I love the primordial ooze of early planning for a big museum project. It may be a new museum, an expansion, or reinventing a museum. There is no near or far in the midst of primordial ooze; no fixed or firm center; no visible shore. In this early stage everything oozes into everything else. Potential is enormous, vision is fuzzy; possibilities bump and meld into one another.
Not every member of a team or planning task force, however, enjoys this murky phase. Avoiding it, however, is virtually impossible. Museums find different strategies for navigating the thick mass of shadowy possibilities. Typically museum leadership or founding board members look for guidance from other museums, master planners, and their own related experience. They visit museums that are strong examples of what they aspire to become and attend museum planning conferences.
A project definition, a set of well-tested planning steps grouped into phases with project milestones help bring order to the early steps in the process. But, at some point, there is inevitably a stutter in a process this extensive and complex. A key team member moves on or joins the team; planning money is hard to find; the “perfect” site doesn’t come through. The team regroups, the process slows, and sometimes, the project is resized.
It is one thing to have a planning process laid out, but how does a museum team ready itself for the unavoidable ups-and-downs of the intense, often life-changing, journey they are beginning? A few realities about the process have emerged from the experience of countless museums that have started up, expanded, or reinvented themselves. It's helpful to keep them in mind.
• This is not actually a linear process. Project planning, especially, in the early stages, is a discovery process. While perhaps a disciplined discovery process, it is nonetheless exploratory, opportunistic, and has a life of its own. Laid out on charts, the process looks orderly with a clear beginning and end. Planning, in fact, starts long before building size is determined or design begins. It often runs on parallel tracks and moves forward at different rates. Trial and error and false starts are inevitable. And, what appears to be the end of a project is actually a new beginning. The museum opens, meets reality, and is on a new learning curve.
• Everything connects with everything. Especially and emphatically at the beginning of a project! The vision connects to the community and to the mission; both connect with audience. Audience informs the target market and attendance. Community size and projected attendance are closely related to building size and exhibit square footage. Thinking about a building without considering the location is unproductive; will the site draw audiences? And everything connects to funding which connects to vision, mission, staff, and the community.
• There’s no single model for a museum, plan, or project. Every project is distinct from another because every museum is distinct. Even two projects underway in the same town at about the same time differ in material ways. A journey is shaped depending on whether a museum is mature or a start-up, renovating or building new, its size, in a museum-going community or not, starting off in during lean or boom years, has an experienced or inexperienced capital campaign team. Museums certainly should borrow and learn from other museums, projects, and planning processes–of course! But they should also borrow with a mind to the particular parameters of their project and community and adapt accordingly.
• The museum field has not only enjoyed a building boom but also has a track record of sharing its lessons. Insider insights into a capital project by a science center in the east are regularly passed on to an art museum expanding in the west and a children’s museum starting up in the south in conference sessions, blogs, and journals. Take comfort and take advantage of others having blazed the trail before and having insights others want. Reach out to leaders at museums that have recently expanded, renovated, or opened a completely new museum. Be respectful of their time and play this generosity forward and help other projects coming along.
• Preparation, preparation, preparation. Planning and preparation help develop shared expectations among planning team members, the board, across the museum, and with partners about the vision and what lies ahead. Understand the necessary steps, what needs to be accomplished during each, and who should be involved. Decide how decisions will be made and start learning a new vocabulary and terms. Implement and track practices that are helpful in guiding the discovery, wrangling orderliness throughout the process, and reinvigorating staff and board. It is unlikely a team can do too much preparation and planning.
Actively collecting resources to serve as a bookshelf for the project will be useful in navigating murky moments throughout the process. A dog-eared article may be the just-in-time information or needed perspective when facing a tough decision. Others' reflections of their experiences can bring comfort at a challenging moment. Sharing a blog post can lift a pesky question into the open for a lively discussion.
The following selected Museum Notes blog posts address some of the inevitable questions, challenges, and realities that surface in the long meander of process. How do we build support for the project? Should we start off in a permanent site or grow site-by-site? Who should our partners be? Can’t our audience be "everyone"?
• What Does Your Museum Make Possible? Every museum needs to think about and place a frame around its potential value to its community, visitors, partners, and friends. This enduring value can take many forms–from sparking extraordinary insights about the world to creating greater agency and competence among learners and citizens, to inviting joy. Articulating the hoped for benefits of a museum visit early on and identifying multiple ways to realize them will be helpful in a museum’s being recognized and valued as a community asset.
• Stakeholders + Engagement. “Stakeholders” is a term a museum might not think about early in its planning process. Stakeholders play a key role at every step along the way. They are partners, supporters, members, gatekeepers, staff, and board, and decision makers who can become friends. Thinking about the museum’s stakeholders, who they are in its community, and how to involve them in meaningful ways throughout the process will favorably impact the project.
• Vision with a View to Impact. A clear and powerful vision is necessary for the journey ahead. At the same time, a hard working vision is not always the first choice of a group setting out on a long, complex process and feeling the need to accomplish everything all at once. A hard working vision connects with impact and emerges from knowing the community, connecting the community’s and museum’s assets, and describing the positive change the museum believes is possible.
• Audience, An Area of Enduring Focus. Nothing is more central to a museum’s existence and aspirations than its audience. Understanding audience is never complete, but is especially key in starting up or planning for dramatic growth. Museums learn about their audiences in many ways: identifying primary, secondary, and emerging audiences; surveying visitors; analyzing attendance data; conducting audience research; engaging with the audience. This focus on audience serves to remind staff and board that the people and communities they hope to serve are the highest priority, at the center, and at every step.
• Vision, Process, and Position for the Big Museum Project. The earliest stages of a museum project are hard to visualize, but are truly formative. This period of exploration creates clarity around an inspiring project vision, a process that supports and delivers on that vision, and the position the museum hopes to assume in its community. This sounds simpler than it is. Everyone is eager to get going. Perhaps more challenging is how vision, process, and position entwine and interact with one another. Clarity around vision, process, and position is often what separates two equally ambitious projects from one another.
• Growing Site By Site. Among the most frequently asked questions from groups starting a museum is, “Should we focus on opening in a permanent site with the space and amenities we want or should we open sooner in a smaller site and assume we’ll move later? The question itself expresses the complexity and trade-offs in making a decision with far-reaching implications. While there’s no formula for finding the right site at the right time in a relatively simple process, some guidelines emerge from the experiences–successful and otherwise–of museums that have wrestled with this task.
• Planning Out Loud. Planning out loud makes a museum’s thinking, testing, and learning visible to itself and its stakeholders. Bigger than a prototype, louder than a focus group, and unfolding over months and possibly years, planning out loud uses long-term, deliberate testing of multiple aspects of a museum by engaging the community: from testing hours, staffing, and how much mess; to community partnerships; to programming schedules, and how to communicate with stakeholders.
• Unpacking Nice + Necessary. 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. Museums that are starting up or expanding will find it helpful to understand and articulate that they are nice and how they are necessary in ways that are meaningful to their community.
Good luck on the journey ahead!
Photo credit: A glimpse of the primordial soup courtesy of the Large Hadron Collider's Alice Experiments