Recently, I've been wrestling a lot with the relationship between innovation and impact. I'm working on a personal project (slowly) to open a cafe/bar venue that is also a design incubator for participatory exhibits. My goals are two-fold: to develop a dynamic, creative, social platform for my community and to distribute its successful elements to other civic learning institutions (museums, libraries, community centers). The further this moves towards reality, the more I'm focusing on how I'm going to serve the people walking in the door and the less I'm thinking about my colleagues. My strategy is: make it work really well, research what works and doesn't, and share the design lessons with the world. If the venue is successful and we share our honest results, won't others want to adopt some of our practices?
Maybe not. I was recently discussing this project with an audience research specialist, Peter Linett, who is working on a related project to encourage experimentation and risk-taking in museum practice. Whereas I'm taking the "make it as awesome as possible and they will pay attention and want to steal the ideas" approach, Peter is trying very deliberately to create a structure that supports participation from diverse museum professionals and museum venues from the very beginning. My model is the shining star. His is the virus.
Which has more impact on your actual daily practice? I draw design lessons from outside models all the time, so "creative thievery" approach feels natural to me. There's a whole section of this blog called Unusual Projects and Influences. Whether it's an online game like Signtific, a tutoring center like 826 Valencia, or an educational event like Living Library, my engineer brain wants to figure out what makes these innovative projects tick and then tinker with those design lessons in my own work.
But I also remember the first time I participated in a RIG (Rapid Idea Generation) session with Julie Bowen, then of the Ontario Science Centre, at a conference in 2004. Julie got about 25 of us incredibly excited about their innovative three-dimensional brainstorming process. We loved it. And then at the end, when she asked how many of us could do this in our own museums, no hands went up. We all felt like the process was too alien to our work environments, too hard to sell, too hard to integrate. We saw that it was brilliant, but we weren't willing or able to make the changes so we could use it.
So that's one big reason innovations don't get integrated: they are just too foreign to our standard practices and work environments. That's an internal barrier--something about ourselves and the way our teams approach new ideas. But Peter pointed out an external barrier I hadn't anticipated: some innovations just don't feel "museumy" enough. Get a few museum exhibit designers talking about their favorite museums and some serious outliers like the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the City Museum will pop up high on the list. And yet, as Peter pointed out to me, if we love those unusual standouts so much, why don't more museums adopt elements of their practice? Peter commented,
I did hear from several people that the museum folks who loved visiting the City Museum when they were in St. Louis were quick to add, 'It's not a museum.' These categorical objections operate on assumptions that aren't really examined, and not just about educational values or the status of objects, but also about the personality and tone that define museums in some minds.I was somewhat surprised by this. I'd always thought that museums didn't adopt more of the fabulous outlier work because it wasn't decoded in an understandable and actionable way. That's why I required my museum studies students to carefully document their Advice exhibition--so that the learning from that unusual project wouldn't be lost and could be applied in other places.
But Peter suggested that places and projects that are fundamentally not "museum-like" will not have impact on traditional museums. This worries me because the implication is that no matter how successful my venue is at connecting strangers in creative and intellectual play, museum professionals will look at it and say, "that's nice, but it isn't a museum."
The further I go on my own personal design process, the less I care about this issue. I'm enjoying designing a place that I think is going to be successful and a hell of a lot of fun. I realize that it is presumptuous and a little silly to worry about field-wide impact. But I want to keep grappling with this problem, because my ultimate goal IS to make existing institutions more dynamic, relevant, and audience-centered. I'm not interested in creating a whole new set of institutions to replace or compete with the old ones. But I do want to start by pushing from the outside where the ground rules and constraints are different. I want to make a well-documented model to serve as an engine of new physical ideas.
I imagine that many of you who read this blog are interested in outside models for innovation in museums. What does an outside model have to have for you to be willing to take a risk and make some internal changes? Do you need research? Ticket sales reports? Does it need to take place in a venue similar to yours? How can I (or anyone) design a project that is both maddeningly challenging and incredibly useful?