Friday, May 29, 2009

Everyone's Smithsonian: Video, Slides, and an Open Strategic Planning Process

Two weeks ago, I conducted a participatory exhibit design workshop with staff at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Between the giant squid brainstorming and experimentation, I gave a talk to the larger Smithsonian Institution about multi-platform museum experiences. I started from curator David Allison's suggestion that the Smithsonian is moving from being "their" Smithsonian to becoming "everyone's" Smithsonian, and examined the conceptual and practical actions required to make this happen. I tried to address the Smithsonian's particular challenges and opportunities while contextualizing it with lots of examples across different museum sizes and types. The talk was webcast and taped, and if you have an hour, please consider checking out the video. The slides are also available for download. Seriously, if you are thinking "should I read more or should I just watch the video?" watch the video. It's better (though it takes a bit of time to load).

In condensed text version, here are my three steps to being a great multi-platform organization:
  1. Listen to and understand what your visitors/users need.
  2. Confidently and clearly state your institutional mission, values, and capabilities.
  3. Develop relationships via any and all useful platforms that allow you to connect 1 to 2.
That's it. It's like an organizational game of madlibs. You have an audience need and an institutional value, and now you just need a verb that connects them.

The most important part of this is that 1 and 2 be as specific as possible, detailing both what is IN and what is OUT. Your mission should be an actionable measuring stick. You should be able to read your mission statement like a chapter of the Torah--exploding out its implications and using it as a kind of legal text for proper action. Every program, old and new, should be evaluated against the mission (and the business model) for soundness.

I used to think of mission statements as fluffy pieces of fakery. Now I feel like they are--or should be--integral to keeping institutions on track. If they are too flabby or meaningless, they don't serve anyone. The Smithsonian's current (and historic) mission has only one actionable statement: "increase and diffuse knowledge." I'm not sure that's enough to go on for such a complex and diverse set of research, education, and civic facilities.

I bring this up in part because the Smithsonian is currently undergoing a massive strategic planning process across many sectors of the institution. I sincerely hope this will lead to some actionable statements about what the Smithsonian is and isn't, which audiences they will prioritize and downgrade. There is no good strategic plan without a clear sense of what will be left out.

Admirably, the Smithsonian has opened up their new media strategic planning via a public wiki. They want your help, but they are also offering up what they are doing for the rest of us to explore. And if you don't have any serious scars from your own strategic planning experiences, it's a fascinating read. In particular, I've enjoyed digging into the workshops that were held on Education, Business Models, Technology and Ops, Curation and Research, and Directors. If you look at any given workshop, you can access the discussion guide (questions the facilitators thought were important for that group) and even more interestingly, a few participants' followup comments in an evaluation offered after the workshops. (Side note: three times as many educators filled out surveys than any of the other groups.) While most of the voices represented are positive about a "Smithsonian 2.0" future, you can also see the passion of different groups that feel underrepresented or unheard in the evaluation comments. I love that the new media team published these evaluations and responded to the individual comments. There's lots of content there that could be used as conversation starters in the next iteration of this process--whether at the Smithsonian or any other museum grappling with issues of how to integrate participation and multi-platform experiences into their institution.

Sure, there's a part of me that is skeptical that all of this may be a lot of meetings and talk for little change. I am an impatient person. I've always preferred working in small museums, where there may not be money but there is eagerness to experiment and the approval line is only one or two people deep. I get impatient with long complicated processes that require buy-in from hundreds of people. But the Smithsonian, as Elaine Gurian once wrote, is an ocean liner. I admire all the people who are trying tirelessly to turn it towards more open, inclusive shores.

13 comments, add yours!:

Robert said...

Watch the video. Great presentation! Good insights to know what people are saying about your institution.

Alan M. said...

Hi Nina,

I don't have an hour right now to watch the video, but the slides are fascinating, as is your post. My two favorite lines:

"It's like an organizational game of madlibs. You have an audience need and an institutional value, and now you just need a verb that connects them."
"There is no good strategic plan without a clear sense of what will be left out."

I'm left wondering: If you leave some "what" out, are you also willing to exclude some "who" too? That is, when you think about a museum's strategic plan, are you thinking about specific groups of people—thereby excluding others? ... I'm not saying this would be a bad thing. I'm just asking if trying to be all things to all peole is a strategic blunder—even for an ocean-liner sized museum like the Smithsonian, which might think it's big enough to handle everyone.

Nina Simon said...

Yes, to me the who (and the "who not") are also essential. For the Smithsonian, it's a particularly tricky political question. Are they for US citizens? For students? For researchers? While I think they can offer different things to each (and already do), they do need to prioritize audiences as well as providing different entry points for different constituencies.

Who do you think the Smithsonian should serve first? Who should they serve last?

POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) said...

Hi Nina,

I hope your talk gets Smithsonian folks to look inward as well as outward.

"Shifting" the Smithsonian (or any BIG Institution) seems to be inherently difficult because the real needed changes are the inside/cultural ones that are mostly invisible to visitors/outsiders.

Community involvement and responsive technology may be little more than window dressing without those internal changes.

The model of reconfiguring large public schools into smaller multiple (hopefully more nimble and responsive) "academies" inside one building seems like a good one to potentially apply to the Smithsonian.

(As an aside, the world's largest children's museum in Indianapolis "works" for me because it seems like a collection of smaller "museums" (rather than just exhibitions) under one roof.)

Can museums that are "too big" make those shifts?

Alan M. said...

I agree completely with Paul. Especially: "...the real needed changes are the inside/cultural ones that are mostly invisible to visitors/outsiders.... Community involvement and responsive technology may be little more than window dressing without those internal changes."

So how do you bring pressure to bear to encourage those internal changes? Is there any Smithsonian "community" (non-staff) that really cares about what happens to the museum(s)? I can't think of one -- at least not one that would commit time & energy to the cause.

Except if you pick up on Paul's other point: Museums within the system. The American History museum, for example. I'd assume Americans care about American history—since they ARE making it on a daily basis. The trick is the 2.0 challenge: We're observers AND participants; we're the audience AND the actors. History is a drama, and we all have speaking parts. But how do you persuade people that's true?

This may sound wacky, but I think what's needed is some form of guerrila theater -- small, flash-mob-like dramas that play out in the atrium of the NMAH, say, or just outside, which would aim to show patrons that the story inside ultimately belongs to them, and not to the Smithsonian. That American History is not a story that's told by a bunch of change-resistant museum curators (who are all good people) for our entertainment & edification; American history is the extended story of our lives.

Then again, maybe I just need some sleep.... :-) G'night....

M.J. said...

Re: "The model of reconfiguring large public schools into smaller multiple (hopefully more nimble and responsive) "academies" inside one building seems like a good one to potentially apply to the Smithsonian."

The Smithsonian already is a group of smaller units operating with the support of some central offices. We have 19 museums, the National Zoo, research centers around the globe and numerous cultural outreach programs that all operate independently. They each have their own scientists, researchers and/or curators. They all have their own missions, leadership, development staff and Web teams.

I think in some areas--especially when it comes to Web, digitization, social media, etc.--the Smithsonian actually needs more centralization. Centralization of some IT/Web projects would make money stretch farther to reach all museums, programs and centers under the Smithsonian umbrella. Centralization of development efforts would also help keep the messages we send out to Congress and donors more consistent and focused.

Kelly C. Porter said...

There is a vast difference between making something available (for instance the strategic planning process of the Smithsonian on a Wiki), and truly inviting collaborative or critical effort from beyond the confines of the institution and its close stakeholders. Lets be honest: the people most underrepresented by the Smithsonian are the least likely to involve themselves in this process. If real, rather than token input is desired, then those community sectors which the Smithsonian is 'for' will have to be frankly and openly vetted and then invited in more than a token capacity to shape the view and the character of the institution. Transparency is not equality; it is only a step in the right direction.

Perhaps I am tougher on this point then some, but most museums, particularly large ones, are too good at producing convincing, grant-writer-approved rhetoric about public value, outreach and democratization-- so good, in fact that they are able to convince even themselves of largely insubstantial initiatives to make their institutions about you . . . whomever you may be. While I'm cheering for every one of those efforts, my attitude is always that I'll "believe it when I see it." Very often these lofty oratories fail to bear fruit.

Anonymous said...

Nina: I loved your presentation - excellent! I am hoping it is okay for me to share some of the Smithsonian tweets in the presentation as an example of listening on Twitter? I will credit your blog, etc.

Nina Simon said...

Hi Beth - Absolutely! I think I have everything under Creative Commons on Slideshare... if not, I will get right on that. Please use as useful as long as you credit (and that goes for everyone!).

Victoria said...

Hi Nina,

Love this! It's very helpful. Curious about your process -- how did you compile and sort your Twitter feedback? Literally, did you put things in a word doc, a file?

Thanks! Looking forward to checking out the full video.

Nina Simon said...

I presume you are asking about the Twitter searches I ran to get the tweets which were shown in the slideshow. Here is my basic process:
1. use to search for my term of interest. In this case, it was Smithsonian, but I often use the advanced search to look at terms like "history" within a 50 mile radius of a target institution.
2. Set up an RSS feed for the results of that search. There is an RSS button in the top right of the Twitter search returns, so that's easy to get.
3. Check in on the RSS feed periodically, and "favorite" any tweets of interest. This creates a filtered list of highly interesting tweets that lives at and never goes away
4. When preparing a presentation, I consult the favorites and take screenshots of the ones I want to show. When I'm working more long-term with an institution, I'll also run data visualizations on the RSS feed of tweets about them to show them which words come up most frequently, who talks about them the most, etc.

I hope that helps!

Pam Rohleder said...

Hi Nina,
Is the video still available? I've clicked on the link and waited...and waited...but nothing :(

Nina Simon said...

Hi Pam,

Thanks for the heads up. I just replaced the link in the post with one that works: