All Our Suggestions

The traditional museum is a byproduct of previous generations. In the best European traditions, they became the arbiters of our cultural heritage — the shrines to the objects and values that we as societies held dear. They held our collective memories and were expansive libraries of ideas and objects.

The modern museum finds the past isn’t enough and is evolving in the face of a changing world. The values of our visitors are shifting, they expect new forms of engagement, and their needs are changing. And, while the soul of the museum is a constant, the ways in which museums and their staff need to engage has to emerge in new forms. These changes aren’t championed or lessened by a single department or idea but requires effort from across the entire organization.

One thing we know for certain is that change is a new constant.

What defines us and what should define us?

  1. Museums have collections, sometimes of objects, sometimes of ideas.
  2. Museums innately share those collections with the world.
  3. Collecting and displaying are separate activities although they absolutely rely on each other.
  4. Understand how your museum got here. It doesn’t need to stay ‘here’.
  5. Your museum likely has a building which has a history. Don’t fight it, feel it.
  6. Museums have personalities. These evolve and change over time.
  7. Unite around the organization’s stories. Specialize in how to present part of that story.
  8. Make it easy to share your collection and the stories behind it.
  9. Give birth and help your collection and stories through adolescence, but let them leave the nest through your visitors.
  10. Interact with as many different people in as many ways as you can. Your message is the same, the medium changes.
  11. Don’t just shout at visitors. Ask them to respond. Listen.
  12. Make visitors part of the experience. Ask them to participate in your ideas and stories.
  13. Museums are building relationships with people. And objects. And ideas.
  14. This relationship isn’t a one-time first date, it’s a lifelong experience. Treat it as such.
  15. Remember who they are, just like you would a friend.
  16. Aim to be a place of delight and wonderment.
  17. The museum experience is something that you help shape but you cannot control completely. It is in the minds of your visitors.
  18. The museum experience isn’t onsite, offsite, or online. It is all of these things together.
  19. Just as the world eventually embraced print, and radio, and television, so the world has also embraced digital.
  20. The tool of digital is new(ish), what it does is not.
  21. All of this new stuff is just one more form of communication with people.
  22. Create frameworks that let visitors do more with your collections and ideas than you can imagine.
  23. Every time you create a destination (a website, an app, a publication, an exhibition), build it on top of a service and use it as an example of what’s possible.
  24. Services should be aimed at incredibly broad audiences, destinations can be aimed at narrow audiences.
  25. Your content needs to have a permeability across devices and platforms. Digital is a red herring.
  26. If you’re doing digital think about how people use experiences not just what they do.
  27. No single digital thing is going to make it all work. It’s a collection of experiences and what you offer and what you enable your visitors to see, do, and experience.

Who are we and what do we have to say that’s worth hearing?

  1. The “institutional voice” is a fallacy. Your organization is a collection of individual voices.
  2. Individual voices should be heard and recognizable as such.
  3. Different voices talk  to different audiences in different ways.
  4. Your voices should have strong, distinctive, memorable personalities. Each voice isn’t going to perfect for everyone.
  5. Stop talking to the same people that you’ve talked to for the last twenty years.
  6. Voices come in many forms throughout the museum experience. Visitors will find the form that is best for them, assuming that you’ve given them choices.
  7. Your voices should talk in harmony, expressing different parts of the whole.
  8. The integration of two different forms of communication is stronger than two separate communications.
  9. Visitors will often talk back when asked, but even more so if they know that it’s desired and appreciated. Just saying ‘thanks’ isn’t a form of appreciation.
  10. Treat the participation of visitors as part of your collection. They are part of the visitor experience for you and others.
  11. Trust your visitors in the same way that you ask them to trust us.

Why visit us?

  1. Be a nexus, a gathering place, a home to your collections, ideas, and stories.
  2. Also go to where the conversations about those things are taking place.
  3. We are physical, emotional, and digital places. These things, working together and in balance, make great museums.
  4. Visitors are making the choice to come to you. Reward that decision.
  5. Visitors may enjoy being intellectually challenged, but they deserve to be physically comfortable.
  6. Let visitors take away a little part of you.
  7. Museums are a collective conscious to visitors. The experience with content doesn’t end at the edge of the building.
  8. Your experience is a fundamental the only  part of  your brand. Make it special again and again.
  9. Objects, content, ideas, and stories should always be presented contextually aware. Nothing lives in isolation and all are part of the museum’s experience.
  10. Revel in authenticity. It’s one of the things that sets a museum apart.

How can we be relevant going forward?

  1. Steal inspiration from other fields. Better still, partner with them too.
  2. The real world is already trying what you’re just thinking about. Learn from what they’re doing.
  3. If someone else has done what you’re doing better, draw that into your experience.
  4. Have an idea, a vision of what might be. Don’t just talk about it, find some way to do it.
  5. Take more chances. At worst, you’ll have to try again.
  6. Reading or watching someone else do it at their museum doesn’t help your museum learn from experience.
  7. How it happens at your museum will always be unique because you, your museum, and your visitors are different than them, their museum, and their visitors.
  8. Stop settling for “best practices.” They are “acceptable practices” at best.
  9. Your visitors don’t care what some other museum has done, what you’ve learned, what you’ve published. They care about what you’re doing for them right now, for them.
  10. When you start to forget about your visitors, they start to forget about you.

How?

  1. Measure your efforts. Assume that you will need to iterate. Do more of what works, less of what doesn’t.
  2. Don’t endlessly create experiments, prototypes, and pilot programs. They become excuses to not do the real thing.
  3. Do or do not. There is no try.
  4. Experiment with purpose, not randomly.
  5. Stop trying to say “yes” to all the right things. Start saying “no” to everything else.
  6. It’s better to do fewer things with a high level of quality than to keep delaying until it’s perfect.
  7. Create iteratively, these aren’t finish lines, just landmarks along the way.
  8. By measuring things, visitors can tell you indirectly what they like.
  9. Visitors rarely can imagine what they don’t know they need. Demonstrate the future to them.
  10. If your answers don’t fit your questions, change your plan. Do it early, do it often. Do it better next time.
  11. Ask visitors to come back by engaging with them.
  12. Lead visitors by showing them a path, not by telling them what to do.
  13. Visitors can do difficult things you just need to give them a reason and eliminate the stupid parts. Simplify experiences as much as possible; reduce friction.
  14. Not everything needs to be tested before meeting a visitor, but you need to be measuring it after it meets the visitor.
  15. Thinking of your visitors as annual visitors is small and short-sighted. Measure the relationship and interactions  in decades or, better yet, a lifetime.
  16. Understand that measuring some change and influence will take decades. Accept it and be aware of it.

Who will help us?

  1. Diversify your funding sources.
  2. Don’t be afraid to try new revenue models. Some will work. some won’t, it won’t be the same for everyone.
  3. People will pay for great experiences. It’s one of the best ways visitors will tell you that you’re succeeding.
  4. Earning money is not a bad thing. The better your organization demonstrates relevance and value, the easier it is to earn money.
  5. Similar things congregate. This includes donors. money, programs, participants, and ideas.
  6. People, whether they’re visitors spending dollars or donors giving dollars, love to spend on and give to causes and experiences that demonstrate value clearly and quickly.
  7. Your museum doesn’t have to be for everyone. But if it isn’t don’t expect “everyone” to help pay  for it.
  8. Your museum is definitely for someone. Agree who that is.
  9. The quality of food and experience in your cafe is more memorable than your exhibitions and collections, especially if it is bad.
  10. If you want people to stay for awhile, make it comfortable to do so. Rest areas, seating, meeting places, zen gardens, noisy places, activity courts, and food courts are all comfortable alternatives.
  11. Integrate those things into your experience, not as an afterthought. They should be a regular drumbeat, available every couple of turns.
  12. Museums are businesses, even if they’re non-profits. Learn how a business works.
  13. Your strategic plan covers the whole organization and draws upon the physical, emotional, and digital parts collectively.

How can we learn to succeed?

  1. Marketing/Curatorial/Education/etc is not your enemy. They’re trying to tell the rest of the world about your organization’s relavancy. Help them help you. You are all working for the same organization.
  2. It’s great to have an internal process — it provides some structure. Stop relying on it as a crutch to not think critically.
  3. Question more things, but don’t be an ass about it.
  4. It’s great to be right. Learn at a young age that you’re frequently not right.
  5. Nobody cares about the great things you did in the past, they care about the great things that you’re doing now — especially your visitors.
  6. Everyone in senior management was once part of junior staff. They got to where they are by listening, learning, and doing.
  7. People rarely get promoted and find great new opportunities for just doing more of the same.
  8. Young people aren’t full of good ideas about museums. But neither are old people.
  9. Periods of innovation and change are not something new. The changing bits may be, but not the idea.

What does “success” look like?

  1. Success in the museum world is not a zero sum game. Different departments and even different organizations have the opportunity to augment each other.
  2. Learn about the other disciplines in the field. Talk to them in their terms, and teach them yours.
  3. Understand the the difference between authoritarian and authoritive. The former is suicide, the latter is relevance.
  4. Museums demonstrate authority through engagement.
  5. Without visitors, why bother?
  6. Change happens. Get in front by trying things out and lead. Or, do what you’ve always done and lose relevancy.
  7. Experiment. It keeps you humble, and in front of visitors where you belong.
  8. There is no promised land where somebody has figured out how all these disruptive technologies “fit.” Waiting gains you nothing.

Continuing the conversation…

We plan on going into deeper detail on each of these points and welcome dialogue. We think it’s better to release this now while we continue to work, but anything specific point above that you comment to below will get pulled into a separate page for a more focused discussion.

Have at it.

13 Responses to “All Our Suggestions”

  1. Lynda Kelly July 2, 2012 at 11:17 am #

    Thnx for this most fascinating post. I would like to know a bit more about your group as I think that gives context to the discussion??

    • MuseTrain July 2, 2012 at 11:35 am #

      You’re welcome. We expect to discuss many of these points further based on our experiences working in and for a variety of different types of museums around the world. What do you think we’ve left out (without trying to be all things for all people)?

      • Nina Simon July 3, 2012 at 3:22 am #

        Who is your audience? What is the relationship you hope to build with us/them? It seems a bit strange to advocate for multi-vocal authenticity behind what could be considered an “institutional voice.”

  2. suse cairns July 2, 2012 at 5:51 pm #

    To interrogate idea number one, and go from there. “Museums have collections, sometimes of objects, sometimes of ideas.” Is it possible that any museum has a collection composed only of objects, or only of ideas, or must the two coexist by necessity? If the latter, is the phrasing of your first statement correct?

    • MuseTrain July 3, 2012 at 8:31 am #

      Some skew one way or the other, many have a combination. We just didn’t want art museums to not think about science centers to not think about zoos to not think about cultural museums. The important thing is that we have collections of some form and those are where our stories originate.

  3. bridgetmck July 2, 2012 at 8:28 pm #

    This is great, very comprehensive. I’d be wanting to see a bit more about how changes need to embrace changing environments/climates and to engage communities around ecosocial repair. But that’s just me! I’d also like to know who you are or if it’s intentional anonymity.

    • MuseTrain July 3, 2012 at 8:41 am #

      The anonymity is intentional. We didn’t want the conversation or perception to become biased because one of us might be a curator or a researcher or a technologist or an educator. We took inspiration from the original Cluetrain Manifesto and how they went about things.

  4. Andy July 2, 2012 at 10:35 pm #

    There’s some great stuff here, but one thing that might be a little more explicit is in the value of the collections beyond on-site or digital visitor engagement. Case in point are those at a natural history museum – trays of insects and jars of fish provide valuable data that help us to document, understand, and deal with our changing planet. Most of these objects will never be seen by public visitors – but the importance and impact of the specimens are global. The natural history museum is relevant going forward because its collections inform us on global issues in ways that nothing else can. I completely understand (and agree with) the fact that simply being a shrine to objects isn’t sufficient, but I worry a little that this list is rich on direct public engagement and weak on long-term preservation/study of culturally and scientifically important objects. Particularly for natural history museums, a healthy research and collections program contributes to strong, relevant, and interesting experiences for visitors.

    • MuseTrain July 3, 2012 at 8:37 am #

      We would argue that most museums understand their collections responsibilities pretty well — cultivation, curation, and preservation. Those that don’t are missing out on the things that give meaning to the stories that they want to tell in the first place. A solid collection, in whatever form, is the starting point for any of this.

  5. Lisa July 3, 2012 at 1:48 am #

    I specifically enjoyed the point “Collecting and displaying are separate activities although they absolutely rely on each other.” This is a point that, for a small museum struggling to maintain funding for their field collecting activities, cannot be stressed enough. There is sometimes a disconnect between research (which includes field collection and interpretation of specimens) and the final product (what the public see on display). There are no high-quality displays without research, and support for research comes from the public excitement over the finished display product.

  6. Mar Dixon July 3, 2012 at 3:27 am #

    Best: Question more things, but don’t be an ass about it.
    Glad to read it’s a living manifesto with scope for depth. Great starting point!

  7. Chelsea Emelie Kelly July 3, 2012 at 4:17 am #

    Extremely thought provoking. I’m really looking forward to see where this leads and like many other commenters, would love to know more about this mysterious group. I’d also like to eventually see an example included under the assertions of a museum/program that’s accomplished it well–not to veer too far into the trap of “best practices” but rather to have more concrete ideas about how it can be done. Or, better yet, perhaps a couple of contrasting examples for the same point–showing the diversity of how they can be interpreted?

    • MuseTrain July 3, 2012 at 8:34 am #

      You’re right, examples are needed. We’ll work to include those in future posts.