solemnly holds the snail for the duration of the parade.

A joyous blend of serious and silly. The edge between silly and serious blends and blurs moving the parade along in a spirit of joyous celebration. HOBT stirs imaginations and offers the materials– water, flour, newspaper, paint tape, and lumber–to tell stories, explore the struggles and celebrations of human existence, to build and create. It is also a welcoming place that individuals and collaborative groups can inhabit.   Rollerbladers and cyclists on tall bikes, backwards bikes, and unicycles cruise through the parade. Some, like the Southside Battletrain, build their own creations. This Mad Max" esque, bicycle-powered float has preceded the parade over the last few years, treating the crowd to new features including a Ferris wheel, band, and bar-b-q.
 Not every museum will find a "Mad Max" esque, bicycle-powered float with a Ferris wheel, band, and bar-b-q to be an expression of its community engagement intentions. But it does suggest that every museum can become a catalyst for  the creativity and connection that strengthen community and make it visible.  

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