Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Planning Out Loud

Bigger than a prototype, louder than a focus group, and unfolding over months–and possibly years, planning out loud is long-term, deliberate testing of multiple aspects of a museum by engaging the community.

Prototyping components, exhibits, text, and programs has become an established practice in museums over the last two decades. There are many examples, from specific exhibitions to large-scale efforts like’s NySci’s extended prototyping for Design Lab Community engagement, a key component of planning out loud, is also an established strategy for inviting the community into the museum and generating content. Nina Simon highlights an enormous range of examples at multiple scales in Participatory Museum and writes about her experience with everyday community engagement at the Museum of Art and History (Santa Cruz, CA). A recent article in Madison’s Cap Times spotlighted Madison Children’s Museum’s hosting listening sessions with children, youth, and teachers across the community as part of its planning of a new 8,000 square foot floor that looks to serve an older audience.

Planning out loud is based on an assumption that, if being curious, asking questions, reflecting, and learning through social and physical interaction is valuable for our visitors, then it’s valuable for museums as well.

Two museums I am working with, the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota (Mankato, MN) and Tulsa Children’s Museum (OK), are planning out loud. In bringing new museums to their cities and regions, they are going well beyond prototyping components, exhibits, and labels. They are testing across operational areas from hours, to staffing, to how much mess. They are testing the potential of community partnerships and are testing their business model. In a way, they are prototyping the whole museum with the voice-over narrative to accompany the planning.

Evolving in Plain Sight
Planning out loud is an approach that can advance a museum’s planning in particular community contexts. When a museum or a new concept and what it offers isn’t familiar to a community, bringing transparency to the planning process can bring stakeholders along. Building confidence in the effort can be valuable when the memory of a failed museum is fresh in funders’ minds. Finally, it can make good use of the time when the economic climate slows fundraising, delays construction, and postpones opening the doors. 
Founded in 2005 by early childhood educators, the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota (CMSM) has been diligent about following the steps in starting and opening a children’s museum. Over the same time, the Museum has engaged children and families in hands-on activities at locations across the region including a temporary exhibit. These choices have built awareness and support around what a children’s museum can contribute to local children and families, and the greater community.
In 2007 a committed group of parents and professionals organized Tulsa Children’s Museum (TCM). Reflecting a strong commitment to align the Museum with community priorities, TCM conducted a community survey, a series of listening sessions with parents of young children, a resource scan, and interviews with community leaders to inform the role it would play in the Tulsa area. While learning from stakeholders across the community, TCM was also developing partnerships with other organizations to “borrow walls,” offer mobile and traveling exhibits, bring health and wellness programming to schools, and present a family concert series.

Solidifying foundational ideas and taking activities out into the community are typical early steps in opening a new museum. These museums, however, have started pursuing a different path in planning and operating test sites. They are converting what can be limitations into opportunities. Without permanent homes, they serve their audience in parks, schools, and  libraries. They know they have several years ahead of planning a building, developing and designing exhibits, growing staff, and recruiting volunteers. Yet, they want to be serving their audience now. They are eager to build awareness and a loyal following, grow internal capacity, and develop confidence, their own and funders’, in a sustainable future.

CMSM opened PlayLab in the first of two temporary, long-term spaces in 2010 to share the kind of experiences children and families would enjoy in a permanent home. PlayLab is a location, a state of mind, and an expression of their Learning Purpose: Make the joy and value of play, and its connections to learning and well-being, visible to children, parents, teachers, and the community. The name PlayLab also points to the Museum’s interest in learning how exhibits and experiences play with the Museum’s audiences, and how audiences play with exhibits.
Being “community led” has been a commitment of TCM, one expressed in multiple ways. Since mid-2011, the Museum has been taking steps to plan and open Discovery Lab, a temporary space in which to test topics, activities, themes, and exhibits with the community as its on-going focus group. An extensive site selection process has focused on finding a test site location that is familiar and accessible to families who are less likely to visit museums and that has attractive amenities for families likely to seek out museums.

Inviting stakeholders–partners, community members, families, school groups, service organizations, neighbors, and curiosity seekers–in on the thinking, planning, questioning, and testing says, this is our museum; if we test ideas together, we own them together.
Tapescape at PlayLab
PlayLab has been an invitation for community members to come, explore, play, and bring their ideas. CMSM has been committed to working with ideas and materials that community members contribute. A quilter fashioned a giant farm landscape; a mom wanted to start an art scraps store at the museum; and a board member and architect saw a photo of a tape structure and built TapeScape. Recently, the Museum added prototypes for its Sand, Stone, and Quarry Zone exhibit.

Prototyping sand play at PlayLab
Engaging a wide range of Tulsa area organizations as partners is central to TCM’s community-based strategy. In its first five years, the Museum worked with community arts organizations as well as the Library, Tulsa Historical Society, and Tulsa Public Schools to offer programs, events, and exhibits. In Discovery Lab, Museum partners will sometimes inspire, fabricate, or source activities and exhibits. They will lend expertise, help reach new audiences, co-host events, and very likely add something TCM can’t yet imagine.   

Planning a test site prompts discussions and decisions about what must be happening in the museum for children of different ages with family, school, and community groups in order for the museum to achieve its intended impacts. What are essential ingredients in the experiential mix to encourage this? Questions surface about which audience groups must be served fully because of their high presence; should toddlers have their own area or should there be tod-pods throughout; how much is enough to do; and how should technology be used. Mindful navigation of such questions is necessary to leave open, welcoming room for visitors to contribute, give feedback, and help make the decision.
Many of these discussions and choices were made by CMSM as it developed its Learning Experience Master Plan. As complete as such plans seem at the time, however, there are successive distinctions to make: how finished or “in-process” can exhibits be, what is CMSM’s definition of prototyping, which components must be prototyped; what are the prototyping questions; and what other information should the Museum gather.
In developing its Design Lab master plan, TCM is looking at operations, focus areas, visitor experience, community engagement, partners, and budget. For each area, it is asking: what it wants to test; how to test it; and why it is important. As each question gets answered, new questions surface: which of our partners can help here? what should our hours be? how do we develop our prototyping skills? what does success look like?

Planning out loud is a way of making the museum’s thinking, testing, and learning visible to itself and to its stakeholders. New staff is learning about meaningful questions to ask, ones to which they need answers in order to provide an activity that encourages cooperation, needs less facilitation, invites greater variations in play, relies less on text, or accommodates multiple players. Some answers will come from visitors. Staff are learning who and how to observe; what information to gather and how to summarize it; how to organize notes, quotes, photos, comment cards, and counts; when to problem solve together to revise or retire an activity. CMSM has been scheduled regular observations and is training its Play Workers as observers. It is sharing its process on FaceBook, sharing, for instance, the unanticipated challenges of dust from sand quarried locally. Blogging can also highlight progress, insights, and surprises internally and externally. When the explicit intention is to learn from and with visitors and partners, the feedback staff harvests and shares and how it adjusts the experience, becomes part of the work.

Leading and Following
Especially for a new museum, planning out loud qualifies as a leadership practice. A deliberate questioning, testing, revising approach that engages visitors distinguishes such extended test efforts from opening the museum doors prematurely or with untested assumptions. At every step of the way, the museum is setting precedence. It is encoding inquiry and collaboration with its partners and audience into its organizational DNA. It is prototyping processes and systems, building internal capacity, fashioning its internal culture, uncovering organizational structure, defining its brand, and growing a toehold in the community. Testing assumptions about attendance, hours, staffing, and pricing provide a reality check on the business model and operating budget.

Planning out loud is not necessarily easier than another planning approach and it has its own challenges. Funders can be skeptical. If this is such a good idea, why test it? Are we funding something twice? Striking a balance between an orderly and open planning process relies on a well thought out approach with clear planning coordinates, a willingness to be flexible, and a capacity to be nimble. At the same time, this visibility can produce an accountability that nips at the heels of planners; some days it feels invigorating and other days it feels like pressure.

By their nature, test sites are dynamic venues with experiences that are fresh, if unpredictable.
Regardless of the choices a museum might make, the exhibit experience mix and role of partners, will change constantly. Some experiences will succeed, while others will not. Some failures can be tweaked while others must be tossed and replaced. Unplanned contributions from partners or neighbors may also come through the door just in time to offer new possibilities and lessons.

Planning out loud is evaluation writ large, lived long, and with open arms.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Toddlers Being Citizens


Now and then a blog posting unfolds in real life.     

Several weeks ago, I wrote about Raising Citizens and highlighted the importance of seeing children as citizens today, recognizing their capabilities, and strengthening relationships between children and the community.

Neighbors and friends down the street have a family day care. One of the many wonderful things about these two sisters, Nina and Chrissie, is that they find ways to talk with their day care children about what’s happening in the world. They are astute and attentive observers of their children, following and supporting their interests, and extending their explorations of the world. They also read Museum Notes and last week they talked to their children about Raising Citizens.  

Chrissie told the children that a neighbor, Jeanne, the one with the dog named Coco (they remembered Coco) had said it’s important for children to see the neighborhood and for the neighborhood to see the children.

On a  sunny late-winter day last week, Chrissie, Nina, and the children took a stroll down our street. Nina led with the 2 and 3 year olds in the big wagon. Chrissie brought up the rear with the 4 year olds. I was lucky enough to be looking out the window as they approached. I noticed the wagon slowed every now-and-then as it moved along the sidewalk.   

When wagon and walkers came closer, I understood the reason for the changing pace of the procession. At each house, everyone paused and the children waved. There was no sign of anyone at home at the green house or the tan house, where Jane or Rita lives. Yet, house-by-house, they waved to their neighbors.

I wish, how I wish, I had a photo, or even better, a video of these children. I do not want to forget seeing those young citizens waving to the window, to the house, to their neighbors, seeing their neighbors and letting their neighbors see them.  

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mission Check

Sometimes a museum needs a new mission statement and sometime it doesn’t. Often, it’s hard to tell whether a mission is out-dated and inadequate or it needs to be clearer, more aligned, or expressed in a more compelling way. How does a museum tell whether it needs a new mission statement or a better mission statement? Try a mission check.

A mission check is something I do with museums as part of a planning audit or developing a planning framework. I draw from a set of exercises I use early in a strategic planning process to review, revise, and align the museum’s driving principles. These are the vision, mission, and values that together give meaningful direction about where a museum is headed and how it will act. Missions are what most people are most familiar with, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that mission statements are as robust as they might be. Common ills of a mission statement are being generic, missing an important component like the audience, or being excessively long.

Basic Mission Parts
A clear statement of the reason a museum exists, a mission statement answers four questions: What does it contribute? who does it serve? how does it deliver? and why is this important? Looking at whether and how your mission statement answers these questions is a good place to start a mission check.

Below are four mission statements. In the left-hand columns are the missions of a small art museum, a science center, a cultural and natural science museum, and a children’s museum. The right-hand column is my sort of the mission statement according to what, for whom, how, and why.

The Art Museum brings art and people together for enjoyment, discovery, and learning. We strive to create a place where people of every background can be touched by art. We are committed to exhibitions and programs that will strengthen and sustain our community.
What: Bring art and people together for enjoyment, discovery, and learning; (and) touch people with art
For Whom: People of every background
How: Create a place; exhibitions and programs
Why: Strengthen and sustain our community

To create a culture of learning through innovative environments, programs, and tools that help people nurture their curiosity about the world around them.

What: Create a culture of learning; (and) nurture curiosity about the world around them
For Whom: People
How: Innovative environments, programs, and tools

The Museum sets the stage for lifelong learning in South Texas. Through innovative programs in history, science, and culture, strengthened by collections and facilities, the Museum enriches lives, promotes a quality life for all South Texas people and generates a legacy of knowledge.

What: Sets the stage for lifelong learning in South Texas; enriches lives, promotes a quality life and generates a legacy of knowledge
For Whom: All South Texas people
How: Innovative programs in history, science, and culture, strengthened by collections and facilities

The Children’s Museum is an essential learning resource that engages the young children of the (City) community in play and active exploration together with their parents and other adults to expand their capacity to learn.
What: An essential learning resource
For Whom: Young children of the (name) community
How: Engage in play and active exploration together with their parents and other adults
Why: Expand their capacity to learn

Sort your museum’s mission statement and talk about the following.
  • How well does your mission statement cover these key areas? Typically, it’s easier to recognize some parts than others. For instance, distinctions between what and how can blur; a solid explanation for why  is rare.
  • How clearly does your mission statement express what it contributes? This part often deals with what a museum does such as, collect, preserve, and educate. The children’s museum mission, “An essential learning resource,” describes what the museum is. The other missions express what the museum does, or is a two-part what: “Create a culture of learning” as well as “nurture curiosity about the world around them”.
  • How meaningful is the description of who your serve? Several references to the audience in the examples are generic, “people”, and “people of every background”. “Young children in (a particular) community” is more precise.
  • How clear and distinctive is how your museum delivers its mission? Often this is a list subject matter areas and/or a list of exhibitions, programs, and collections. While important, these lists do little to distinguish one museum’s purpose from that of another museum.
  • What does your mission express about why your museum is important? This is the hardest of the four questions. Why is often implied or buried in how. The art museum makes the connection between “touching people with art” and “strengthening and sustaining our community.”

Through this exercise, you might identify a missing or weak piece in your mission statement and a way to correct it: perhaps a clearer reference to who you want to serve, a more engaging expression of how you will deliver your mission, or a deeper version of why this is important. You might focus on how the parts could work together more forcefully or be expressed more clearly. The art museum, for instance, might explore what happens when “creating a place where people are touched by art” is how it delivers. The science center could be more explicit about why “nurturing curiosity about the world around them” matters.

Pushing and Probing
The answers to these four questions–what, who, how, and why–can seem obvious. That’s not entirely surprising since the mission has attracted people to work on its behalf; the mission is also what a museum tries to do every day. But an obvious and single answer is not enough; it needs pushing and probing to expose what’s behind it.

Strategic planner Andrea Fox Jensen will often follow up a very straightforward statement with, “This is important because….” Drilling deeper into an assertion invests beliefs and easy statements with well-earned meaning. It distinguishes between feel good intentions and efforts capable of making a difference.

This is a challenging practice, but exactly what’s needed to probe unspoken and sometimes untested assumptions and beliefs. The practice reveals where a mission is shallow; can shake loose less obvious relationships among what, who, how and why; and is likely to suggest ways to strengthen the mission. One example of the succession of statements moves form a basic statement of audience to imply why a museum matters.
  • We serve all children eight and under and their families in the greater (city) area.
  • This is important because… All children in this age range, regardless of background, benefit from varied    cognitive, physical, social, and emotional experiences.
  • This is important because… Early experiences impact later development including success in school and in jobs.
  • This is important because… Children with limited experiences can benefit from varied and targeted play and learning experiences across settings, at school, home, and at the museum.
Uncovering what is worthwhile behind the initial answers sometimes requires saying what’s obvious or feels corny, like “to make a better life…” Push ahead anyway. Continue to unpack why the museum is important until you know what you do, for whom, how you do it, and why it matters. This process allows a museum to fully inhabit its mission.

What Are We Saying?
“Wordsmithing” can be an expression of frustration when mission statement work is lagging. Focusing too soon on prepositions and parallel constructions can curtail exploration of what a “culture of learning” is or what “building community” looks like. But words do matter. Try writing a mission statement without them. Clogging up a mission statement with jargon, clich├ęs, and lackluster words puts a drag on a mission statement’s potential to express what you care about in a way that others will also care about. Revisiting the language of a mission statement strikes somewhere between the mechanics of a sentence and the power of words to make people care.

Working in a small group, revisit the words in your mission statement and look hard at what they are saying. This exercise highlights qualities in the text that relate to and reinforce a mission’s function. Use highlighter pens or colored dots to designate these qualities.
• Highlight words that express your relevance to your community. 
Highlight the 2-3 words that distinguish your museum from other museums.
Highlight the words that represent the museum’s greatest opportunity for impact or touching many lives.
Highlight a few key words that give crucial guidance in making strategic choices.

If one quality isn’t present, go on to the next. You can also vary this exercise by adding or substituting other qualities. Tally the group’s response for each quality. While this is not intended as a vote on wording, there’s information here. How do the highlights cluster? What words or phrases resonate strongly? Which qualities align most strongly with one another? Have other words or phrases that feel fresh or are more precise surfaced during discussions? Might they do more work than words like multidimensional, essential, innovative, or interactive?

From Mission Check to Next Steps 
A mission check helps answer the broader question, “do we need a new mission statement?” Fielding one or more of these exercises might assure your museum that your current mission statement defines the museum’s deeper purpose and functions well in guiding the museum. Some times, results of these exercises will indicate areas of the mission that need strengthening. Perhaps specify who the museums serves; pull in a sharpened understanding of why the museum matters. Toss out tired words and import some compelling language. Give a chiropractic yank to forcefully engage the four parts with one another to convey what you care about that others will care about.
A mission check also helps a leader or leadership group manage the moans and groans of “What? Redoing the mission again?” (At least temporarily.) If the mission check indicates a new mission is truly needed, you have made a case for investing valuable time and energy. Some of the groundwork has been laid and, likely, pointed to a starting point somewhat further along. If you are considering a full overhaul of your mission, take a look at Missions That Matter. In any case, give the time and effort to your mission it, your museum, and community deserves.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

February Reflection

                                                                                                                          Photo by Barbara Kreft
I imagine that there are enough blogs and posts in this world, but there are not nearly enough valentine wishes. To help remedy the imbalance, my valentine wishes to you.

“Let the beauty of what you love, be what you do.”
– Rumi

Monday, February 6, 2012

Vision With A View to Impact

Recently I was asked to review a museum’s planning work as part of their preparation for a major organizational transformation. The basics were in order for a small, young organization. They have a basic set of driving principles, a vision, mission, and values and a good understanding of their audience. They also have articulated some sound learning ideas and strategies that relate to being a strong and useful partner to area schools.

Of the pieces they have, however, the weakest is their vision. A set of cheerful strings of superlatives, the vision could describe the dream of any museum from Anchorage to Miami. This piece, I noted, was exactly the piece they most need to be ready for the journey ahead: to be a relevant and robust museum firmly aligned with their community and its priorities. How else will they be confident of attracting support? How will they be assured that what they plan to bring to the community is relevant and valued? How else can they choose among very attractive, and certainly, competing alternatives? How else will they know whether their use of resources has served them and their community well? How else will they be confident about their long-term organizational health?

A less-than-adequate vision statement is not unusual among museums, but this can place a museum at a serious disadvantage. Even if a museum is not about to change its physical footprint in size or location, it does need to pay attention to its community footprint.

A museum at any stage of development undergoing a major organizational change needs a deliberately developed expression of the deeper purpose it fulfills for its community, a vision. For that matter, a museum navigating tough economic times or intent on being a recognized and valued community asset–in short any museum–needs such a vision.

Last year I wrote about externally focused vision statements that my wise and knowing strategic planning partner, Andrea Fox Jensen, had introduced to me. In contrast to the familiar vision statement placing a museum at the center, this kind of vision projects a museum’s vision out to its community. 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 own long-term interests. Perhaps it is a more vibrant community, increased social cohesion, greater civic engagement, or improved quality of life.

Readers thirsty for harder-working vision statements have found their way to Re-visioning Vision Statements in large numbers. Good vision statements, (even just examples) are hard to come by; externally focused ones require an even longer search. Gradually, though, I do notice more vision statements looking outside the walls of the museum, past everyday activities, and beyond a reputation among peers. One I recently came across  from The New Children’s Museum (San Diego, CA) envisions a community with a vibrant artistic and cultural life in which all children and families share the joy of being active participants.

Assuming an outward perspective opens up many possibilities. One is a more obvious connection between the positive change a museum hopes and believes is possible for the community it serves–its vision, and what it intends to do to contribute to that change–its impact. This connection is closer than it might at first appear. In her blog, Leading By Design, non-profit governance and leadership consultant, Anne Ackerson, posed the question, “Should Vision Statements Be Impact Statements?” She also asks, Without long-term external impact, what's really the point of your nonprofit?

Changing perspectives places familiar elements in a new light. The shift can challenge cherished assumptions and initiate changes that, if not fundamental, are major. As a museum broadens its view to encompass its community, it will also see itself and the community in a fresh light and find new ways to relate to and be integrated with the community. Placing itself on the local learning, cultural, and social landscape will spotlight strengths, suggest new relationships, surface opportunities, and point to areas of change. 

Three basic features involved in connecting vision with impact work solidly together: know your community, connect assets, and describe the change.

•            Know your community––People, priorities, players. A solid understanding of a community may come from many sources, but it must include the voices and perspectives outside the museum walls, from leaders, citizens, thinkers, critics, and friends. Listening to and learning from the community and from studies and reports identifies community priorities, challenges facing residents now and the vitality of the community  in the future. In imagining the community if these challenges were resolved, the museum begins to envision a future for the community that is bold and positive but, with stretching, is possible. Where these challenges intersect with a museum’s long-term interests and its strengths are areas in which a museum can have a role in making a difference.

•               Connect assets––the community’s with the museum’s. Framing a museum’s impact relies on connecting and building on strengths, tangible and intangible, its own with the community’s. A community’s assets might be stories of pulling together during a flood, a sense of pride as a regional hub, strong neighborhood centers, or a history of welcoming new immigrants. A museum’s assets might be its site or location; trusted after school programs in neighborhoods; expertise in evaluation; or being an easy partner with long-term alliances. Areas in which strengths engage firmly and productively with community challenges and priorities are areas a museum can be active in focusing on change.

•         Describe the changeboth short and long-term. A vision of the positive change the museum believes is possible for its community comes into focus; the museum assesses its own capacities for contributing to this change; and the museum begins to picture what the changes look like near and long term. What will be different for this audience group, for this neighborhood; how will the readiness gap help shrink the achievement gap; how will new arrivals be less isolated or seniors more engaged? how will the museum change in 5 years? In 10 years? In pursuing such questions deliberately, a museum defines outcomes, gathers information, and adapts its programs and services to better serve its audience, community and itself.

Hard Work Ahead
Developing an externally oriented vision statement aligned with community priorities and focusing on intended impacts takes time, diligence, smart resources, and collective effort. This is especially true with the initial shift to a view to the community and its priorities. The extra work required to shape such a vision, however, is worth it. Fresh insights, new relationships, and efforts and resources focused where they matter most is just too important to leave to good intentions.