Monday, June 28, 2010

How many people does it take to make a new museum?

Our client, the Fort Collins Discovery Museum has revised their website in regards to the new museum project. We're thrilled by the fact that they're giving all the external players credit. It's also a great overview of what types of groups need to come together on the "outside" to make projects such as these happen:

One thing not mentioned is the staff at the Museum. They have been collaborating very closely with us; going out into the community, researching and co-developing the exhibits. They are a talented, cooperative and passionate group. It's such a richer project and process as a result of this relationship.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Most Popular Name

This is the second post in a series about the names of ACM member organizations.

By far the most common characteristic of a name for Association of Children's Museum member organizations is a reference to the type of place it is.  In the 2007 member directory 253 of these organizations call themselves “museums”.

The second most popular element for a name is a reference to audience; specifically children.  224 (of 310 total) organizations use the word “Children” in their name.

This may not be surprising - these are ACM members. But when I counted the number of times the two words appear together in a name as in “Children’s Museum” it turned out to be only 214. This means there are fewer instances of the phrase “children’s museum,” than there is of either of these words on their own.

When location is added to this, as in “children’s museum of ____” or “____ Children’s Museum,” the number drops again to only 165.  

So the name that I think of as forumulaic for ACM organizations turns out only to represent 53% of all members.  That is a majority, but it leaves quite a lot of room for other types of names as well.

So What Names Are We Seeing?

Many ACM member organizations, it turns out, are using key words like “museum,” “children,” and reference to their region in combination with other less common words. So, for instance, 70 of the 310 organizations refer to themselves as a type of place other than a museum – a “town”, “center”, “works”, “neighborhood,” etc.

28 use “youth,” “family,” “junior,” “child” and “kids,” rather than “children.”  Further, “kids”, the second most popular choice after “children”, shows up in a variety of inventive forms like Club Kid’doo, KidZone Museum, Kids ‘N’ Stuff: An Interactive Experience for Kids, Kidcity Children’s Museum, Kidspace Children’s Museum, KidsQuest Children’s Museum and Kidzu Children’s Museum.

Organizations are also combining location with creative words in their name. The Imaginarium of South Texas, Explorium of Lexington, and The Magic House, St. Louis’ Children’s Museum, are all examples of this.

This brings us to another important descriptor in many of these organization’s names: the visitor experience.  Some organizations use their name to highlight the type of activity they offer.  121 talk about discovery, exploration, imagination, wonder, adventure, culture, art, science and citizenship.  Of those, only 41 use “discovery,” while the majority focus on another quality of the experience such as imagination, wonder, and play.  This category includes some of the most fanciful names in the bunch so more on this later in this series.

Doing the Math

So looking just at the big categories then:
299 ACM member organizations that identify themselves as a specific type of destination
242 ACM member organizations that refer to their target audience in some way
206 ACM member organizations that include their geographic location in their name
121 ACM member organizations that describe what you DO when you get there

Monday, June 21, 2010

What’s In a Name?

These are all names of museums in the Association of Children’s Museum (ACM) membership. I have been in many discussions about naming with clients.  Since most of our clients are involved in a change process - expansion, start up or refocusing their identity and services - the brand and more specifically the name is often on the table.  When talking with clients about their name someone (ok, usually its me) points out that the word “museum” doesn’t resonate for all communities, and that our target audience is actually families.  If you take those 2 issues to heart, that usually leaves us moving in a different direction with the name. 

I have also noticed anecdotally that there is a surge of creative name-calling in the children's museum community.  But I couldn't tell if my observations pointed to a general trend and if so, whether there was a new "type" of name that these museums were moving toward.  

Review of ACM Member Names

To get to the bottom of this question I looked at the names of ACM member organizations.  I decided to compare 2 membership directors a decade apart. So I choose 1997 and 2007.  I spent some time sorting the names into categories that I could use to then organize the data and create a framework for analyzing it.  

I came up with the following five characteristics of names:
    1. Audience. Names that refer to the target audience, such as “children” or “youth”.
    2. Location. Names that refer to the city or region the organization serves.
    3. Sponsorship Recognition. Recognizing a major donor in the name.
    4. Destination.  Reference to the visitor center: “center,” “station,” “museum”.
    5. Visitor Experience. Verbs, or made up words based on adjectives and nouns, to indicate type of activity.
I charted out all the names, counting a name each time it fell into one of my categories – so many museums were counted more than once.  I was hoping one outcome would be that the really fanciful, whimsical names would pop out and that I could compare how prevalent that type of name is to a more literal, descriptive name.

This is too long for one blog post so I am going to split it up into a series.  The next post will look at the most popular type of name for a children's museum. Then I will talk about the truly made-up names I found, and then alternative strategies that organizations have turned to when nothing else seems sufficient.

I don't want to give away my conclusions but let me just say that I was really surprised by what I found and didn't anticipate the results of all that number crunching.  I'm left with more questions.  But that's the way inquiry is supposed to happen, right?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Across the Pond

We have been hearing a lot recently about the Museum of London handheld app Streetmuseum that let's users "see" historic views of the city on their smartphone.  Basically, with this app, you use your gps to layer an old photograph on top of the real street you are standing in.  It lets you carry the museum around in your pocket and makes it even more relevant - connecting in real time to your day-to-day life and questions.

Another site called history pin (beta only) is a place where users can upload photos, geotag them to a google earth map, and add stories about them.  Others can download these images and then have access to them on the go.  This app was developed by a group called We Are What We Do. They are explicitly trying to foster intergenerational dialogue with this tool as a way to build community, strengthen connections and create new ways to share knowledge and expertise.

It turns out that this new trend has been well mined by iphone developers and there are lots of great examples out there of ways to use it.  There are apps for finding restaurants, bars and wifi hotspots - some sponsored by corporations.  And then there are apps that help you make sense of the stars such as this planetarium in your pocket.

There are so many cool apps - one interprets the geological landscape, telling you what is an escarpment and what is an uplift, another tells you about the breeze you are feeling, another is a compass.  Then of course there are all sorts of games.

Given all the ways to use this technology on the go, we were curious about the added value IN a museum.  Clearly AR adds a layer of information and interpretation to artifacts and environments: real world elements are augmented by virtual computer-generated imagery.  Because of this, an AR device (handheld, or heads-up display eg) seems like one way to present layers of content in a relatively small space (unlike a graphic). It can also respond to different learning styles dynamically (unlike a graphic), leading to higher retention of the material.  It doesn't have to be a handheld that does this.  We could take this same idea and pull it into another kind of display.

So is there a downside or is this a win-win?  

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Interesting New Museum Project Preview

One of our clients- the Fort Collins Discovery Museum, had an interesting video of the new project developed by their local TV station. I like the inserts of the museum's co-directors walking you through the virtual site/space. They've taken our exhibit renderings, landscape plans and architectural images to make a collage overview.

Check it out:

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Museum Futures from the Future of Museums

The Center for the Future of Museums recently published a report called "Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums". It's a substantial tome which lays out the story for paying careful attention to who we think our audiences are now, and are becoming. "Majority Minority—What Will It Mean for Museums?" is a key section.

There is lots of thought-provoking and inspiration for budget-setting material in there. Take a look. We'll be posting from time to time about it as we review the information and balance it against our experiences -looking backward and forward.

Image source:

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Exploratory Science

While we're on the topic of supporting education, I thought I'd also post this TED Talk by Brian Cox. He is a physicist from CERN who is also a voicebox in the UK on explaining physics to folks.

It makes the point that the cost of exploratory science is... priceless:

"...for every $1 spent on the Apollo program, $14 came back..."

April Rides for "Equity in Education"

We're not late, we're talking about our very own April Banks, designer extraordinaire, who is also an artistLast Friday, she left on an bike trek across the US with school teacher Kelly Clark for We Ride, a campaign to bring awareness to Public Education in America.

Why you ask? According to Kelly:
"This ride is about sharing the message of public schools being the backbone in every sector of any industry. Public schools educate the majority of us. Public schools should educate us well. Public schools are essentially the last remaining platform where all citizens have the right to attend/participate without any direct ‘out of pocket’ expense. Public schools are our opportunities to create healthy, productive, safe, and fair communities. Public schools are our chance to help children, families, and communities build a happier world."
If you would like to support their work, you can make direct donations or buy cool tee shirts at:

Go April!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

For Love Nor Money

Clearly, the economy is still suffering.  And in some ways it seems that new shock waves from the initial crash continue to radiate out to impact non profits.  After two years of cutting back on programming and looking for creative ways to save operating dollars, I believe in the next two years non profits will have to reach for other, more structural, types of solutions to mounting fiscal pressures.  

My concern comes from the ways state and local governments are attempting to balance budgets.  Government spending on the arts, education, and on culture is down, meaning that fundamental changes - with big implications for how museums do business - are still coming.  Not to put too fine a point on it: Nevada has cut over $4MM from arts spending, NY is proposing a 40% decrease in spending on the arts, and a bill in the LA House tried to eliminate the culture and tourism department entirely.  This goes beyond the tragic loss of public libraries in places like Boston and Charlotte, NC.

Necessity is the mother of invention 

Or so we have been telling ourselves for ~2,357 years.  This year, arts organizations and non profits are in a position to innovate . . .or else.  With that in mind, here are some initiatives that are attempting to invent new ways of supporting non-profits, and new non-profit/government/private industry relationships, that might prove interesting and useful in the coming months:

  1. Starting this past January the New Brunswick Arts Foundation began offering the first ever city bonds for the arts.  There will be 5,000 bonds, at $250 apiece.  Their hope is that people who would otherwise not be able to contribute will see this as a way to participate, and to make their contribution count.  The program will run for 5 years.  Once the total $5M is raised, $1M will go into direct funding and the rest into an endowment. 
  2. In Columbus Ohio arts organizations have begun outsourcing PR to a centralized group that specializes in arts management.  This is entirely voluntary - groups like the symphony have cut back so far on operations that they can no longer effectively market, raise money, or handle direct advertising.  Their program is already cut to the bone so there is a need for back office help to rebuild. The balancing act here is to enable arts organizations to focus on their programs - which only they can design and produce - while not completely divorcing them from management functions that are less unique.  
  3. Two cities we know of are working on a new kind of donor circle to introduce new donors to the experience of giving to arts and culture.  Part of the issue in these communities is that the existing donor pool is tired.  At the same time, younger residents with money do not have a tradition of philanthropy.  Getting these folks together in a giving circle creates a social context for donations. The group can challenge one another, and others in the community (perhaps their parents?!) to support a cause they have adopted.  Working with peers is fun and motivates participation. 
  4. In some cases, corporate groups are stepping into the gap left by government, grants, and private giving.  For two years in a row, Daimler has hosted an evening to promote the arts.  They see arts education as driving "diversity, innovation and creativity" not just in business but for whole communities. The role Daimler has chosen to play goes beyond fundraising. They have established a partnership with Cranbrook to hang student art in their offices, Daimler employees volunteer in elementary schools on community art projects, they have an artist-in-residence program, and they are hosting panels to raise visibility for the importance of arts education.  

What does this have to do with museums?

How do these experiments in creating new economic models for supporting non-profits relate to how museums are thinking about financial sustainability?

In the survey we did of Children’s Museums two years ago, we heard that children’s museums were not generally engaged in major restructuring. With a few exceptions they were not merging in large numbers with other organizations. Unlike Young at Art they were not typically co-locating with other groups to share capital and operating expenses.  

When I originally read these results I was surprised.  In part because we have clients that are working on exactly these kinds of issues.  But these organizations are trying to solve a set of operational problems.  As I think more about the mounting need to invent new revenue streams I am seeing an emerging need for a different set of solutions: the problem has changed.  

I think we will see more museums looking at an expansion of services into new areas, and experimenting with hub-and-spoke strategies designed to reach into the community in new ways, or acting as an umbrella, a producer, and a curator of people, events, and opportunities rather than keeping all of those functions in-house, and the creation of new membership/rewards plans and other ways to raise money.  I suspect that going forward we will see more organizations innovating at a structural level.  

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Splinters from Green Design

Splinters from Green Design The Spring 2010 issue of the Exhibitionist features an article on the challenges of green exhibit design by Kathy Gustafson-Hilton. I was happy to be interviewed for the article and think it is critical to acknowledge the challenges of sustainable design in order to move from idealistic notions to a more sophisticated understanding of what sustainable exhibit design can be.

At Gyroscope, sustainability is a driving force in our design work. But we recognize the need for green strategies to be shaped by the specifics a project. Looking for the "perfect" green material (like interface flooring, which checks a lot of the boxes) leads to an impossible equation trying to balance carbon footprint vs economic impact vs resource management. Instead of focusing on these abstract equations we need to ask what the sustainable vision of the institution is and how (or if...) the visitor will experiencethat. 

This framework can serve as a structure for making difficult decisions and can also draw out opportunities to enrich the visitor's experience. There is an argument to be made that sustainable design in exhibits needs to be opportunistic and that it is only within the specifics of a project that "being green" can be realized.

I was inspired to recently hear Brenda Baker describe the new Madison Children's Museum and the way they have let their values and opportunities guide their design process to make what will be a truly unique place. Their commitment to the local community, and a tight budget, led to a decision to only use locally salvaged materials and and almost entirely local labor to design and build their exhibits. The flooring is from a local gymnasium, exhibits are made from local street signs, and there is an airplane found in a nearby forrest that acts as a table. I think they were offered the plane 3 months before their scheduled opening date - so the combination of their commitment and their creativity has been remarkable.

There are not many museums that are able to be flexible and nimble enough to handle this approach. In fact, there are not many BUILDING projects at all that can do this.  The Rural Studio has been consistently able to - but working on a shoestring budget and seeking innovation are in that program's DNA.

A unique physical plant that is a physical expression of the local community and also an embodiment of the organization's values, culture, and role in the community - to us, that's a great working definition of "green."