Thursday, February 26, 2009

Guest Post: Rearranging the Fossils - Using Museum 2.0 to Get a Stuck Innovation Process Moving Again

This guest post was written by Ruben Huele and describes the scenario-based strategic process used at the Dutch Natural History Museum, Naturalis, to innovate the redevelopment of their permanent collection. Please share your own experiences with alternative strategic planning processes in the comments!

The new building of Naturalis, the Dutch National Natural History Museum, opened in 1998. The museum has a total floor space of 25,000 m2, and receives 250,000 visits per year. The permanent exhibition presents fossils, an overview of the diversity of the life and the large geological processes. Naturalis has a Camarasaurus, a Edmontosaurus and an enormous collection of stuffed animals. The museum presents changing temporary exhibitions, but the permament exhibition has remained the same since opening.

Early on, the directors had decided that the lifespan of the permanent exhibition would be about ten years, and in 2006 the first meetings on innovation were convened. However, in the meantime, Naturalis had been reorganized and trimmed into a highly efficient organization. The staff concentrated on museum operation and just did not have time, energy or brain space to seriously explore the challenges of a new permanent exhibition. The minutes of meetings held in 2006, 2007, and early 2008 reflect a hurried and rather superficial process. One would have expected signs of serious disagreements and fundamental discussions, but no signs of these were found. Assuming a development time of 5 years and a new lifespan of another 10 years, the new permanent exhibition would have to stay exciting till 2023, but the documents did not reflect vision, principle and priorities for the next fifteen years of Naturalis.

In this situation I was hired during the last quarter of 2008 to get the process moving. Apart from an earlier assignment to liaise between Naturalis and groups of citizen scientists, I had no prior experience with museums. I do have experience as knowledge engineer and conceptualizer, which basically means that I am used to working in fields I know nothing about. Uninitiated outsiders are allowed to ask dumb questions, which sometimes can elicit illuminating answers.

My main concern was to get the discussion out of the operational sphere, as issues there could not be separated from the immediate concerns of workload. After the reorganizations and budget cuts, no one had time to spare and any practical proposal was sure to get opposed by the one whose workload would be afflicted. The solution was to get impractical proposals on the table.

So I asked people to make up scenarios. Most people enjoy building a fantasy world. It is not threatening and seldom leads to changes in the short term, while at the same time it allows exploration of the possibilities of potential futures. It’s important that no one takes the scenarios as predictions or proposals. In order to avoid scenarios that are too simple or useless at a later stage, some strict constraints for the scenarios have to be set up, and these constraints should reflect the underlying dynamics of the institution.

To find the dynamics, or lack thereof at Naturalis, I set out to speak to everyone working there. This quickly proved unworkable, as the total workforce of Naturalis is more than 400 people. Still, speaking to people at the coffee-machine, during lunch and occasionally during meetings, I quickly collected views from many angles, including those of scientists, curators, attendants, designers, technicians and the PR department. From the conversations and documents within Naturalis, I divined some abstract issues that could serve as guidelines for the scenarios.

It should not surprise the Museum 2.0 blog readers much that the main guiding dynamics were Flexibility and Openness. Apart from that, the questions Naturalis has to face are how much opportunity it wants to offer the visitors for social interaction, how educational and how theatrical it wants to be. Scenarios had to be made on flexibility, openness, theatricality, educationality, and sociability. Those are the constraints of the innovation policy field.

Following the Museum 2.0 blog's suggestion, I had started a wiki (in Dutch) in the hope to fire up a general discussion on museum innovation. This proved not to work, though the wiki was useful to collect links, publish documents and generally store all kinds of stuff that might be relevant. The wiki did become more active when I started to organize workshops and asked participants to contribute inspiring images. After that, the wiki grew into a channel to accompany the workshops, supporting Nina Simon’s statement: "Wikis are great for documenting events with many parallel content tracks."

During the first workshop, participants devised scenarios following the internal logic of the constraints: museums that were extremely flexible, open, theatrical, educational, social, or not at all. The scenarios were used to explore the dimensions of these constraints. One group of participants thought up a museum based on 12 boats, 11 traveling around the Netherlands and one in the dock for refitting. Another group designed a museum following a magazine formula, having a new exhibition every month, with accompanying radio and television programs and degree-earning courses. Once started, the groups got more and more productive. They suggested a totally automated museum, with robots in the storage room, to be programmed by the visitor over the Internet before the visit, the result to be filmed and put on YouTube. A museum that went back to its roots as curiosities cabinet, for very exclusive (and expensive) experiences. A museum where visitors would come to design and build exhibitions, starting from shoebox theaters for children to whole rooms by groups of dedicated amateurs, with staff guidance if desired. Museums for groups of 60 persons only. Museums with a new exhibition every day. A completely dark museum. A museum where you do not pay for entrance, but contribute by measuring and describing a few objects. Providing images of objects for the screens of ATM's. Buying a train. Forbidden for adults. We had a lot of fun.

The second workshop tried to interpret the outcome of the first into more realistic guidelines for the innovation of the permanent exhibition. I followed a diplomatic approach. In the first round the participants could contribute options and in the second round one option was chosen. For instance, in the first round the sentence "Naturalis will [...] react to current events" could be filled in by the participants with options like "daily", 'monthly", "not", "sometimes', "only on the website" or "only for guided tours". In the second round, a decision was reached on one of the options by an auction, for which the participants were provided with 30 counters and a small plastic dinosaur that counted for 10. The highest bidder got the decision and had to pay, reducing his or her capital to influence following decisions. In this case, the highest bid went to "daily, in the museum and/or on a weblog".

The final conclusions that were sold:
  • Naturalis will daily, in the museum and/or on a weblog, react to actualities.
  • Naturalis will provide guided tours, courses and guidebooks on demand.
  • Naturalis will give the public an active role.
  • Naturalis will be a theater.
  • Naturalis will be physicallyvisible outside the region via branches throughout the Netherlands.
  • Naturalis will provide visitors planned opportunities for social interaction.
The item on education caused some haggling and ended up as:
  • Naturalis will always manifest itself as a educational organization, from primary school to university level, in a innovating and pleasent way, with as goal 60,000 student visits per year.
My assignment is now finished and these seven sentences are the outcome in its most concise form. They are now on the board's table as proposed guidelines for the innovation of the permanent exhibition. It will have to be seen if the guidelines will survive the coming board decisions. Still, the agenda has been set and a large group of people has been involved. Most important of all, the process has now become visible, especially on the wiki. Though the conclusions are not very different or innovative in themselves, the fact that now many more people are aware of and invested in them offers some hope that this time the innovation process indeed will continue.

Ruben Huele can be reached at Please consider leaving a comment here so everyone can be part of the conversation!

1 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

I loved the auction idea! Very interesting way to generate ideas and conversation.