Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Blueprint Book Club Part 2: Museums as Battlefields in the History Wars

This post is the second in a series of reactions to Blueprint, a book chronicling the rise and fall of the Dutch Museum of National History (INNL) in 2008-2011. This guest post was written by Regan Forrest, exhibition developer and visitor experience researcher at the University of Queensland in Australia. Regan was struck by the similarities between the controversy around the Dutch Museum of National History and the issues that surrounded the National Museum of Australia when it opened ten years ago. 

As someone who has worked on several “ground-up” museum projects, some that have made it to fruition, others not, I was particularly interested in the background context of INNL rather than the specifics of the planned museum. In my experience, there is often very little difference between the design and content of those that make it and those that don’t: it’s all about politics, economics, personalities and timing. A new national museum is a particularly ambitious undertaking, because what is being created is a highly visible and long-standing statement about national identity, national priorities and a projection of self-image to the world at large. Anyone with such a brief in this day and age has their work cut out for them. The days of the unidimensional grand narrative are behind us, replaced by ongoing debate and disagreement. It’s a far more complex picture to present.

The dismissal of the INNL’s plans as a ‘post-modern mish-mash’ (Blueprint, p219) immediately jumped out at me as something that might have been said in some quarters about the National Museum of Australia(NMA) when it opened in 2001. The NMA was a key battlefield in Australia’s “History Wars," a continuing national debate about how we recognise, teach and interpret the knottier aspects of Australia’s colonial past. The NMA was accused of presenting a “black armband” view of Australia’s history (i.e., dwelling on the predations of colonialism rather than celebrating national achievements).

Due to the political climate of the time, a review of the Museum was commissioned in 2003 to determine whether the museum had complied with the requirements of its charter. The 2003 review found that, while accusations of systematic political bias were on the whole unwarranted, there were considerable issues with respect to both the museum’s physical and conceptual orientation. Signage was inadequate and gallery titles were ambiguous and confusing. The outdoor courtyard was an ‘overwhelming’ expanse of concrete, with symbolism that was incomprehensible without considerable prior knowledge or the presence of a guide.

The review’s authors emphasised the importance of narrative (if not Grand Narrative) as a communication tool. In this sense, the NMA was deemed to have missed a trick. The linking themes and narratives of the museum were insufficiently explicit in many places, making the experience feel disjointed. In some cases, the lack of a strong collection to support the storylines emphasised narrative weaknesses. On the other hand, the review of the Museum’s programs was mostly favourable and the museum’s online presence was praised.

In response to the report, the NMA produced a Collections and Gallery Development Plan to address the issues highlighted. Changes to exhibitions and visitor orientation have been made, the museum’s programs continue to evolve, and there is a redevelopment to the building currently underway which will expand the public spaces and make it possible for the museum to display more of its iconic objects.

The history wars may not have ended, but they have moved on to other battlefields. Overall, the 2003 review recognised that the NMA was a work in progress. There was an acknowledgement that institutions need time and space to evolve. The expectation that everything should be bang-on right from the time of ribbon cutting is widespread but unrealistic.

So when considering plans on paper for a museum that didn’t even make it to the ribbon stage, some latitude is warranted. We don’t know how things would have evolved from opening day. How would the competing views of Dutch history have played out? To what extent would changing political tides have influenced the outcome? Would the interlocking storylines have made sense to the average visitor? Would it have captured the imagination of audiences? Would visitors have left feeling energised, or overwhelmed?

These questions may remain points of conjecture indefinitely. But if, as the authors hope, the museum eventually becomes reality, we may well have a chance to find out.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Blueprint Book Club Part 1: How Do You Create a Future-Thinking History Museum?

Note: If you have read the book and would like to write a guest post for this series, please contact me.

Imagine you've just been tasked with developing an innovative, future-thinking national museum for your country's history. Where would you start? How would you decide what to include, what tone to take, and how to present the material? How would you navigate the political minefields of such an endeavor?

Blueprint is the story of a group of people who tried to create a Dutch Museum of National History (INNL). In 2008, when this group was assembled, they had political backing, financial support, and an energetic approach to their work. By the end of 2011, the House of Representatives withdrew its political and financial support. The staff was fired, the digital projects divvied out to other institutions, the plans for the physical museum shelved. The Museum directors released Blueprint as a showcase for these plans. Still seething from the outcome, they didn't mince words; in the foreword, they state that "the rise and fall of the Museum of National History will be recorded as confirmation of a range of Dutch deficiencies." These guys won't be running for office anytime soon.

Blueprint is a maddening sketch of the museum that might have been, one that alternates between shaky and bold strokes. The majority of the book is a tour of the conceptualized physical institution, with smaller sections devoted to the political history of the project and the activities (mostly participatory, distributed, and digital) that the team undertook from 2009-2011 to start building their constituency. The root of my frustration with the book is not that the project never came to fruition. It's that the project, which was pitched as a whole new approach to museum-making, seems inconsistent. The media strategy is impressive. The early participatory projects are terrific. But the interpretative plan for the physical site seems incredibly ordinary.

The gallery and building descriptions make the museum sound like an early-2000s multi-media production in the model of the International Spy Museum, the Newseum, or any number of Gallagher & Associates or Ralph Applebaum creations. Immersive design. A mixture of chronology and thematic approaches. Hooks based on popular culture. Few objects surrounded by supporting media. Lots of screens. Limited interactivity. Starchictecture. There's nothing wrong with this kind of museum, but we've all seen several like it. It's hardly a model for an entirely new approach to museum design. There's barely a peep about the balance between exhibitions and programs, the role and use of public spaces, or the relationship between the institution and its communities. Beyond being media-rich and object-light, the plan has little to distinguish it from traditional museums.

In contrast, the activities undertaken to promote and launch the museum are truly inspiring. In three years, INNL created a series of fresh, exciting approaches to engaging communities with history. These include:
  • New Greetings From... - a national competition in which 8,000 people submitted photographs to represent the iconic image of the Netherlands. 
  • Freedomtrain - an exhibition about the history of liberation in 20th century Netherlands that was housed entirely inside a train that traveled the country throughout the spring of 2010.
  • Xwashier - a Foursquare-style mobile app in which people could encounter historic sites throughout the country and retrieve multi-media content about the history while onsite.
  • One Minutes - a film competition in which students and young filmmakers made one minute films on the theme of "where history begins."
  • National Vending Machine - a travelling vending machine that invites people to connect with everyday objects that represent various aspects of the Dutch experience and history.
Each of these projects is people-centered, invites meaningful participation, and interprets the idea of a national history in a novel way. I was surprised, shocked even, that the plans for the physical museum included almost none of the ingenuity I saw in these planning projects. The description of the building is a straight-ahead depiction of gallery content, with almost no discussion of who the museum is for, how visitors will engage, and how they will interact with each other. There are hints of innovation--mentions of a digital backbone, an individualized content delivery system, a few games, a central forum--but those elements are footnotes to long descriptions of push media experiences in highly themed traditional exhibition spaces.

What are we to make of the difference between what INNL planned for the physical site and what it created in the digital and distributed world? To me, there are at least three plausible interpretations of the disconnect:
  1. Their brilliance was inconsistent. The team was highly innovative when it came to new media and national awareness-building projects, but when it came to planning an actual museum, they fell prey to existing formulas supplied by architects, consultants, curators, and designers. They focused too much on the admittedly challenging question of how to reposition the content of Dutch history and not enough on the question of how to reposition engagement with it in a museum setting. A team that was superb at relevant, audience-centered work outside the institution couldn't find a way to bring their fresh thinking inside.
  2. The book misrepresents the effort. The team was highly innovative, period. The plans for the museum are not representative of what they actually would have built based on their track record. For the purposes of the book, they focused on discussion of the objects, the scenes, and the building, but in reality, they would have built something much more distinctive and in keeping with their activities to date. This perspective may reflect overly wishful thinking; I realize it does not align with the museum plan as presented.
  3. The planning activities were just marketing. This is my most cynical interpretation, and I assume it's not true. But there is a strange undercurrent of "brand building" that runs through the whole book, and you could interpret the participatory, experimental projects as marketing ploys to prop up an otherwise traditional museum. In some ways, I am impressed by the INNL's strategy to launch targeted "awareness campaigns" to "stimulate a fascination with and involvement in the history of the Netherlands." It's clear that INNL had a truly broad scope and multi-media approach to connecting people with history. But given the traditional nature of the museum's interpretative plan, I wonder if citizen participation is a strategy that they saw as fitting for digital/marketing projects, but not for the serious work of a museum.
Was INNL a project to build a future-thinking museum of national history? What's your interpretation?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Building a Culture of Experimentation

Note: the Blueprint book club will start next week. Sorry for the delay.

It’s not every day you find a prototype in the bathroom. Last week, I sat down on a toilet in our museum and found myself looking at an interactive station intended to test a “Legends of the Stall” sign concept for the restrooms. Legends of the Stall was started by a visitor services staff member, Katie Chrivia, who collaborated with interns and volunteers to develop the content and the design. I’d forgotten about Legends of the Stall, assuming it was ticking along in the background or pushed aside by the busy-ness of daily tasks. And then I found this prototype in the bathroom, put up without anyone’s permission, well-executed, and garnering useful responses. I peed, read the sign, and added my comments to the growing list on the wall. And left, smiling.

Rock on. Some of my happiest moments as a director come when I encounter awesome things in our museum that I had absolutely nothing to do with. It’s the pride of the “space maker” who enables other people to be risk-takers. I’m starting to really appreciate the difference between being an individual agent and creating a culture of agency. It wasn’t intuitive for me as a hands-on person. I knew how to do it myself. I knew how to do it with a team. Now I’m learning how to not-do it, but to enable it.

And increasingly, what I’m trying to enable is a culture of experimentation. We often talk about “change” or “innovation” as the goal for our institutions, but I’d argue that building a culture of experimentation is more important than building a culture of change. I’m not even sure a “culture of change” is a meaningful concept or one that could be sustained over an extended period. Experimenters are driven by the desire to try things out and see what works, to collect data, to learn from the results. They are open to possibilities. Innovators and change-makers may not be.

What does a culture of experimentation look like? For us, it means:
  • We feel empowered to try things out. My colleagues are responsible, caring people who want our museum to be awesome. They have the good judgment to know that putting up a prototype in the bathroom is not just ok, but a really good way to engage people with our work and improve the final result. There's no oversight or permission required because the activity is self-evidently in keeping with our goals and strategy.
  • We seek and value the feedback of others. Katie genuinely wants to make the Legends of the Stall as good a project as possible. So she asks people what they think. Across all of our work—exhibition planning, event programming—we’re constantly looking for ways to get feedback from visitors and colleagues. We’re constantly changing how and what we ask people so we get more useful feedback.
  • We ask questions that will lead us to action. Whenever an intern takes a prototype out on the floor, I ask her, “What might change about this project based on this test?” If she is not willing or able to articulate a potential change, it’s not a prototype—it’s just a model of a foregone conclusion. At the MAH, prototypes have to be used to test a hypothesis, or to decide among options. This becomes more and more automatic as people feel the confidence that comes with making a decision based on data instead of arbitrary soothsaying.
  • We feel comfortable with critique. This one is really important. Some experiments fail. Some exhibit ideas are lame. Some event components are dull. The more we put ourselves out there and live with the good and bad feedback, the more we see negative feedback as helpful to our progress. I’ve been happily surprised at how our team has become highly engaged in constructive critique while maintaining positive feelings about each other. I’m glad to see critical questions alongside the encouragement and recommendations on Legends of the Stall. That’s what pushes us to improve.
How does experimentation play a role (or not) in the culture of your organization? Or alternatively, what kind of culture are you trying to build, and what indicators reflect that?

Oh, and semi-relatedly, we're hiring

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Dangerous/Ridiculous: Reflections on AAM

Last week, I was in Minneapolis for the American Association of Museums annual meeting. As always, the conference was a party mix of inspiring and dull, familiar and new. It's one of the rare settings in which you can see glimpses of the past and the future all under one roof.

Here, in no particular order, are the things that energized me most:
  • "No idea is too ridiculous." Kathleen McLean led a terrific session called "Dangerous Ridiculous" about risk-taking in museums. While I'm always inspired by stories of how we take risks to make programming more relevant and dynamic (thanks, Lisa Lee and the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum), I was particularly struck by Kathy's thoughtful framing of the session. As she noted, it's fairly obvious why it feels risky to do something dangerous in our institutions. What's less obvious--and potentially, a bigger problem--is the self-censorship we perform to avoid doing things that seem ridiculous in the eyes of our peers. Looking silly, Kathy argued, is a barrier to experimentation. I found this idea really powerful. Interestingly, at my museum, our team is naturally better at ridiculous than we are at dangerous. Our curator writes labels about licking the art. I host dating games. We dance out our bad times. This session made me see our silliness as a real asset as we keep pushing boundaries.
  • Talking about money, openly. I led a session with Eric Siegel and Ellen Rosenthal on museum business models and some of the issues we grapple with in managing money. Ellen shared the brilliant work at Conner Prairie to make finances transparent to all staff. Eric talked about how the New York Hall of Science is trying to fund risk-taking, not just talk about it or under-resource it. And I talked about some of the challenges of finding the right income and expense models for a museum that operates more like a community center than a traditional cultural institution. It was terrific to have a packed room and a long, open conversation (we split the session into half presenting, half audience discussion) about these issues. Attendees brought up questions about how they can get more involved with financial discussions in their institutions, how we can change the ways we approach fundraising, how we can think about earned income differently. This was a topic I was never interested in before I became a director. Now I think it's really critical to all of us advancing the field and making our institutions viable. Here are our slides and Ellen's handouts if you want to learn more.
  • Merilee Mostov and the Columbus Museum of Art. This woman is killing it when it comes to developing in-gallery interactive experiences around permanent collections. Merilee and I were on a panel together called Museum as Prototype (my slides here), and I got that delightful jealous feeling seeing all the amazing stuff she's doing. Handing out paper hearts on Valentine's Day so visitors could put them in front of favorite paintings. Creating her own versions of classic board games like Guess Who? for the galleries. Testing, refining, experimenting, and doing it all with style. The lead photo on this post is from a project I saw when I visited last spring. If you are interested in innovation in in-gallery experiences, get thee to Columbus.
  • Viability of meetups. A couple of weeks ago, I posted on this blog that I was interested in meeting some new people at the conference. I was amazed at how effective this was--almost immediately, my schedule filled up with short, focused meetings with diverse individuals about topics I really care about. In particular, we had a great group of 15 talking about participatory history experiences on Sunday. I was also thrilled to see Michelle DelCarlo do a pop up "pop up museum" during the conference, advertised only through Twitter. While the content of any one meeting wasn't mind-blowing, the fact that we're now sufficiently technology-mediated that these kinds of informal, spontaneous events can happen is really exciting. Frankly, as someone who attends fewer sessions every year, I wonder how long it will be before there is a shadow conference of people who come to the city just to meet up around the edges. AAM (and other conference organizers) might want to think about how to embrace and engage these kinds of folks before they become seen as annoying parasites on the conference itself.
  • Participatory art and co-creation on the rise. The conversation about community engagement at AAM has evolved, and this year, it had a distinctly social practice/art bent. The conference showcased many fabulous projects--Flux Foundation, Open Field, Shine a Light, Create Denver--that support substantive co-creation experiences for artists and amateurs alike. It's interesting to me that this year's conference seemed so art-heavy when it comes to participation. Art museums may have been slow to come to this party, but those that do are coming in smart and strong. History and science museums... time to step it up.
  • Staying with friends. OK, this one is personal, but I was amazed at how wonderful it was to stay with a good friend, in a house, away from the insanity of the conference. We hosted a dinner party for diverse museum people, made pancakes, and reconnected at the end of long days. Not every city has a good friend, but this does make me think about the option of renting a house for future conferences. AirBnB might make it viable... who wants to stay in a houseboat next year in Baltimore?
What did you get out of the conference? What excited you? 

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Year One as a Museum Director... Survived!

Today is my one-year anniversary as the executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. A year ago, I put my consultant hat on the shelf and decided to jump into museum management (a sentence I NEVER would have imagined writing five years ago).

It’s been a wild and wonderful year—without question, my most challenging and stimulating yet. We went through a dramatic financial turnaround and redefined our relationship with our community through a series of experimental participatory projects and new programmatic approaches. We have come out the other end with dramatic increases in attendance (62%), membership (30%), and financial stability (priceless). We have new support from foundations and individuals who care about innovation in audience engagement—and even more importantly, participants who are excited to experiment with us. People are showing up, getting involved, and sharing their enthusiasm in droves. Personally, I’ve learned to work in whole new worlds, from fundraising to management to community development. It is incredibly rewarding work. I feel lucky.

I'm open to any questions you want to raise in the comments. In the meantime, here are some of the...

  • Redefining our role in the community. I’ve always been interested in the social mission of museums, and I feel strongly that the MAH will be successful if we are not only a great cultural or learning organization but a great community organization—one with compelling relevance to the issues that matter most in Santa Cruz. I’m proud of our partnerships with the Homeless Service Center, Second Harvest Food Bank, UCSC, the Chamber of Commerce, and other organizations that are at the heart of the Santa Cruz identity. I look forward to more strategic partnerships that support community development broadly in our county.
  • Just doing it. We didn’t go through an extensive planning process followed by deliberative, careful steps forward. We had a vision, a short list of goals for the first year, and an energetic (if underfunded) attack. Over the past year, we’ve developed several planning methodologies and approaches to our work—such as our exhibition philosophy and community program development process—and we did it iteratively through a series of experiments. We tried and tested and played and worked our way forward, and we’re still doing it. It is, as Kathleen McLean puts it, “museum as prototype,” and it is exhilarating, thoughtful work for all of us.
  • Using the F word. When I arrived, the MAH was incredibly close to the brink financially—we had less than one week of cash in the bank. In the early days, I would say to donors and to the media that the museum was failing and that we needed their investment and commitment to turn it around and thrive. This narrative worked well in the press—especially when we had early impressive results—but it was demoralizing and offensive to some of the staff and volunteers who had worked hard to deliver the best museum experiences possible in the years prior. Staff members led us in reframing our language to talk about the museum as transforming from a “traditional model to a 21st century model” instead of failing and then succeeding.
  • Conflating financial trends with financial position. When I came, I saw an institution that had a multi-year pattern of operating in the red. We had to reverse the trend, and I made drastic, immediate cuts and changes to cut expenses. Everyone made sacrifices. I thought it was the only option. We had layoffs and all remaining staff took 20% salary cuts across the board (which were restored over the following six months as we raised an operating reserve). Then, the turnaround happened faster than I expected, and I now see the situation a little differently. Maybe instead of thinking about needing to turn around the monthly cash flow, I should have thought about the net cash required to put us on more stable ground. If I were in this situation again, I might make the same choice, but I think I’d put more options on the table in the decision-making.
  • Not acknowledging enough the stress that comes with disruptive change. While I think I did a decent job communicating my vision for the turnaround and changes with staff, I did a poor job responding to the spoken—and mostly unspoken—stress that came with it. While effective as a tool for rapid change, “embrace the chaos” is not a comfortable management strategy. I credit everyone on our team for adapting and leading with extraordinary enthusiasm and optimism.
  • The central role of event-driven experiences. From day 1, I believed that we needed to focus in our first year on creating new participatory events to engage the community. My theory was that visitors would be introduced to the museum through events and then return for daytime visits to the galleries. Instead, we find that they do return—for more events. 85% of our visitors attend through events. Events generate media, focus public attention, and catalyze social energy. The jury is still out on how we will negotiate the relationship between events and casual visits when it comes to hours, pricing, and resource allocation—but this is something we will definitely keep exploring.
  • The cumulative effect of participation. I often talk about audience participation as a deployable tool—one among many—to enhance engagement. While I still think of it that way, at the MAH, we’re seeing some of the surprising effects of lots of participatory techniques all under one roof. Our message to the community about getting involved, coupled with policies that encourage flexible collaboration and stations throughout the building that invite participation is generating striking levels and types of co-creative activity in all arenas. It's comparable to the difference between a place with a few interactives and an interactive science center--it changes the way people engage and who comes. I’m not suggesting that every institution can or should move in this direction, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it in action and I’m struck by the distinction.
  • The speed and extent of the community response. We still have a long way to go to make the MAH the “thriving central gathering place” of our vision statement. But it’s kind of amazing how quickly our role in the eyes of community members changed. Visitors, members, donors, volunteers, and the media have been effusive about what they describe as the “new energy” at the museum. I didn’t imagine that would happen in such a short time frame, and I think it’s going to help all of us—staff, board and community members—continue the conversation about how to keep the energy going.
  • The possible determinism of cultural geography. I used to say that participation can work in all cultures and institution types—it’s just a matter of finding the right type of participation for that community. While I still believe this, I am frequently struck by how “Santa Cruz” a lot of our story is. Free hugs for new members, collaborative sculpture projects, fire festivals… these things could work in lots of places, but I’m not sure they would evoke the same interest, passion, and almost universal enthusiasm that we enjoy. I talked about this with international museum friends at AAM and they had mixed responses—some bought the Santa Cruz niche concept, others didn’t. Again, the jury is out.
Here’s to the coming year, which will hopefully be as full of learning, engaging, and experimenting as this past year. And more sleep. That would be good too.