Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Re-visioning Vision Statements

Every five or so years, museums engage in strategic planning, intentionally considering their future and its possibilities. A key step is a review of the vision, mission, and values– the driving principles that together give meaningful direction about where the museum is headed and how it will act. Typically some or all of these driving principles are affirmed, updated, or re-crafted.

A cruise through strategic plans and museum websites suggests that museums take their mission statements and values seriously and their vision statements less so. Mission statements may be long or short, compelling or generic; values are formatted in many ways. Both, however, are declared while vision statements are often absent.

Vision statements tend to group into three clusters. There is the vision statement that is an image of the future a museum seeks to create. Following a model used in business, it is internally focused. These often soar with aspirations such as “world class,” “leading edge,” or “a national model.” A typical example is:
“A recognized destination for fine art (or history or science) exhibitions that enrich the quality of life for residents and visitors to our region and as a leader in the area art (or science or history) programming for children and adults.”

Other visions are a statement of purpose. Decidedly practical, they define why the museum was created, its functions (i.e. collection, preservation, research, exhibition, interpretation), the geographical area to be served, and the subject area and time period to be covered. Sampling these vision statements suggests they are more typical in Canada and among larger public institutions. Finally, a vision sometimes folds in with the mission and a single statement covers both.

Most museums make do with vision statements that don’t really carry their weight. I understand why. First, crafting vision and mission statements is hard work; getting a significant number of board and staff to forge the shared understanding for a vision requires time, preparation, listening and skilled facilitation. Second, two approaches to a vision–what a museum will become and its purpose–deal with what is near and known, the museum; they miss the dynamic changing world and the unknown future. 

I have to admit that these two approaches have been less than inspiring for me as well whether reading them or facilitating their development.

So I was hopeful when Andrea Fox Jensen, one of my strategic planning partners, mentioned how to re-vision vision statements. The approach projects a museum’s vision out to its community rather than into itself. Looking outward, the vision focuses on the positive change a museum hopes and believes is possible for the community it serves. Its vision of change engages with a specific aspect of a better future that matches the museum’s interests, perhaps a stronger community, increased social cohesion, greater civic engagement, or improved quality of life.

A few examples of museums and a change organization illustrate how this outward orientation plays out and in varied ways.

Pacific Science Center: We envision communities where children and adults are inspired by science, understand its basic principles and bring their scientific curiosity and understanding to bear in the world.
The Family Museum: We envision a community that is increasingly vibrant, engaged, and resilient because it recognizes and develops the potential of children.
The Grand Rapids Museum of Art: To Build Community Strength and Enhance the Quality of Life through Art.
The Harwood Institute: We see a world where people have shared and converging pathways to realize their own potential to make a difference, and where they join together to build a common future.

A community-oriented vision statement unlocks valuable energy that strengthens a museum. An outward perspective points to where a museum can contribute to the change it envisions. This allows a museum to aim its mission on how it intends to use its assets and resources to help people be their best selves, enjoy better lives, or make their community stronger. A mission that characterizes a museum’s usefulness, who it will serve to benefit the community, and the distinctive way it will accomplish this is a robust tool for facing the future.

This approach returns the vision statement to the driving principles and adds muscle to the mission. It shifts attention and discussion outward, away from specific activities and toward audience and community needs. I have seen this approach bring needed clarity and new energy to a museum’s efforts to know its community. Questions arose about the museum's knowledge of the community’s challenges and promises and how it could develop deep understanding of the entire community. New methods evolved for learning more and applying that knowledge to making internal decisions and working with external partners. In turn, it invigorated community engagement shifting it from a solely programmatic approach.

After several decades of strategic planning in and with museums, I heartily welcome an externally oriented vision statement. It incorporates the community context in which museums operate and reminds us that museums are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Externally oriented vision statements concentrate a museum’s attention on where its work needs to be done for the public good. This approach aligns with the exhortation of museum scholar and theorist Stephen Weil that, “In everything museums do, they must remember the cornerstone on which the whole enterprise rests - to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Monday, December 13, 2010

Making Wonderful Friends

Several years ago at a monthly breakfast hosted by a local architectural firm I was introduced to a great idea. It did not come from the dynamic speaker and there were several that year, following various arts and cultural expansion projects underway. I met Laura, the director of Joyce Preschool/Escolar; she was there with a board member who was an architect. 

Chatting with Laura was easy. With Joyce Preschool just three blocks from my home we made an immediate connection. The next week, Laura e-mailed to invite me to visit the school. They were rethinking the classroom space in their church basement location and were interested in another perspective on early learning environments. The following fall when classes started, Laura asked me to come and read a story to the morning class. Before I started to read Babar’s Museum of Art Laura introduced me as a neighbor and a friend of Joyce Preschool/Escolar. Each fall and winter I returned to read a new story. Last January the school started strategic planning and asked me to serve as a non-board member on the committee along with two early childhood resource people. This past June, Laura announced that her family had an opportunity to live in Chile for a year, so she would be leaving her position. I told her I was both excited for her and sorry to see her go, but had appreciated the opportunity to get to know Joyce Precshool and her.

Laura told me then that as director, she had worked to surround Joyce with wonderful friends. When she met someone and found a connection, she followed up, built on it, strengthened it, and made it easy for a friendship to grow between that person and Joyce. Laura’s going-away party was well attended by parents, children, and teachers. I was there with many friends Laura had made for the preschool: elders from the church who volunteered; other neighbors; the State Senator, the director of local foundation, and more.

Making wonderful friends works for museums too. A museum’s strength relies on broad public awareness, on good will, on robust relationships with stakeholders, and on strong and varied community connections. Yet, museums often find it challenging to recruit committed board members, tap advisors with needed expertise and new perspectives, grow supporters, and cultivate champions.

The brilliance of Laura’s idea is that it is both simple and strategic. Yes, it requires work. Mostly it requires paying attention, understanding the museum’s long-term interests, shepherding relationships, and recognizing the interrelated interests of people across the community.

Wonderful friends for the museum go beyond the friends-and-family group–people we know already and ask to contribute to the annual fund or help at an event; and go beyond people with names on rosters and letterheads. They are the people we meet everyday. A wonderful friend–and every museum should be surrounded by many–is a writer for the neighborhood newsletter, an energetic entrepreneur, a passionate youth leader, a chatty barista, a dedicated gardener, a retired teacher, a local economist, a savvy realtor, an avid birdwatcher, or a newcomer looking to put down roots.

Thank you, Laura, y buena suerte! 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Green and Grand: Madison Children’s Museum's Re-opening

“We don’t insure children doing surgery in shopping malls.” That was the unbelievable response I received in 1980 from an insurance agent to my inquiry about insuring a temporary exhibit for the very new Madison Children’s Museum. As a co-founder and designated exhibit maker, I was responsible for an interactive traveling exhibit about tools. Our hands-on tools exhibit, we thought, would invite children to use tools for beekeepers to use, tools for accessibility, and for doctors to use. It would help introduce the idea of hands-on exhibits by traveling to various settings, including a few shopping malls.

Fast-forward thirty years to 2010. A children’s museum is no longer a mystery. Now there are about 300 children’s museums in the US visited by 30 million children and adults annually. Getting insurance coverage for a traveling exhibit is not a problem either.

Meanwhile Madison Children’s Museum (MCM) has grown physically as well as grown into itself. In 2009 it served 90,000 visitors per year with an additional 30,000 through outreach. Most recently, the Museum has made a new home in a renovated 1929 Montgomery Ward department store just off the Capitol Square. Opening its doors in August 2010, MCM welcomed 13,000 visitors in the first week alone.

Clearly, MCM has grown significantly in the intervening 30 years. It has grown awareness and support with families, educators, and funders around central Wisconsin. As it has expanded from a traveling exhibit to three (and soon four) floors in its 56,000 square foot home, the Museum has also developed and evolved ideas it first presented at a smaller scale and that now distinguish it locally and nationally. In doing so, it has worked to reflect what its community values and what it hopes for children and their future.

There are several foundational messages and frameworks underlying Madison Children’s Museum new building and its exhibits, environments, and programs. Four threads that came through loud and clear are when I visited in September are: local, green, creative, and risk-taking.

Bottle cap mosaics created by elementary students
  • Local: A generously-sized free zone lobby welcomes families who stop by from the popular Farmer’s Market and want to rest, use the toilets, have a snack, or play a bit in the water exhibit. On the second floor, a giant table map for building has the State Capitol at its center and is located at the window directly facing the Capitol itself. Behind the Museum, an authentically restored 1830’s log cabin moved to the parking lot invites everyone to step back in time and provides an opportunity for the Museum to help city third-graders meet local history curriculum requirements. Architects, artists, vendors, contractors, and almost all materials were local, coming from within a 100- mile radius of Madison. Its Only Local Initiative received a 2010 Promising Practices Award honors from the Association of Children’s Museum.
  • Green: Reusing an historic building was one of the Museum’s greenest choices. Throughout the building, no- and low-VOC products are used for interior finishes and adhesives. Nothing seems to have escaped greening, not even in the bathrooms with: dual-flush toilets, photo-voltaic sinks, recycled partitions, and non-chilled drinking fountains. The cafĂ© serves fresh, local, organic and seasonal foods. Meanwhile, up on the roof visitors find a demonstration garden and a chicken coop. MCM anticipates being the first LEED-certified museum in Wisconsin, and is collecting energy use and waste data this year as part of the process. Green Guide to the Museum highlights these and more ways in which the Museum has tried to go beyond green
  • Junkyard finds reborn as a climber
  • Creative: Creativity has a definite presence and in many guises. A belief in creativity as accessible to everyone and useful everywhere informed the planning, green problem solving, and sorting among splendid possibilities. The Museum worked with 15,000 local artists, residents, and school children who created public art, play objects, mosaics, and tiles in every part of the museum. Re-purposing takes on new meaning when hand-made felted food substitutes for plastic food in the Diner and books become a backboard to the admissions desk. Humor is present in many forms. A sink filled with dirt serves as a rooftop planter and old beauty salon seats (complete with hair dryers) provide public seating. Children can raise and lower MCM’s iconic life-size cow using a block-and-tackle system. Fanciful constructions that simply can’t be named are there to crawl into and under, climb on and over, clamber through, and roll balls over.
  • Risk-taking: The Museum pushes boundaries in several ways. The Hodgepodge Mahal Climber invites children to take physical risks as they clatter and climb up and through an assemblage of scrap yard treasures including a three-wheel car. The Museum invested precious energy in engaging residents from across the community and the age span to create and contribute as well demonstrated a willingness to transform almost anything into something else. Perhaps, the greatest risks the Museum took were in believing firmly in the power of the play-learning connection and in relying heavily on context and materials to deliver content. Exhibit text is modest though language and images are present in rich and attractive forms. The Green Guide, a Scavenger Hunt, staff in the Art Studio, and a parent resource room provide opportunities for the curious to find out more about what’s going on.
The children I visited with couldn’t get enough of being in the driver seat of a polished wood car; building and rebuilding their city at the giant table map; playing in the Water Dome; and riding the goat and cart. Adults who have visited commented on the beauty of the exhibits and the fascinating and imaginative use of materials–everything from a gymnasium floor, to a Lake Michigan buoy, to cut sheets of tempered glass from the building’s interior spaces for the Water Dome. I found that the more I looked, the more I discovered what was re-used, surprising, or inventive. A Twister® mat served as a curtain in an office window. A mural painted by children’s book illustrator Kevin Henkes and his wife is just off the lobby. I saw collections and artwork from people I know and was able to find almost all of the wall quotes–from A to Z–starting with artist-created letters formed, not surprisingly, from re-used materials. And, as a one-time Madisonian, I especially enjoyed a history of Block 99 where MCM is located.

 A mix of formal and impromptu museum planning was essential for the grand re-opening of MCM: architectural planning that integrated engineering for major exhibit elements, exhibit master planning with more than 100 community volunteers, and planning for the museum’s four-season green roof—a park in the sky. For museums that reflect their community and have a distinct identity, museum planning occurs continuously. Consolidating and building on their interests, improving offerings and experiences, and cultivating expertise and practices are needed to build organizational strength and contribute to the community’s vitality.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Ready? Set? Plan!

When I am asked a planning question, I do my best to offer a prompt, helpful answer. When several questions of a similar nature come along, I start tracking down related resources. If I don’t find anything in file drawers, on my bookshelves, by Googling, or checking with colleagues, I figure there’s likely a need for a new or updated planning resource.

Recently, the following questions, clustered around major planning processes, have captured my attention:
  • Is there a specific order in which to create a set of plans?
  • How do you prepare for a major planning effort?
  • What are the steps in a strategic–exhibit, or master–planning process?
The same questions came from a museum gearing up for strategic planning and from a colleague who is also a co-chair of a rowing club and leading a long-range planning process. A start-up museum asked for all the steps in an exhibit master planning process. When I asked an exhibit planner what she used, she said she’d been stymied when a Korean colleague had asked her the same question.

There are no simple or easy answers to these or other planning questions. Every museum is different and each museum is at a different stage from one round of planning to the next. No predetermined order covers all - or even most - plans and museums. Opportunities spring up; external timelines impose a sense of urgency; staff and board with different skills influence the process; and previous planning experiences shape expectations.

Planning resources do exist but are scattered on websites, in blogs, books, journals and deep in the hard-earned experience of museum professionals. Recognizing this as well as the need for easily available planning resources appropriate for a range of planning projects, I  decided to develop the attached Ready? Set? Plan! It summarizes what experience and best practices recommend for fielding a major planning process: planning to plan helps build ownership, determine the scope, and get a project on the right track from the very beginning.

I hope you find this helpful for your next planning project whether it is a  strategic plan, a community engagement plan, or an exhibit master plan. You can also find Ready? Set? Plan! on the Tools and Connections page of my website (www.vergeront.com) along with other planning tips on the Planning Principles and FAQ’s pages.

If you find this helpful, please pass it on, perhaps to your board strategic planning committee, to a team planning a major initiative, to a colleague at another museum, or to  partner organization embarking on a long-range planning process. I’d love to know if you find this helpful. Please get in touch if you have additional planning questions we can work together to answer. Chances are your questions will echo those that others in the field have.