Friday, August 3, 2018

Challenge Your Thinking, Change Your Museum


As a field, in an organization, and among friends, we tend to get comfortable with our thinking and our practices. This is who we are. We’ve always done it this way. We do that really well. That’s what we’re known for.

We say this about ourselves and our organizations, who our audience is, what our visitors like about us, and how we are valuable to our community. We look for evidence to confirm these beliefs. Sometimes we say it so often, that we believe it.

But when we think of thought leaders, people we admire, and agents of change, we don’t see people patting themselves on the back. They are not sticking to familiar scripts, comfortable assumptions, and cherished beliefs. Rather, they are asking bold questions; pushing limits; taking a provocative stance where it counts. They are willing to shake things up in favor of new possibilities, a stronger museum, and a thriving community. They are willing to challenge themselves and change their institutions to spark transformative change.

Can only just some people do that? And only in just some museums? Or is this something more of us can do? If so, how do we do it?

First of all meaningful change is not a solo act. Positive museum or community change depends on moving ahead with others. It depends on thinking and learning together, drawing on different perspectives, bringing in fresh ideas from related contexts, making hard choices. Heavy lifting is involved.

While a strong team is essential, bringing about substantive change can be slow and frustrating without guidance. A process like strategic planning can provide guidance, although as a process it is suited to focusing rather than expanding possibilities. On the other hand, a strong set of questions can move us beyond the familiar, push our vision outwards, and stretch our thinking.

What are some questions that are catalysts for expansive thinking? Questions that are open-ended; that sidestep easy answers; that run the gamut from a museum’s purpose; and that keep people at the center.

Below is one set of questions a museum might explore to challenge its thinking. Not surprisingly the questions intersect with one another keeping the inquiry rich and moving it along. All of the questions may not fit one museum at the same point in time. Some questions may be more have more traction with tweaking.

These questions, or a version of them, can be explored across a museum: in the leadership team, small group conversations across the organization, or at a board retreat. Over a period of time, shared work on these questions can embolden a museum in its purpose, help inspire trustees with the importance of their work, give staff a role in growing the museum’s value, and bring the community into the life of the museum. Capturing and sharing these conversations in notes, photos, reflections, and mind maps will enrich this process, making ideas visible, and putting them in play for a new future.

In what ways can our museum strengthen our community? This question is about a museum finding and inhabiting a visible public role and civic responsibility, one tailored to its mission and to its community.

Strengthening a community relies on having a deep, well-informed, and constantly updated familiarity with the hopes, promise and challenges of a community and its citizens. A museum discovers possibilities when it opens itself to what diverse groups feel is valuable, learns what matters across a community, and imagines where it has the capacity and will to make a difference. Greater potential investment in the community will come from considering multiple possibilities, articulating the rationale for action, and identifying benefits.

Helping a community fulfill its promise takes place over time, across multiple platforms, in small and large ways: community programming; providing space for, perhaps, an immunization clinic; or hosting civic events. The Worcester Art Museum linked its civic role with its community that has long welcomed settlers and immigrants to the area when it became a site for a naturalization ceremony in 2017, noting, “When we became the community, the community became us.”

Bristol Museum: "I Belong Here"
Whose museum is this? This question is about sharing power and expanding a sense of community ownership in the museum.

Increasingly, museums are aware of the importance of being for and of the entire community, not just for people who already feel welcome and comfortable in museums and who have always visited them. But for everyone. While building public trust and broadening a sense of ownership plays out differently in each community, the processes and the strategies are similar: engaging actively and often with community members; co-creating its vision with them, as well as with the board and staff; and cultivating inclusive relationships that lead to new conversations. The museum works to develop processes for reciprocal engagement, finding new ways for new friends and participants to bring the museum to life in their way.

Bringing a solid understanding of these processes, Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History has recently launched OFBYFOR ALL, a framework for transforming cultural and civic organizations to be inclusive and responsive to their communities.

What can our role as a leader in learning in our community be? This question is about a museum fully occupying a meaningful role around informal learning, and what that means.

Being a recognized leader in learning in its community may seem obvious for museums. Museums, however, often don’t see themselves in a role as leaders in learning nor do their communities. Schools are understood to be about learning that occurs through instruction. Formal learning, however, is not the driver of developmental change in early childhood, nor does it characterize learning occurs across the life span, nor has it been a catalyst for a community learning together. As places of learning through choice, exploration, discovery, and action, museums have remarkable opportunities for filling gaps on a community’s learning landscape, expanding local learning assets, and doing so in sometimes innovative ways.

In 2008, TheWild Center, a museum in Tupper Lake, NY, in the Adirondack Park began developing an indispensable role in building community. It convened a succession of dialogues bringing together diverse stakeholder groups to explore questions of climate change in the Adirondacks. This process of facilitating dialogue and developing consensus has moved the community toward climate action planning and shaped The Wild Center itself. 

Looking into Eastern State Penitentiary
What is worth discovering? This question is about understanding what is compelling, meaningful, and valuable to people in the community and what they care about.

Ideas for museum projects–exhibits, programs, initiatives–are typically generated from within the museum: director’s choice, curator-driven questions, donor interest, and, sometimes, public policy issues. When museums test exhibit ideas with visitors, they ask, “what topics would you like to see,” presenting a list of fairly standard topics: the environment, health, space. Visitors respond with what they think they should say. For meaningful answers, a museum needs new questions for community–not just museum–members. What is fascinating to them? What do they wonder about? What do they care about as a family?

When a museum invents or reinvents itself, it has an opportunity to find new questions for understanding what is fascinating, compelling, and worth considering. In the long-abandoned cellblocks of the country’s most historic prison, EasternState Penitentiary Historic Site opens up spaces to explore difficult questions about incarceration in order to deepen discussion around criminal justice. 

What happens at this museum? What’s it about? This question is about understanding what the museum makes possible for its visitors and community.

In their values and brand statements, museums work to express what they want to promote. Their websites, banners, and e-blasts promote their content (science, contemporary art, natural history); their products (exhibits, collections, films); and their particular story (the oldest, biggest museum).

But how do the visitors experience the museum? How do they describe what actually matters to them in their lives–and in their words? When 6-year old Michael left Minnesota Children’s Museum after a long afternoon of exploring, he wondered, “Why is this a place where you can do things?” Clearly, this was an expression of delight. It was also a fundamental expression of what happened for Michael in the museum. Simply because a museum says so, it is not necessarily about hands-on activities, family learning, or ancient art. Rather, a museum is a place where people feel good about meeting and connecting with others; where they can be who they are; where they are inspired to consider courageous questions and take action because that's what happens in a meaningful way for them.

In what ways can our museum encourage and extend meaningful interactions and connections among people and out into the community? This question is about creating and supporting interactions that reach out in multiple directions, across time, space, and people.

As social spaces, with design expertise, intriguing objects, and large numbers of people, museums have a great opportunity to create meaningful ways for visitors and community members to gather, interact, and connect. An interest in designing winter sports gear may be sparked by a visitor’s interaction with a visiting scientist explaining the physics of sliding on ice. A docent’s story about the struggles of a family who lived in these small rooms may inspire someone to work resettling immigrants. A connection with a community resource may come from an incidental conversation with a parent about their child’s developmental challenges.

Museums forge many new possibilities by bringing people together through placemaking, events, activities and services. They create connections that last beyond an initial purpose or encounter that ripple out into the everyday world. A group of dads met at the science center for children where they went on weekends with their preschool-aged children. After casually bumping into each other several times, they started planning on meeting there regularly. During the 1970's, 3 women volunteered weekly at The Milwaukee Public Museum. For 13 years they worked in Research & Collections. Into their mid 90's, those weekly visits remained vivid, pleasant memories for them. Connections generated by a museum can be more far reaching than we imagine.

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