Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Becoming Generous Thieves: Notes from the Museums in Conversation Keynote

On Monday, I gave the keynote at the Museums in Conversation conference in Tarrytown, NY. It happened at 7:45 in the morning, and I know that many of you were not there, let alone awake, at that time. So I want to share the thoughts that I offered to that intrepid early crew on Monday. You can also see the images I used, which were constructed with an extremely cool presentation software called Prezi, here. (For those who start drooling, Prezi will be launched publicly on April 5 and is pretty easy to use.)

I focused on two attributes that I think we should all be cultivating: greed and generosity. Greed, because creative greediness motivates us to hunt down and steal the best design techniques the world has to offer, and generosity, because giving those great ideas and applications away is the only way to change the larger cultural landscape.

I learned to cultivate creative greed while working on Operation Spy at the International Spy Museum, where I was lucky to be working on a project that was so new to us that we didn't have any pre-established models or structures for doing it. I spent a lot of research time learning how designers in related fields solve the problems we had developing Operation Spy: how screenwriters craft plot twists, how game designers build instructions into the game, how theme park designers deliver consistent, high-impact multi-sensory experiences. I approached all of these fields with one question in mind: "What can I steal?" What amazing thing is this designer or author or game creator doing that I can take a slice of and stick into my museum?

The question stuck with me, after Operation Spy, after leaving the Spy Museum. I started to apply it more broadly, to look around at my lived experience, find the great stuff and ask myself, “how can I steal that to make museums more amazing?” This is not to say that I don’t have confidence in museums’ core value or services. But I also recognize where we’re falling short. We aren’t reaching all the audiences we’d like to. We’re not essential parts of every community. We’re not even getting the finanacial and politicial support we’d like.

So my response is to be greedy, to look for the models I can steal from to try to tackle some of the challenges museums face. In 2006, I honed in on a particular cookie jar I love to steal from: the social Web. In the beginning, the Web was a lot like a museum. It had a lot of interesting, sometimes esoteric information. You could poke around and read things and click things. But then, just in this last decade, the Web 2.0 revolution came along, and the Web became a social environment where people could share their own content with others, discuss it, and redistribute it.

Whether you think this was a good development or not, the fact is that it changed the Web from a nice to have to a must have for a lot of people. There are college students who cannot make it through the day without checking Facebook multiple times. There are people using the social Web to organize protests, discuss deep issues, and build lasting relationships. There was a study published earlier this month by Neilson Research about the astronomical growth of social networks from Dec 2007 to Dec 2008. The fastest growing demographics are over 35. One third of Facebook users are 35-49 and one quarter are 50 plus. This isn’t just a change in youth culture. It’s a change that affects everyone.

I see this change and I want it for museums, so I study the models of how the social Web works and apply them as greedily as possible to my own work as an exhibit designer. I want museums to be like the Web. I want a college student to feel like her week is not complete if she didn’t make it to the museum. I want guys like my dad, boomers who are seeking meaningful connections online, to see museums as the physical place that support their needs.

Why are museums the right place to become the physical substantiation of the social Web? Because we’re all about niche content! We’ve got that wrapped up! There’s a technology thinker named Cory Doctorow who once said: "Content is just something to have a conversation about." This is a pretty threatening quote on one level. I think when lots of museum people express concern about Web 2.0, their fear is this—that the museum’s carefully created and protected content and expertise will be drowned out by the conversation. But I see this quote in a different way. Sure, content is something to have a conversation about… but it’s the ONLY thing to have a conversation about!

And museums have really good content--content related to the core interests of niche groups who aggregate online. And they don't just meet virtually. One of the interesting things about the social Web is that it has increased the ability for people to affiliate with strangers and meet up in person. This is what online dating is all about, but it’s also what sites like Meetup are for. There are groups of knitters and genealogists and airplane nuts meeting in coffee shops and bars to talk about the niche content they love. This drives me crazy. Bars and coffeeshops are taking our market share! Museums should be the place for that (more on this here)--for people to meet and share their love of culture, science, and history.

And this is where the generosity comes in. In the same breath with which we need to greedily steal all the ways that social conversation around content works on the web, we need to generously provide the real-world platforms for those conversations.

What does this kind of generosity look like? It could be offering a space in your museum for local meetups. It could be instituting a community process like the one the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle uses to invite community groups to propose and co-design exhibits on topics of extreme relevance to them in the museum. It could be doing something as simple as providing a blog about topics of value to your audience. That’s how I got here today. In 2006 I started to chronicle my adventures in greediness. In a small act of generosity, I made my learning a public act via a blog called Museum 2.0. And in about a million ways, that generosity has been paid back to me in spades. It was easy for me to be generous – I was already doing that learning anyway! In the same way, there are some easy ways for you and your institution to be generous. Think about what you have that your target community needs, and I’m sure you can find a match.

Two of my favorite examples of museums that found strategic ways to be generous are COSI in Columbus, OH, and the Wild Center in the Adirondacks of New York.

I've written about COSI before, but on Monday I focused on their strategic partnership with WOSU, the local public broadcasting station. By 2005, a bond measure had failed and COSI was struggling financially. COSI has a big building, and they had closed some galleries to reduce their operating costs. So partly as a financial measure and partly as a community development measure, they started leasing space to simpatico organizations. One of the most important of these is WOSU, the local public radio station. I don’t have to tell you how much news organizations are struggling to remain relevant—and solvent—in today’s economy. So COSI rents 12,000 sq ft of space to WOSU, which then has a digital studio and some public space to hold events and stage exhibits. WOSU programs happen at the museum, and they collaborate as partners to host other events for the growing Columbus non-profit and media fields.

You may not think of Columbus as the next Silicon Valley, but there are a lot of energetic tech startups and entrepreneurs there who are ready to convince you. COSI has become a literal, physical hub for the growth of these new businesses, and their partnership with WOSU makes them a powerhouse on the airwaves, with the mayor, and with the future engineers of Columbus.

Looking at it now, it may seem obvious. But this is a museum that just a few years ago was seen by voters as irrelevant to life in Columbus. COSI had a desperate need to raise money. The team saw that the only way to get that money was to be relevant to the community. So they were generous with something they already had, something that was plaguing them—extra space—and used that as the basis of a new fruitful collaboration. Now, they are relevant not only to their core family and school audiences but to a much wider audience of young professionals as well.

I don’t think of Columbus as a huge cosmopolitan place. But I understand that the majority of museums are nowhere near as big as COSI and do not have 12,000 sq ft of space just lying around. So the other example I want to share is from a small institution in the Adirondacks called The Wild Center.

The Wild Center has a small indoor exhibit and 31 acres of trails with interpretative material. They are open seasonally and have small visitation. But the Wild Center staff feel pretty strongly about the fact that the Adirondacks are a rare place in our country where there is a history of serious action to protect and preserve the natural environment. And they noticed that not enough people in the Adirondacks were concerned about climate change and its effect on both the natural environment and local businesses.

So they started a climate conference that focused on economic models for local businesses and governments not just to survive but to succeed in a world of climate change. Sure, they talked about the gloom and doom, but they focused it very locally on the Adirondacks and worked with local builders, politicians, and business owners to help them understand how reducing their carbon footprints could improve their towns and businesses. It was a generous action that was seen as neighborly. A local blogger celebrated:
Two years ago I was lamenting that no local public leaders were stepping up to the plate on trying to understand what global climate change would mean for the Adirondacks (and its ski-tourism industry) - thankfully, that has changed. The Wild Center in Tupper Lake has taken on the lead role of informing their neighbors about the potential impacts of global warming (such as the impact on amphibians), showing local builders what they can do to mitigate those affects, and organizing scientific meetings to discuss and assess the progress of climate change in the Adirondacks.

What’s greedy and generous in both of these examples? In both cases, the museums had a need—for COSI, to avoid bankruptcy, for the Wild Center, to be relevant to their neighbors. They looked around and found something to steal—a business model here, a free advertising channel there—and coupled it with something they could give—space and information. The things they gave were things that were needed by the communities they serve—really needed, not just nice-to-haves. And by providing a community service that was seen as highly valuable, both museums positioned themselves more securely in their local environments.

I encourage you to take these two ideas--greed and generosity--and use them throughout your work and life. When you listen to someone share their experience, think to yourself, “What can I steal from this story?” When you hear someone express a need, think to yourself, “What can I offer that would support this person?”

And if you find yourself sitting at a conference eating breakfast next to someone you don’t know, maybe you don’t want to go through the small talk and find out what their job title is and where they’re from. That’s ok. Cut to the chase. Ask them, “what's the most amazing thing you’ve seen recently that we could steal to improve museums?”

My dream is that this starts right now, this morning, with all of us. Form a crime ring with the people sitting next to you. It’s like Robin Hood. Start planning heists on the best thing the world has to offer, and start giving away everything you’re hanging onto for no good reason.

Make a list. Become a generous, greedy thief. Find the good stuff, use it like crazy, and tell everyone about it. I live a life governed by these two questions. I love being a creativity thief and giving my best ideas away. And I hope somebody will use them.

I sometimes think of museums as a kind of thrift store, preserving cast-off bits of material culture for new audiences to fall in love with. I buy my clothes from the thrift store. I like the idea that something that became extraneous for someone else can become the jacket or pants that I depend on. I want that for museums. That’s why they call it goodwill.

5 comments, add yours!:

MSLD said...

Creativity is a communal process. You can't create art in a vacuum. We all build off of what others have created, and the best artists build a platform that can educate and inspire others. The tough part is finding ways to provoke without alienating, to start a dialogue without being didactic.

Tracey said...

I agree with you completely on Columbus. For being a rather nontraditional "artist" sure has a lot of artists! It also has the perfect storm of universities, free thinkers, people who need to be convinced of the value of museums/art, and a certain lack of "busy" (meaning a more captive audience than, say, NYC which has a bajillion arts and entertainment options on buffet). COSI is a wonderful resource, and its great the WOSU has found a home there.

One complaint that I heard a lot as a young undergrad in the Columbus area was that the cost of admission @ COSI was too high, and therefore a "luxury" to be put off, where as going to Columbus Museum of Art on a Sunday is free, and the Gallery Hop is also free, plus exhibits at the Wexner and the universities/colleges are free. In this sill recession, it can be really hard to wrestle that $8 from a college student or a parent, no matter how excited or ready they are to go to and explore a really exciting museum.

Enjoyed the thoughts!

david chesebrough said...

Appreciate calling out what we are doing between COSI and WOSU--it is now the inspiration for a whole new @COSI concept where we share spaces now with a variety of initiatives and organizations to create a "center of science". Our concept is to anchor an interest with an "internal home" (media thru WOSU@COSI, innovation showcase, STEM education learning network, and next Labs in Life@COSI (research labs/activities in health, exercise) and provide settings and opportunities for gatherings. And we are addressing the cost issue w/more reduced rates, last friday night $7 for entire package of museum, films, etc.--while still filling our revenue need as an institution heavily dependent on earned income.
Your encouragement to share (steal and greed) so matches what many museums/centers colleagues are doing right now--we're experimenting w/new models and we'll only succeed as a field w/a rich sharing of the experiments and results. Thanks for helping the dialogue!

John Buchinger said...

Great to have you in NYS. You have inspired many of us to take up the cause of audiance participation and allowing for more voices in our worlds.

National Flower said...

Flowers museum is a nice idea...