|Opening Day at Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota|
Opening day festivities are well attended. The new spaces are awe-inspiring; the exhibitions sparkle. Fundraising is virtually complete and the punch list has been pared to a manageable length. Systems have been tested and tweaked. Media campaigns have drawn the hoped-for attention. Donor and member events have been great successes. The rounds and rounds of prototyping caught the bugs early. The community discussions that inspired the vision for the big museum project still feel inspiring. Years of planning now seem like a blur.
Twenty years after opening day at the “new” Minnesota Children’s Museum (http://www.mcm.org) on September 16, 1995 these impressions are still with me along with the many lessons I was fortunate to learn about planning and opening a museum. Yet, as memorable as the planning and opening were, the following year and the lessons learned navigating it have been even more enduring. And I've seen these lessons learned over-and-over again in other museums since then.
The Big Lesson
Those lessons cluster around a single message. No matter how resounding a success everyone thinks and says the opening and new museum are and how amazingly well the first months go, the critical task is to retain and consolidate the gains made through the expansion and over the first months of operations.
This challenge also comes to mind now as I read and hear about recent openings at the DoSeum; the Thinkery; The Broad; the Mid-America Science Museum; the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County; the new wing at the Columbus Museum of Art; and the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota.
Whether doubling the physical footprint, building a wing for exhibitions, converting space for events, adding a large-format theater or opening an extensive outdoor area, a large capital project has changed the museum. The transition from planning to opening to running a new institution is one of both planned and unexpected challenges that can make consolidating the gains more challenging than they might seem to be.
Every new such venture is originally fueled by enormous passion and excitement. Working with a shared vision of a building, a fresh visitor experience, new amenities, and stronger exhibit experience makes coordination and alignment of the museum’s efforts relatively easy. Once that milestone has passed, however, the view ahead is fuzzier. The territory in which a museum now finds itself is new. Familiar signposts, patterns and benchmarks from the past are either irrelevant or in serious need of updating. The temptation is great to feel the museum has arrived and that efforts getting there have the momentum to surge forward. The first months or even year after opening, known as the benefit period, won’t last forever and, in fact, can disappear unexpectedly.
Along with the sense of enormous pride and accomplishment among staff, volunteers, and trustees on opening is relief and deep exhaustion. And yet, during any long-term project, a museum has cultivated partnerships, shared its aspirations broadly, actively invited the public into its life, and deliberately stepped into the limelight. The action is just beginning.
Retaining the Gains
Just what are the gains that need to be consolidated? During the course of planning, a museum has assessed the need to expand or renovate, made a case for support, cultivated community good will, projected attendance, raised funds, planned exhibits, developed new programs, brought on additional staff, set up new systems, and trained staff. From a new physical footprint to a new community footprint, it has quantified intended gains in areas across the museum and that the museum itself intends to have on its community. It has set new attendance targets and identified new audiences to reach. It has projected growth in expenses as well as revenue; set fundraising goals; structured admission and membership; added new earned income activities; and calculated economic impact. New exhibits with new themes, topics, and learner impacts fill galleries and require on-going maintenance and repairs.
Consolidating gains typically means capturing the lessons learned; stabilizing financially and operationally; determining where to work harder to improve on what works; shoring up areas that lag behind; making the most of available momentum; and recognizing new opportunities. The museum shifts from promises and projections to targets and tracking. In this period of time, the museum has an opportunity to operate and serve from a higher platform. To do so, it needs to meet some consolidation challenges.
• Develop new baselines for benchmarking performance in key areas. In a new, larger, or renovated building, old benchmarks don’t work. Because square footage, attendance, and admission fees change, ratios for tracking key financial indicators and performance necessarily change. To know how the museum is doing and how it can do better, new data is needed, as is the time for collecting data, observing seasonality shifts and multiple cycles, and comparing actuals with projections.
• Retain and support staff, especially key staff. With the expansion, the museum has added staff with new expertise while existing staff carry important organizational knowledge. Through training, the museum has invested in staff across the museum. The focus now is to retain and grow this expanded capacity during a period of transition. After a major project, people leave for various reasons. Temporary staff and contractors leave as work is completed. Permanent staff may be ready to move on, find a new challenge or change of pace. The same goes for trustees. Be kind.
• Engage the audience and community at a higher level and in targeted ways. Many, if not most, projects begin with community input to assess the need for expansion, generate programmatic ideas, and prototype exhibits and programs. During the long process that follows, however, there’s little feedback from audiences. Upon opening, a flood of audience feedback, good and bad, pours forth. At this point, a museum needs to make the most of this feedback; be responsive and connect with visitors; and reinvigorate its community engagement strategies.
• Focus on new opportunities to grow impact. Greater museum visibility, a sense of optimism, and increased capacity combine to catalyze new and larger opportunities for greater impact. A museum may enjoy a new position on the learning and cultural landscape, have a new seat at the table, or be able to set a new table around its priority interests. With an eye on delivering significant long-term impact, a museum should build on its strongest partnerships, work in areas of emerging expertise, and develop larger initiatives that align with community priorities.
• Become the new museum. Expansion has changed the museum. It is a new institution with a new identity created through multiple changes starting with its building, possibly a new location or name, and on-line presence. A new logo, brand, and perhaps name have been unveiled, differentiating the museum from its former self and other venues. Now is the time to fully inhabit the promise of the museum through guest and learner experiences, text panels, the tone and spirit of interactions with staff and volunteers, and everyday moments.
• Plan for a new future. The big museum project has been all about a new future for the museum, a future that has arrived and is already quickly receding. It’s time to rethink the museum’s future and get out in front of what’s coming next. Through strategic planning, a museum can reinvigorate its vision, look ahead, and build on the gains to generate new ways to better serve the community.