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.

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