Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Piloting a Powerful Tool for Museums

[By Justine Roberts]

Increasingly, our clients are less focused on a new larger building, and more on shaping their existing organization to better address audience needs. We talk a lot about how to manage this type of transition – after all, the organization has an existing culture, way of working, and audience expectations that need to be navigated carefully. We believe you need a big vision and a coherent plan to guide change (as evidenced here, here, and here). But change itself can happen incrementally, through iterating.

Piloting, or iterating can help you build credibility, capacity, and a track record of success.

By “capacity” I mean internal, operational capacity, as much as I mean fund-raising capacity. It’s hard to change from the inside out, but it’s a mistake to think that it is easier to close the old museum one day and open a new site the next with the whole team ready to go.

Museums are not retail operations.

The learning curve during a change process can be steeper than anyone expected. Piloting, even when it pushes ideas forward in one department at a time, allows the whole organization to ramp up slowly. One of the real advantages of piloting is that the learning process happens within a safe space, is contained, and can be treated as a prototype in which experimentation and risk-taking are the rule.

Case Study: The Big Open-Source Strategic Project, Connecting Communities to Collections

There is a terrific example of this right now at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago called the BOSS project. BOSS is funded by a 2007 IMLS grant designed to explore new ways to ensure programs meet audience needs.

BOSS takes a learner-centered approach in which community volunteers sit on planning committees with staff and co-develop strategic plans. As Melissa Williams, Assistant Director of Education, said:

You can make those calls for people, but its better when you are making them with people.”

In that spirit, BOSS brings community volunteers on board as full members of the planning team to design and implement new programs.

It’s still early.

BOSS is still early in implementation, and many key questions remain to be answered:

  • What are the mechanisms for sustaining new relationships with volunteer committee members?
  • Has this process changed volunteers?
  • Where can community volunteers have the biggest impact moving forward?

But Williams believes that the project has already demonstrated some key ideas. For one, Williams thinks BOSS is redefining what users expect from the Aquarium in ways that will enhance the organization’s long-term impact on users.

Internally the program has been a success, too.

BOSS project staff has embraced new ways of working, language to describe community relationships, and a new framework for evaluating programs. Williams says that the big lesson from the BOSS project is that “it’s about listening and collaborating.”

We are looking forward to seeing how the experience of this one project team continues to inform the culture of a large organization.

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