Sunday, November 28, 2010

Month at the Museum, Part 2: Marketing, not Science

Kate McGroarty's month living at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is over. The young actress and teacher beat out 1,500 other applicants and spent 30 days exploring exhibits, participating in live demos, talking to visitors (both in-person and online), and romping through the museum at night. She blogged, tweeted, and Facebooked her experience for a crowd of eager followers. She learned that "Science is beautiful, engaging and just about EVERYWHERE." And she earned $10,000 for her efforts.

Now that the smoke has cleared, so what? What is this project really all about and what did it accomplish?

Month at the Museum was a marketing success for the museum. It got people excited about a huge and potentially impersonal institution by connecting them to a unique, highly personal experience. In July, Director of Public Relations Lisa Miner told me, "Under the past five years, we've undergone a lot of changes. This is a way to talk about those changes and all the things that happen in the museum." The goal was to "reintroduce" the museum to people who hadn't visited in a long time, and to do so through authentic, energized experiences of the museum roommate.

Lisa's goals were met. Kate's enthusiasm and humor made her an attractive spokesperson for the inner life of the museum. Her tweets, posts, and Facebook updates are uniformly upbeat, quirky, and riddled with exclamation points.

And it works. On her Facebook page, hundreds of people have made testimonials to how inspiring she is and how much they've enjoyed following her experience. Kate was able to put a personal face on a large institution. People were excited to talk with her online and then to visit her in person--something that's pretty much impossible to do with other museum staffers visitors meet through their web presence. I have no doubt that her efforts will bring people back to the Museum of Science and Industry and help people reconnect with what they enjoy about the museum.

Despite all its positives, I struggled with this project. Partly, I felt uncomfortable with the unrelenting Mickey Mouse club feel of Kate's posts. I haven't found a single negative or even complex comment about Kate's experience. It's all "totally awesome."

But my bigger struggle is based on a misunderstanding I had about what Month at the Museum is fundamentally about. When the project started, I thought it was about science. I had this mental picture of someone coming in and initiating unorthodox projects, testing hypotheses, and generally playing with science in a way that science centers don't typically engage.

But that's not what happened. Month at the Museum was a creative marketing project, not a scientific endeavor. The storyline of the experience was simple: girl comes to museum and is transformed by science. Lisa Miner told me this story before the project even started; Kate just substantiated it. In July, Lisa said:
This is really the best time to have someone move in and be able to really see the changes we've made here and ultimately the changes we make in someone's life. We've heard from a lot of famous people how they were totally inspired by this place--and that's just a single visit. What could happen for someone over a whole month?
I was a bit surprised that Lisa already had this fixed idea of the story, but Kate delivered in her final blog post:
How did one month in the Museum of Science and Industry transform me? I expected to come away from this experience with a new understanding and appreciation for science. The month has definitely lived up to that expectation.
I used to think that because I was more naturally drawn to the arts and literature, science did not have a place in my life. INCORRECT! The only person who told me I couldn’t love science was myself. Silly, silly Kate. And now I have a whole new world to discover for the rest of my life.
This is marketing, not science. Lisa and the museum team decided what story they wanted to tell, and then they found a way to tell it. I appreciate their success, but it is also somewhat antithetical to the scientific process in which you make a hypothesis, experiment, and discover the results. Science is about answering an unknown question, not telling a scripted story.

This prescriptive marketing approach to Month at the Museum meant that there were few surprises or plot twists to the thirty days. "Science can change your life" is not a new storyline for science centers and museums. Institutional marketing, educational programs, and exhibits constantly reinforce that message constantly. Instead of posing it as a hypothesis and seeing what would happen, Kate immediately took on the message, joining the museum team as a cute, funny new cast member.

I appreciate that this project is about marketing, not muckraking. But I wish there'd been a little more focus on the nuance of making science part of your life--the story behind the institutional message. I wish that Kate had been more of a scientist, experimenting with herself and her own attitudes, rather than a science communicator.

The Museum of Science and Industry has had a great marketing and PR success with Month at the Museum. Next year, I hope this gives them the confidence to be a bit more experimental--and scientific--in their approach.
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