Monday, August 22, 2011

Relationships As a Museum Value

Some familiar ways relationships play out at museums–here at OMSI
It may seem I’m stating the obvious in saying relationships are at the heart of museums and why they matter.

We often refer to the powerful relationship between people and objects that distinguish museums from other settings. We talk about relationships with funders. Museums have significant educational and community partnerships. Various types of social media help museums stay in touch with their visitors.

On the other hand, relationships may not really be at the heart of museums so much as a part of serving visitors, members, volunteers, and vendors. Few museums include relationships among their guiding principles or organizational values along with, for instance, respect, inclusiveness, cooperation, or quality. Were relationships an explicit value, a museum would be engaged in thoughtful and on-going cultivation, nourishing and sustaining relationships with internal and external stakeholders and with the community. Valuing strong relationships would guide decisions and individual and organizational behavior at every level. There would be a degree of accountability around recognized and valued relationships and the supporting practices for pursuing them.

Recognizing Relationships
My own relationships with museums–working with many museums and with some museums over many years–have increased my appreciation of the value and potential of relationships. Observing in museums, developing strategic and education plans, and hearing staff and board talk about their museum’s strengths, strong relationships are at the core of a museum’s mission, sustainability, and recognized community value. Relationships operate at every scale from strategic to daily operations and span every museum function. They are expressed in countless ways.

•            Several years ago, I walked through Discovery Center Museum (Rockford, IL) with Executive Director Sarah Wolfe; she greeted–and was greeted by–a dozen parents and children by name, remembering camp projects and asking about family members.
•            I have watched as Stepping Stones Children’s Museum (Norwalk, CT) has evolved from having many programmatic partners, to having long-term committed partnerships, to conducting an audit on the impact of these partnerships on engaging low-income residents.
•            Strong and established relationships with foundations were a critical source of guidance and support for three museums I worked with as each went through extended leadership transitions.
•            Rochester Museum and Science Center (NY) enjoys third generation enrollees in its preschool.
•            For 20 years, a group of children’s museums has been collaborating to develop interactive exhibits to travel to member museums. YMEC (Youth Museum Exhibit Collaborative) shares a model similar to the SMEC (Science Museum Exhibit Collaborative) and TEAMS  (Traveling Exhibits at Museums of Science) Collaborative.
•            Madison Children’s Museum (WI) built on existing relationships with local artists, architects, designers, and fabricators to create artwork or exhibit elements for its new 56,000 square foot museum.
•            Cultivating Relationships is a program strategy for The Bakken Museum (Minneapolis, MN) that recognizes that “relationships are at the heart of learning and at the core of The Bakken’s strategic interest in serving the community.”
•            One museum has been thoughtful and deliberate in cultivating wonderful friends, building awareness, community connections, goodwill, and advocacy around the convergence of public policy and museum priorities.

These examples may sound like anecdotes, and, in a way, they are. But for several of the museums mentioned here, I chose only one of several examples of significant relationships for that museum. For  museums where relationships are a priority, managing them well is also a priority. Within those museums there is a shared understanding about cultivating and supporting relationships that is not unlike a systematic and strategic approach to stakeholders.

An Expanded View of Relationships
Less apparent, but essential to museums’ value, are ways in which relationships–social, physical, and experiential–are deeply embedded in learning. Learning involves others, people with whom we are in relationship. Our earliest learning relies on personal bonds with caregivers and within the family. Of course, the social context of learning with family and friends continues throughout the life cycle and across every type of learning setting, formal and informal, including museums, zoos, and nature centers.

Julian explores relationships at ¡Explora!
Understanding and meaning depends on the flow of talking, pointing, interrupting, sharing ideas, and negotiating with family members, peers, museum staff, and volunteer. We are also constructing, testing, reconstructing, and elaborating on ideas that connect our previous experiences with experiences afforded by exhibits and programs. This might be at an interactive exhibit component, an activity on toddler Tuesdays, standing before a painting, or stepping back in time in an historic home. In fact, museums invest a great deal of creativity, problem solving, evaluation, staff training, and fabrication in shaping the kind of social encounters in exhibits and programs to encourage remembering, shared hunches, elaborating on ideas among families, community groups, and other social groups.

I’ve also learned a lot about relationships from the Municipal Schools in Reggio Emilia (Italy) where relationships are at the very core of a remarkable and hardworking educational experience over the last 60 years. The concept of relationships is captured incisively and expansively by Loris Malaguzzi, the guiding light of Reggio practice: 

“Relationship is the primary connecting dimension of our system, however, understood not merely as a warm, protective envelope, but rather as a dynamic conjunction of forces and elements interacting towards a common purpose.” 

 Relationships interact: people, objects, parts. (Argyle Design, Inc.)

In the Reggio approach, children are considered in relation with the family, other children, the community, and the wider society. Relationships–exchanges among children, cooperation at all levels of the school, and sustained exploration in projects–enrich learning. Not only are relationships important among children, parents, and teachers in these schools, but connections between the schools, the wider community, and the city are also critical. The school and the child are integrated into the broader civic and cultural context, contributing actively to the life of the city, to its vibrancy and resilience. This takes many forms, from children being out in the community, to studying the city, to being viewed as active citizens in the city, citizens of today who will also live in the future.

Relationship Value
A more expansive view of relationships has real potential for museums. Relationships have an easy fit with the multi-faceted and complex nature of museums, capable of straddling both mission and margin, tangible and intangible benefits. They lend themselves to the multiple, dynamic connections and interactions a museum has daily, weekly, monthly and throughout the year with a wide range of stakeholders having varied perspectives and interests.
Relationships at play at Heureka
An organizational value of relationships supports the quality, variety, and relevance of learning and customer experiences expected of a museum and necessary to its recognition as a respected community resource. Through successive interactions and exchanges among people and groups of people, a museum’s relationships evolve, just like the dynamic external context in which it operates and the community where it lives. A museum’s interactions and relationships offer a prime opportunity to learn from and about visitors and members of the community. This is a boon to museums that might otherwise ease towards complacency or rest in comfortable in isolation.

Relationships can also be a way for a museum to be nimble in its work, serving internal and external audiences and accomplishing its strategic and financial goals. A focus on sustained relationships encourages a longer-term perspective, an investment of time and attention that considers a museum’s interests and resources and those of its stakeholders, supporters, and partners. A shared organizational understanding of the potential of relationships, supported by compatible practices, systems and structures are necessary elements for staff and trustees to live this, or any, organizational value.

Committing to relationships as an organizational value places a museum in a rich ecology of interconnections and exchanges with visitors, learners, and supporters; with other organizations and museums; and in a shared life with its community. 

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