Friday, May 21, 2010

Planning in a Perfect Storm?

A Guest Post by Elizabeth P. Stewart
Museum Director, Renton History Museum
Renton, WA
estewart (at)

Inside and the outside the museum world, people are arguing that this period appears to be the proverbial “Perfect Storm.”  Leave aside “the Great Recession” and you still have: the graying of the very Baby Boomers that supported the expansion of museums in the past 20 years; rapidly changing technology that has spawned the “Born Digital” generation, with radically different leisure expectations; and the emergence of a majority minority population in the U.S.  These changes have been sneaking up on museums for years, but the sudden necessity to do more with less makes them seem even more daunting. 

For a small history museum like ours—with the equivalent of three staff members and a budget less than $350,000—planning is essential.  As our environment changed, we watched our volunteer and member base decline, even as our visitor numbers were flat and demand for services outside our building—curricular materials, classroom programs, and talks—expanded.  Certainly our collection didn’t represent the diversity of a city in which students speak 57 different languages.  We began to suspect our exhibits and programs were also out-of-step. 

These were the challenges we faced when the Renton History Museum launched a master planning process with the assistance of Gyroscope Inc. Our planning effort began to unravel all these crosscutting challenges and map a sustainable path forward.  Gyroscope Inc. helped us conceive of ways to remake our operations from the inside out for a bold new future.  A few of the things we learned:

* Readiness for change is a precondition for planning, because the process can be so easily defeated by an insistence that “we’ve always done it this way, because it’s the only way that works.” Change is painful, but the planning process itself can help prepare your stakeholders for the fact that change can represent renewal (and maybe salvation) for your institution. 

* Take advantage of technology. You’re reading this on a blog, so you’re already convinced of the community-building potential of social networking.  But you may have to persuade your stakeholders to join in a virtual space to keep the conversation going and fuel interest and energy during the planning process.  Be prepared to patiently hold the hands of technophobes.  If you choose a site that’s simple and versatile—like wiggio or ning—and the conversation is compelling, the benefits are worth it.

* Look outside your four walls for community-wide challenges (and solutions). Our planning process revealed that organizations all across our city are struggling with generational change. The generation that had established many of the institutions and events around town was having difficulty letting go of the reins; at the same time, they themselves expressed fatigue with the work of civic leadership.  One of the solutions that emerged during our master plan was a new circle of giving, The Next Curve, founded by “the young and the young-at-heart” interested in learning about civic leadership.

Does any of this sound familiar?  I’d love to hear from you about how your museum is addressing your 21st century challenges.  In my next guest blog post, I’ll share the new strategic approach that Gyroscope Inc. helped us develop.

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