Monday, April 25, 2016

The Designated Reader

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Twenty years ago, somewhere near mile marker 187 in Glacier National Park, the alternator on our car went out. After hitchhiking to the nearest gas station and having the car towed to Kalispell, MT, we learned that the closest alternator supplier was 250 miles away in Spokane, WA. Since it was the start of the Fourth of July weekend, the part would arrive in 4-5 days. Our stay in the area turned out to be much longer, however, because the wrong part was sent the first time.

For several reasons, the holiday wait was not a disaster. One reason was the great quantity and variety of reading material where my husband and I were staying. That’s when my husband was anointed as the Designated Reader. He did and still will read nearly anything: the Economist, Guns and Ammo, old New Yorkers, National Geographic, Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Mechanics, Fine Woodworking, Readers’ Digest, and Sunset Magazine. He will also read cookbooks and sailing manuals, how to build hay bale houses, and anything about the history of the English language.

From years of experience, I know it’s great to have a designated reader in the house. I regularly enjoy a constant flow of articles, links, book reviews, travel tips, and new studies on museums, gardening, travel, birding, literacy, old houses, book arts, and more. 

Not surprisingly, I also believe every museum should have at least one designated reader. Museums operate in a dynamic community, educational, and economic context. Subsisting on a ideas re-circulated internally is hazardous to a museum’s health. To stay current, be prepared for inevitable bumps, and challenge themselves, museums must have a steady diet of ideas, information, and perspectives from in and outside the field. Every museum needs staff and trustees who think, see, and read beyond the museum walls, carry forward what’s visible in the rear-view mirror, and look past the horizon. Learning individually and collectively as a museum must be fully integrated into the DNA. Designated readers contribute to a vibrant learning life for a museum. 

Years ago Minnesota Children’s Museum’s CEO, Ann Bitter, came up with a related idea. Our Strategy Team (a.k.a. the STeam Team a.k.a STeam) became, in effect, the designated readers for the museum. We added some subscriptions to what the Museum already had and assigned one magazine to each STeam member to read each issue, select, and distribute interesting and relevant articles to others on STeam as well as across the museum. Those articles became fodder for discussion, leads on new technology, challenges to our thinking, and sources of new strategy. In addition to museum publications, we covered business, education, technology, children’s literature, and family leisure. I still have a article, The New Work of the Nonprofit Board” from Harvard Business Review (1996) that I refer to even now.

With her monthly Museum Education Monitor, (MEM) museum educator, consultant, and editor Christine Castle has been the designated reader for museum education for 11 years. The final issue of her on-line subscription service was in December 2015. MEM’s goal was to enhance the development of theory and practice in the field by both academics and museum workers. Each month, Christine invited readers and subscribers to contribute research and resources in museum education worldwide on a related theme such as Adults and Older People, and Science, and Internships. Each month the publication delivered resources including on-going research, blog postings, on-line journals, print journals, new books and media, and professional development. Citations, links, abstracts, and author contacts for each entry made the material easy to access as well as extensive and perfect for designated readers at museums everywhere.

I take my own role of sharing articles, resources, studies, and blog posts very seriously and I enjoy it. Perhaps somewhat like a designated reader myself, I pass out articles and send links to colleagues and clients in areas related to a project: strategic planning, stakeholders, engaging parents and caregivers, or documentation. Sometimes I give a book to a museum at the end of a project to continue the discussions and contribute the museum's library. An issue that several museums are dealing with often becomes the starting point for a Museum Notes post that’s  likely to include links to articles, studies, or reports.

There is, however a limit to how much a single reader who visits only occasionally can cover– especially compared with the varied interests and perspectives that a dozen readers in a single museum who talk and work together everyday can generate. Moreover, a disposition to read is needed in every museum all the time.  A museum that aspires to be a learning organization needs–and deserves–multiple strategies to advance this. The designated reader is one strategy to activate and support. 

From observing the reading and learning lives of museums, I think instituting a designated reader strategy is helped along in a number of ways.

                Start with 2 designated readers, and possibly more depending on the size of the museum. Float the idea first to get a sense of staff’s interest and response. Invite and encourage people to volunteer to be designated readers; the enthusiasm of a natural-born designated reader is invaluable. Be ready, however, to assign the role to get started. Integrate the designated reader into the organizational, team, and working group structure as STeam did.

                Align with the museum’s priorities. Every museum has multiple priorities, the topics, or interests, highlighted in the strategic plan, improving quality, or stepping up to community challenges. Making these explicit helps a museum. These are the areas a museum needs to build capacity, provide professional development, develop a shared understanding. These are areas for the designated reader. Sustainability? Access and inclusion? Community engagement? Family learning? Performance measures? Social entrepreneurship? 

And yet, as important as aligning reading with museum priorities is, …

                …Read widely and stretch. Create a richer reading mix with both familiar sources and more adventurous finds. In addition to reports from the field like TrendsWatch 2016 or IMLS's Brain-Building Powerhouses, read the LEGO Foundation’s Cultures of Creativity, and check-out reports on museums worldwide. Find readings in other sectors: healthcare, business, technology, education, as well as arts and culture. Read current research and museum classics by John Cotton Dana and Stephen Weill. Select different, even contrary, approaches and perspectives on a particular topic–free admission, social justice in museums, branding, docent training, or museums' role with schools.

                Shape a process for reading and sharing. A process for reading, sharing, and discussing is likely to evolve with time based on a museum’s practices and own learning style. But thinking through an initial process built on what generally works well at a museum will help set a smooth course. • Who’s involved and in what ways? • Should readings be distributed to those whose work relates most closely to a topic or does an interesting article or report on a tangentially related topic serve as a friendly provocation? • Would a protocol for discussion be helpful? • How can we actively engage people with the ideas? Through a structured discussion or an informal conversation at a staff meeting? • Do we want to connect threads and themes? Apply ideas to our work? • Should discussion be facilitated by one person? What metabolism for reading can we maintain?

                Commit resources to the designated reader effort. Reports, blogs, plans, needs assessments, research, and sometimes journals are available on line and free. It is, however, unlikely that all of the key areas a museum intends to dig into will be available for free. Subscriptions are a good and, relatively speaking, small investment in the museum’s future; budget for subscriptions. Anticipate and support the time that is necessary to read and discuss articles and studies. Create a kind of museum library, in binders, on the server, or in an alcove.

                Expect everyone to read. Keeping up with information and ideas is not the domain of one department, usually the education department. Besides, museums are emphatically places of learning. They expect their visitors to read labels and learn. So why wouldn't all staff, volunteers and trustees be expected to read and learn?

Related Museum Notes Posts

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

This Week, I Like…

Raise/Raze (Photo Credit: Hou de Sousa Studio)
Dezeen, a daily on-line architecture and design digest, often includes, “Today we like…” This edited selection of spaces, places, and objects may include bookshops, architecture in Wales, or design with chocolate.

On most days, a comparable slice-through with crisp thematic edges of what interests me is less obvious. There’s no, “This week I like…” exhibit moments that last a lifetime, or logic models that knock your socks off. Still in my weekly random, associative wonderings through journals, presentations, blog posts, museum visits, book covers, or landscape design, I do come upon images, ideas, phrases, frameworks, definitions, or designs that are intriguing, fresh, provocative. Something promising, if not thematic. Something that turns out to be the missing piece for a long-percolating post or sparks a new exploration. Something fresh and helpful for project work with a museum. Or perhaps some of all of these like these recent finds.

1. A view of learning. I was delighted to come upon a definition of learning in an article on tinkering and learning at the Exploratorium–and such an interesting one too. Staff in the Tinkering Studio drew on constructivist, constructionist, and socio-cultural theories of learning and their own experiences developing, implementing, and studying tinkering in the Studio. Their view of learning is a “process of being, doing, knowing, and becoming.” It takes into account various dimensions of learning including the connection between doing and knowing and the time necessary for learning. While this may not be the view of learning for every museum, every museum can construct a view of learning for its setting.
Related Museum Notes Posts:  Making and Tinkering: The Missing Piece

2. Anything Goes is an exhibit at the National Museum in Warsaw curated by a group of 69 children. Ranging in age from 6 to 14 years, children were selected on a first-come basis. They searched the collection, developed 6 themes, designed the exhibit, and worked on audio guides and collateral materials. The museum showed a high level of interest in the children’s ideas and perspectives as well as confidence in their capacity to work collaboratively. On the other hand, the article about the exhibit unwittingly minimizes the children’s accomplishment by noting what they don’t have–degrees and experience–and primarily casting their work as fun.
Related Museum Notes PostsMore Than Fun and Cute

3. Raise/Raze is the proposed exhibit for the Dupont Underground in Washington, D.C. scheduled to open in April 2016. A kind of double re-purposing, the exhibit will occupy a new cultural center inside a disused trolley station underneath Dupont Circle. Raise/Raze transforms light-weight balls from the ball-pit ocean of The Beach exhibit that ran at The National Building Museum in summer 2015. Those half-million balls will now cover surfaces and be reassembled into light-weight cubes that become building blocks for structures, sculptures, and installations. Delightfully open-ended for visitors too.
Related Museum Notes Posts: Abundance

4. Children’s Environments Research Group. Housed at the Center for Human Environments at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, CERG brings together “…university scholarship with development of policies, environments, and programs to fulfill children’s rights and improve the quality of their lives.” Active in theory, policy, and practice, CERG has a strong commitment to understanding children’s own perspectives on their lives. The team of researchers is headed by Dr. Roger Hart, a leader in theory and research related to children’s relationship with the physical environment. Dr. Hart’s study of children’s out-of-school lives in a New England town in the 1970’s is the basis for a longitudinal study of the changing lives of children in that same New England town. CERG's focus complements the work being done in museums to understand the long-term impact of museums.

5. Social Cartography. Fascinated by maps, I am alert to where they can be brought into an exhibit, a nature trail, museum site, or book. The term social cartographynot surprisingly–jumped right off the page in an article in ASTC’s Creating Great Cities issue of Dimensions (Jan. - Feb. 2016). Adaptable to a variety of purposes, social cartography is a tool that empowers communities to analyze social issues. It is also a strategy for emerging museums and museums rethinking their role in the community to hear from communities themselves. In mapping neighborhoods, their relationships to places in nature, or local issues, community members make their knowledge visible, identify problems, provide important perspectives, and communicate with decision-makers.
Related Museum Notes Posts: Place Matters 

What do you like this week?

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Rewind: Planning to Plan

Any major planning effort, like a strategic plan, master plan, or a facility plan can feel daunting. Maybe it’s the first major plan for the museum since opening; perhaps board and staff have changed significantly since the last major planning effort. Or this could be a young museum’s very first plan. Whatever the conditions, a critical first step for any major planning effort is preparation. Preparation for planning is a bit like the planning process itself: engaging people in considering what must be accomplished, how best to do it, with whom, and with what resources. Four steps will prepare a museum for a solid planning effort.

§     Get people on board and build ownership. Since the planning process will involve others, start talking with them: staff, board, partners, and funders. Gathering ideas and drawing on other perspectives will build ownership from the start. Conversations can be informal or more formal as “job number one” of a planning task force. Ask others what they hope the plan will accomplish, issues they see facing the museum, planning challenges, who should be involved, and the kind of planning expertise needed. Talk with key supporters early on. It’s an opportunity to show you’re proactive on behalf of the organization’s future. You can also explore possible support for the planning process itself or for some aspect of implementation. Lay the groundwork for sharing the plan when completed.

§     Learn from experience–yours and others'. How you approach the next round of planning is influenced by previous planning. Do a quick assessment of past planning efforts, of what worked and didn’t work so well. Did you get the plan you wanted? Did staff and board feel they were included and informed? Did the plan seem too generic? Too much of a stretch? Did people feel the plan sat on a shelf? How could implementation have been better?

You can learn as much from other museums’ planning efforts as from your own. Ask about the planning work museums comparable to yours have done recently. Identify museums of comparable size and type in other parts of the country as well as similar local organizations that have done recent planning. Consider asking about how long a planning process took, who participated, whether it was facilitated internally or externally, what information they gathered, how much it cost, what they wish they’d done differently, and how pleased they were with the plan. Ask for a copy of the plan or a table of contents to see what the plan covered. All of this will help in determining the plan’s scope and can help in deciding whether to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for planners and what the RFP might include.

§     Shape the scope. Figuring out the nature and the scope of the plan starts with placing your planning needs in a larger organizational and community context. Has it been five years since your last strategic plan? Is another museum expanding their services to reach your audience? Are funders asking tougher questions about the museum’s impact? Is it time to rethink your exhibits? Every plan is not necessarily a standard strategic plan, master plan, or exhibit plan. Typically a plan must be focused to reflect a particular time frame (i.e. five-to-six years or annual); an organizational focus (capacity building, learning impact, community engagement, etc.); or a focused area of change on an existing strategic platform (relocation, sustainability, etc.).

Considering potential stakeholder involvement helps determine the scope. Is significant community input important? Should you be reaching across sectors of the community? Is internal alignment on core activities critical? Factors such as external deadlines and a compressed timeline can affect a plan’s scope as can cost. Since a plan can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000, get a realistic idea of what the type of plan you want is likely to cost.

§     Match the resources to the plan. Reviewing all the gathered information will give a clearer idea of the resources your plan requires. Resources generally include time, expertise, and funding which are inextricably intertwined. Based on what you hope the plan will accomplish, think about the skills and expertise required: planning expertise, facilitation skills, and museum knowledge.

Local non-profit strategic planners know strategic planning. They know your community and bring an objective perspective. Less often do they know museums, their current issues, and standards. A board member who is a strategic planner will know the museum, but may lack objectivity.

While museum expertise can be valuable in strategic planning or financial planning, it is necessary in developing education plans and exhibit plans. Specific expertise may, or may not, be available locally so getting to know the local, regional and national landscape will help in deciding potential planners and likely travel costs. Sometimes a plan’s authority is linked with a particular type of expert; sometimes its credibility comes from expert local knowledge. In every case, skilled facilitation is critical to engaging participants and moving the planning process forward and can be provided by someone from inside or outside the organization with the right skills and enough time.

A combination of internal and external players can be a good choice. In the end, the right team always brings together expertise and local knowledge; is compatible and interested in producing the best plan; and fits a museum’s price range and schedule.

Preparation for planning does take time. It also makes a real difference. Preparatory work develops a shared understanding among key players about what’s ahead and removes a few of the inevitable obstacles. It helps bring the right players together; manages expectations about the process and the resulting plan. All aspects of preparation help set a planning process on a smooth course.

--> Related Museum Notes  Ready? Set? Plan  
• A Pocketful of Planning Notes  
Public Value: From Good Intentions to Public Good