Thursday, September 18, 2014

Four Key Practices

With Building a Shared Understanding I cast one of the five practices I have accumulated over the years as the queen of museum practices. Perhaps somewhat of a stretch, it is, nevertheless, useful in distinguishing it as a high-level, long term, organization-wide practice from other productive, but nevertheless, supporting practices. On their own, the remaining four practices do important work in strengthening the museum in small ways towards their larger interests. 
  1. Building a Shared Understanding
  2. Making Meaningful Distinctions
  3. Breaking Things into Smaller Parts
  4. Crossing Boundaries
  5. Experimental Mindset

Making Meaningful Distinctions 
Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (1995) is a landmark study by
Marko Remec at Mass MOCA
Hart and Risley on parent talk to young children at home and the lasting difference it makes for children. The title alone consolidated for me a valuable practice around highlighting important differences among otherwise similar ideas or situations.
These distinctions, connected to driving ideas or supported by evidence, are crucial to building shared understanding, capacity, consistency, quality, and value.

Familiar concepts or favored ideas often have several or fuzzy meanings with invisible implications–until they collide. A half dozen words now enjoying currency in museums–creativity, participation, play, engagement, impact, learning–have multiple meanings across the field and even with in a single museum. Meaning that seems intuitive to one person rarely is to another.

I recently read a museum master plan that used the terms scientific thinking, science learning, and science literacy interchangeably throughout. While these concepts are related, they’re not same. Each possesses meaning or attributes the others don’t. Undoubtedly one is more consequential to the museum’s driving ideas than the others. In what ways is one concept more resonant with the museum’s interests, supported by evidence, or related to community priorities?

Making distinctions is more than just defining words or word-smithing. Less busy work, it facilitates work, for instance, guarding against false dualities that stymy discussion. Are we about art or people? Are we nice or necessary? Framing important ideas, identifying salient traits, relating them to one another, and clarifying their importance also signals what is less important and why. Staff can channel their creativity and act with confidence following clear direction on where to invest energy and resources to benefit visitors and the museum.

Meaningful distinctions can be made in many ways and virtually all the time. A simple statement caught my eye on Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 recent blog: Each of these activities invited contribution on a different level.” Rather than a single participation opportunity, each activity invited a particular kind of participation, for instance, at a point in the process, individual, collaborative, of varying duration, or personal investment, etc.

My strategic planning partner Andrea typically follows a statement like, “The museum’s region is a fast-growing mid-sized market” with, “This is important because…” This links a characteristic of the community relevant to the museum’s vision, mission, and audience grounded in back-up information. It assists the museum in viewing the future, addressing potential growth, and identifying benchmark museums.

Everyday museums have opportunities to make meaningful distinctions about anything that's meaningful at the museum: sustainability, adult engagement, access, inquiry, materials, collaboration, learning, risk/hazard, etc. 
For instance, championing open-ended materials in a studio space says some materials better support the museum’s vision of its visitor experience and learning opportunities. Open-ended materials that invite and extend exploration help clarify why a museum values them. Selecting particular open-ended materials because their properties invite manipulation, build knowledge of material properties, build on existing competence, and encourage representing ideas add important information. Considering how these qualities tend to extend exploration through more questions, experimenting with techniques, defining problems, or richer language connects the materials and their qualities with the broader experiences, and conveys more valuable distinctions. When staff across a museum make these choices consistently, everyday choices serve the museum’s long-term interests. 
Breaking Things into Smaller Parts
From an early age we are encouraged to break a problem apart to make it more manageable. Outside of school we forget until, years later, we fall into this practice again by accident. I did. Twenty years ago when I had the opportunity to work with the owners’ reps for Minnesota Children’s Museum’s expansion project on cost estimating for exhibits, I was reintroduced to this in another and relevant form.

The owner’s reps were bringing their method of estimating building costs to estimating exhibit costs for 15,000 square feet of exhibits we were building in house. Compared to present cost estimating for exhibits,  estimating then was a rudimentary, informal exercise with few or no specialists and no exhibit cost databases, at least that we knew of. I was a bit skeptical that the very same way to estimate costs for lobbies, lavatories, and loading docks would apply to estimating costs for a DIY thunderstorm, musical solar event, or the Harambee–a 2-story musical sculpture in our exhibits.

John and Jerry started with a simple example they explained clearly: making a table. On the one hand, they said, they could estimate the cost of making a table: one cost for one entire table unit with all its parts. On the other, they could split the table into its component parts, estimate the cost of making each, and tally the costs: make a tabletop of a certain size and material; build a skirt frame; make four legs; assemble all the parts. While both approaches would be estimates, totaling the cost estimate of each table part would be closer to the actual cost than one estimate for the table.  

Even as John and Jerry were describing the process of estimating the cost of making a table, I was imagining attacks on many types of problems and the benefit of getting a more accurate view of what I was dealing with: taking on a big project, tackling complexity, exploring something new, developing goals and objectives, or just getting unstuck. Whether solving a budget problem, developing a center for creativity, or building a table, Breaking Things into Smaller Parts manages the parts along with the whole. Without losing track of the bigger picture, this practice asks: what are the component parts? What is known about each? How do the parts relate to one another? What’s missing? What resources are needed?

Breaking Things into Smaller Parts works at virtually every scale, starting a museum or building a science park; developing a capital project budget or the annual budget; framing visitor experience goals or initiative goals.

Crossing Boundaries 
Crossing the cultural, geographic, physical, contextual, and intellectual boundaries that hold us back and limit our thinking opens new spaces for thought and action. In times of fast-paced change or easy continuity, whether a museum is navigating turbulence or sinking into complacency, stepping outside the familiar
Skirball Cultural Center photo
advances new perspectives, challenges thinking, reframes possibilities, and drives change. 

Territory beyond well-known boundaries is wide open. Venture outside the museum field, our cities and countries; explore libraries, retail, hospitals, and parks. Learn from other types of museums and from ones that are smaller, larger, or older. Crossing, not toeing, boundaries of theory, discipline, paradigm, media, department, and terminology allows us to explore what lies at the intersection of areas and to transform ideas in each area by combining them in new ways.

Increasingly the museum field looks beyond its borders, borrowing and adapting frameworks, methods, and approaches from social work, sustainability, and the for profit world to strengthen internal processes and operations. Interest in the Triple Bottom Line, the Hedgehog concept from Good To Great and Blue Ocean Strategy have migrated to museums. To manage these complex and diverse organizations, museums hire people from healthcare, education, business, customer service, anthropology, and theater. A colleague described how her museum director brought his extensive professional networks from previous jobs in other areas to strengthen a collaborative community effort around literacy. Having maintained past connections, he deliberately leveraged them on the museum’s, and the collaborative's, behalf.

By inhabiting another role, we inhabit perspectives that are otherwise unavailable. For years I volunteered in a second grade classroom, accompanying the class on field trips, riding bumpy busses filled with 60 second graders laughing, cheering, and talking to the symphony, book arts center, natural history museum and children’s theater. When we visited the children’s museum, however, I was most challenged in my chaperone role. In spite of knowing the museum, the exhibit, and my small group of children well, I struggled in accommodating their individual interests and different paces for exploring. In all the years we had planned field trips at the children’s museum, I realized, we had never actually stepped into the chaperone role to become chaperones and know the field trip experience from the teacher, parent, or volunteer perspective.

Crossing Boundaries is a daily and doable practice for individuals that introduces and invigorates with new types of diversity. Reading, visiting, training, or working outside our area can stretch us beyond even the best professional development opportunities. Another context, whether physical, cultural, or procedural, can challenge the limits of our thinking and test well-worn and worn-out patterns of thought. Introducing a new process like Design Thinking can energize a team. 

On returning from a journey through new territory, we view and value what we and others do differently, find new paths to follow, and discover new and powerful connections.
Experimental Mindset
Borealis Press
Increasingly my favorite practice is an Experimental Mindset. In many ways this practice energizes and feeds the three other supporting practices.
Museums enjoy a tradition of experimenting. Alfred Barr, first director of the Museum of Modern Art, commented 75 years ago that, “The Museum of Modern Art is a laboratory in its experiments the public is entitled to participate.” Every new exhibition or program, each interactive component or new acquisition, a revised membership incentive, or community collaborative can be a hypothesis about how the museum might invite participation, build loyalty, engage visitors more fully, extend engagement, or increase impact. With prototyping, evaluation, observation, documentation, and research of various types, museums have a wide range of methods to support experimental mindsets. 

Working at every organizational level an Experimental Mindset helps solve new problems as well as solve old problems differently. A suite of experiments projects can be activated in service of museum-wide change as the Columbus Museum of Art has been doing for the past 6+ years. Experiments can also navigate around interpretive challenges as the historic Hunter House experiment described in Pushing the Period Room Beyond the Period. They can be as small as a hand-written sign with a question, re-purposed materials, or QR codes and new technology to rethink the field trip. Regardless of the size, curiosity and an experimental stance fuel this practice. As with all of the five practices, however, museums and museum staff must avail themselves of the practices and their related opportunities. An Experimental Mindset may ask more of staff than other practices do, but challenge and opportunity also invigorate staff and entire organizations. Museums that value institutional vibrancy, groundbreaking ideas, and nimble responses to change and opportunity, can bring an experimental mindset to find innovative ways to encourage and support staff and trustees in being open to new approaches and ideas, taking risks, failing and then failing in new ways, and changing outcomes.

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