Saturday, March 23, 2013

Unpacking Nice + Necessary

Only 3 words, Nice and Necessary, is so compact, it might sound like a slogan. In fact, it encapsulates a surprisingly rich and useful perspective on museums and their positions in their communities, Many museums work to be both nice and necessary. They work to accomplish community level change and also remain welcoming, compelling, and delightful places to visit.

Since first coming into currency in the last 5 years, the concept of nice to necessary has been useful across a range of planning and professional contexts. It has helped spark museums in considering their public value, in working to increase their impact in targeted areas, and in sharing their work with colleagues at conferences. For some museum leaders I have talked with, nice and necessary has produced a significant shift in perspective and in articulating museum strategy.

Twists, Traps and the Necessity of Nice
Regardless of a promising start in working with nice and necessary, the need to probe its potential to advance museums’ value to their communities became apparent. What first seemed straightforward hid some interesting, frustrating, but eventually useful insights.

Linking words that are seemingly opposite or at least appear to be at odds with one another is initially intriguing. Challenges inevitably surface in determining how these ideas relate to one another. From nice to necessary, the phrase I recall hearing originally, generated an image of a continuum with nice at one end and necessary at the other. It suggested a progression with necessary in a decidedly superior position to nice. Could being nice be something to avoid?

In general it is easy for museums to be nice, while they want, of course, to matter and be necessary. But even organizations and agencies, like the fire department, police, or the food shelf that are decidedly necessary, want to be nice. The food shelf tries to be warm and welcoming. The fire department enlivens parades with fire trucks and welcomes kindergartners on firehouse field trips. Representatives from the police department show up at National Night Out block parties. Nice has a way of being necessary.

Shining a brighter light on the either/or implication of nice/necessary suggested that by becoming nicer, a museum might subtract from being necessary. Amping up ways to welcome and delight–an added outdoor bubble area, a well-outfitted face painting cart, and jugglers to entertain families standing in long lines–would seemingly pull from the contribution of conducting research on informal learning, public lectures, or a science career ladder for youth. An approach structured around from/to and either/or would interfere with a museum moving the dial on being both nice and necessary.

Fortunately, representation of the complementary–not either/or–nature of nice and necessary came into focus. Imagining nice and necessary mapped separately to show their individual strength along with their interaction opened up new possibilities. Plot them on an x/y axis to capture a museum’s role as a destination experience and as a recognized and valued resource. A museum can focus on ways to contribute to a more robust regional infrastructure around health and well-being as well as being the best place for celebrating birthdays, making mudpies, or skating in socks. In fact, plotting where a museum currently lands as nice and as necessary can be a useful exercise for a board or staff during strategic planning; locating where it was 5 years ago and hopes to be in 5 years invites valuable discussion. 

Two Sides of the Museum Coin
Nice and necessary serve as two valued and complementary lenses for viewing a museum, the roles it plays in its community, and how it pursues its goals. Recently, in preparing for a strategic planning retreat, I decided to look into how this is expressed across different dimensions of a museum. I found 6 principles operating pretty solidly.

Nice + Necessary each express the museum’s mission. Each is a response to community priorities in ways that advance the mission. A museum is nice as a distinct place or set of experiences that promise special or memorable times for children and adults, families and friends. It becomes necessary by honing its relevance with targeted resources and expertise in ways that complement other community resources to help a community, if not solve, then manage its problems.  

Nice is stronger in the early years of a museum’s growth.  Organizations move from self-interest in the early years to an increased awareness of and commitment to the common good. Building the capacity to consistently deliver a well-choreographed museum experience takes time and capacity. This, however, becomes the platform for understanding and reaching new audiences, cultivating long-term partners, and developing approaches to address community issues from early literacy development to water quality to workforce development to health and well-being.

Nice provides credibility and brand recognition for Necessary. Being outstanding at being nice–being safe, fun, convenient, knowing children and families by name, and being mission-driven–provides the foundation– the visibility, credibility and brand recognition–for being necessary. Educators, funders, and policy makers are more likely to have confidence in a museum’s capacity to reach teen moms, engage girls in science, or impact health outcomes if it has a successful track record in other areas.

Nice + Necessary support complementary strategies. Nice and necessary open up and connect with different opportunities and strategies for growing and sustaining a strong organization in, for instance, diversifying revenue, cultivating support, and expanding audience. A community foundation is likely to be more interested in supporting a youth development program for low-income teens while the CVB’s interests might run to hosting a summer festival.    
Necessary has low visibility. Recognizing the special events, beautiful building, or FaceBook photos that characterize nice is relatively easy. The visibility of being necessary, however, is low as well as hard to reveal. Closing gaps, changing conditions, and turning communities around take time, resources, and sustained commitment. Highlighting change as it does occur is a start with dynamic, engaging, and varied methods including research, evaluation, documentation, and stories.

New territory for both Nice + Necessary opens up. With time, experience, new partners, lessons from peers, and changing community priorities, museums recognize and explore new opportunities for being both nice and necessary. By being deliberate in being nice and necessary and through building the capacity to be effective in both realms, museums find themselves pursuing opportunities they would not have recognized or have been capable of pursuing previously.

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