Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Cultivating an Experimental Mindset


In kicking off a planning process with a museum team, I often point out that we are engaged in a discovery process. Eyes widen, sometimes with fear and sometimes with excitement. I add that, while a discovery process, it is a disciplined discovery process, based on relevant organizational documents and information, following well-tested planning steps, informed by internal staff and board knowledge, and guided by clear outcomes and deliverables. We won’t, I assure them, just go off on any old trajectory. But honestly, we really don’t know quite where we’ll end up.

Often, however, I wish the process could accommodate more wandering and experimenting. While clearly not a precise definition of experimenting, this situation points to how museum work may be more of an experiment than we think it is.

Museums fortunately have a tradition of experimenting. Some like Shelburne Farms have their roots in earlier experiments. Others, like the Museum of Modern Art, was viewed 75 years ago by its first director, Alfred Barr Jr. as “a laboratory in its experiments the public is entitled to participate.” Museum experiments continue at many scales. An experiment that has transformed museums the Exploratorium continues to take experimenting seriously. More recent experiments have included maker spaces, satellite museums, and free admission.Word of a museum’s experimentation travels and can be documented by following replication, from Exploratorium exhibits to maker spaces to tapescapes. Images of a tape structure in an architecture magazine inspired a Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota board member to construct TapeScape in 2011. Introduced in the start up museum’s Play Lab setting, the structure merged an immersive exhibit, art installation, and re-purposed material. Tapescapes followed in Pittsburgh in 2013 and Manitoba in 2014. A fresh contribution, it has attracted followers and expanded the museum repertoire.

While museums have a tradition of experimenting, they aren’t necessarily impelled by an experimental mindset. Imitating and improving ideas from one museum to another is a valuable strategy for introducing change and increasing variety in experiences, but alone doesn’t reflect an experimental mindset. Prototyping, evaluation, and research are among museum practices that encourage experimenting. They can challenge assumptions and push boundaries, but may also be established practices that become routine.

A Typical and Frequent Response to Challenges
An experimental mindset is a proclivity to question, rethink options, and make changes. An attitude and outlook, it is a readiness to wonder, question, challenge, test-and-retest, and reinvest lessons learned into new efforts. More than an ability to ask questions and run small studies, it is a typical and frequent response to challenges, obstacles, and opportunities. With questions of “what might happen if…?” and confidence that there are more options than the most obvious course or what was done previously, a disposition to try and test supports evidence-based decision making, challenges perspectives, and delivers new possibilities.

An experimental mindset helps museums deal with complexity and uncertainty, realities inherent in their own organizational context and the dynamic communities they serve. This outlook tempers an understandable push for certainty. We may want assurances about what we will accomplish, how long something will take, its cost, and if others will approve. However, shadowing a process with “Will it get funded?” stifles risk taking, fresh thinking, and a search for better solutions.

Knowing what will and won’t work ahead of time is impossible, but small experiments in fact can reduce uncertainty. More iterative than definitive, an experimental mindset shared across a museum anticipates that the group will arrive at a collective understanding, valuable insights, or a satisfying resting point but not a certain destination. The twists and turns in finding out what works better and what’s expendable inevitably challenge comfortable, well-established practices. Perhaps more important, an institutional commitment to questioning and research also invigorates work, delivers unanticipated outcomes, and offers shared learning.

The Sweep of an Experimental Mindset 
Karina Mangu-Ward, EMCArts Director of Activating Innovation explores the potential of shifting from models to a mindset in her guest blog post, We Don’t Need New Models, We Need a New Mindset. While she does not speak directly about an experimental mindset, her construct assumes complexity rather than relying a distilled and fixed set of assumptions. She suggests that a mindset sidesteps set priorities, simple solutions, and easy-to-count metrics. Whereas models encourage replication, a mindset revises understandings in response to information, changes and challenges.

Cultivating an experimental mindset assists a museum in living its core values. A museum with creativity or innovation as institutional values needs an organizational culture that expresses them and translates them into major decisions and daily actions. While celebrating failure for visitors, museums do not seem as eager to make new mistakes themselves. If critical thinking, experimenting, and tinkering with ides are valuable for visitors, a museum needs these same qualities as part of its own DNA. Becoming an organizational learner is as important as supporting life-long learners. When it has internalized its values, a museum hires staff and recruits trustees with a tolerance for ambiguity, an appetite for risk taking, and a metabolism change.

A disposition to act on questions is not limited to a single department or division. It engages every organizational level and brings greater clarity about where and how to strive to achieve impact. Each new program or initiative; every new exhibition, interactive component, or acquisition; a revised membership incentive; or a community collaborative is an opportunity to experiment with how a museum might invite participation, build loyalty, engage visitors more fully, extend engagement, or increase impact.
Columbus Museum of Art

Engaged in reimagining itself over the past 6+ years, the Columbus Museum of Art (CMA) has fielded a suite of projects covering the entire museum. Reframing creativity, rethinking art education, reimagining the drop-in visitor experience, and remaking space has engaged trustees, volunteer docents, and staff across the museum. CMA’s sustained experiment, or set of experiments, clearly demonstrates the critical role museum leadership plays in asking bold questions; reframing and responding to opportunities; and supporting a journey to someplace with new possibilities. It is also illustrates how leadership becomes distributed across the museum, helping to advance an organization-wide commitment to reflect, question, and act. Leaders with hearty appetites for disciplined discovery often view the museum’s approach as an opportunity to grow support for roomy questions rather than small certainties.

A museum supports an experimental mindset by making room for experimentation. Time is given to what is valued; it is critical for getting beyond easy answers, finding out what works. On the other hand, a compressed time frame for a team might actually support experimentation by concentrating creative energies on strengthening ideas rather than searching for hopefully better ones. Writing about innovative exhibition design on ExhibitTricks, exhibit designer Axel Hüttinger believes “the exhibition must become a laboratory, in which there virtually are no prefabricated results which the visitors are served.” Teams or groups operating with an experimental mindset are alert to fortuitous accidents and unintended consequences–and make good use of both. Museum Camp at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History tries out a new and original camp format for engaging museum professionals in creatively investigating a novel theme such as “space.”

The questioning and reflective frame of mind supported by leadership and nourished by available time informs how museum staff navigate everyday activities and responsibilities. By asking questions of their own practice and searching for answers, staff examine the impact of museum experiences on visitors who come through the door, visit regularly, participate in programs, explore exhibits, or participate on-line. Recently, Michelle Grohe, Director of School & Teacher Programs at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston, MA) shared a regular practice Gardner Museum educators engage in as they reflect on and assess student tours.The practice draws on both big picture ideas and specific questions that museum educators ask of themselves, partner teachers, and students. As answers to these questions accumulate, the museum has data to anchor plans for developing new programs, revising and improving programs, and understanding the impact of programs on students. 

Everyday Studies
Strategic experiments can be a solvent for an organizational culture that is stuck or for navigating areas of persistent frustration. Even a quick study lasting 30 minutes or 30 days can be a cost-effective experiment yielding significant insights.

Many museums would like to reach more youth before they age out. A move from wanting to grow this part of the audience to understanding what’s working, the relevant conditions, and which ideas are more likely to work ahead of time requires both motivation and mindset. A museum might start with a set of questions: What has staff noticed about where the 9-12 year olds who do visit spend the most time? What do these children find most engaging about those experiences? How do they talk about what they like doing? How can these qualities be adapted to and incorporated into other exhibits? Staff might observe, interview, and conduct focus groups. Small studies harvest staff’s informal knowledge about the museum and its visitors, where they spend time, use patterns, noise levels, etc. It brings cross-departmental knowledge and strengths together–marketing, visitor services, education, and exhibits–and is likely to extend to other museums with a similar interest. Building internal capacity as well as better serving the museum’s audience are likely results of following through on persistent questions.

Experiments help progress towards larger goals. After completing its strategic plan, Grand Rapids Art Museum (MI) staff began a set of small experiments to improve the visitor experience. One experiment responded to visitor feedback on being told not to touch the art. Using gallery observations, staff logs, and guard interviews, staff developed a concept to try: turn the message from, “Don’t touch the art” to “Why can’t we touch the art?” Framed mirrors installed in the galleries were paired with text encouraging visitors to touch the mirrors and notice the oils left behind. In the three months following installation, guard reminders to visitors declined to one.

Every museum possesses some valuable assets for cultivating an experimental mindset. A board member keen to questions; an organizational value on innovation; an eager, boundary-pushing floor staff person; teams passionate about their projects; a membership director who wants to try something new; visitors asking, “why?” Each staff member, trustee, and volunteer in every museum also shares one great advantage in advancing an experimental mindset. Learning by experiment has worked since the earliest days of life when we engage a parent with a smile, or pump small legs and move the mobile. If a museum can encourage, align, and harness individual dispositions to wonder, question, and push boundaries, imagine the potential institutional force for significant internal and external change.

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5 comments:

  1. I really appreciate your point that museums can cultivate a culture for experimentation. I have always thought that what we do best in the museum field is to be those learning labs, experimenting and creating ideas and bodies of work that then can inform the broader educational field. This post is a wonderful reminder that we can and should continue to value the risk and uncertainty of experimentation throughout our field.

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  2. Thank you so much, Lynn, for making such a strong, clear connection between what museums do well for visitors and what they might do for the broader educational field.

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  3. I found this very subversive. I loved that you preempted criticism of your use of experiment early. I loved that your goal is obviously better museums. I see how this approach might just prevent some of the deadwood on a team from standing up and choking off change. At the same time it frustrated me because actual experimentation might just be the best way forward.

    "Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It's quite simple, really: Double your rate of failure. You are thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn't at all. You can be discouraged by failure or you can learn from it, so go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because remember that's where you will find success." -- Thomas J. Watson

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  5. I agree that actual experimentation is the best way forward and didn't mean to suggest otherwise. The Watson quote is right in the intended spirit.

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