Thursday, February 11, 2016

Edifice Complex and Museums



Here's a quick museum business quiz --- answer true or false.

1) A museum can be too big.

2) A museum can be totally"self-supporting" financially.

Depending on your answers to those questions, you may or may not believe that museums (especially in the U.S.) have a serious "edifice complex."

That is, the blind belief that somehow merely constructing a GIGANTIC building, funded through a combination of hopelessly over-optimistic attendance projections and/or slightly dubious loan arrangements, will create a successful, sustainable museum.

Part of what brings this all to mind is the sad and distressing news out of Miami, concerning the Frost Museum of Science — a signature project at the heart of the new Museum Park downtown that has run out of cash before construction can be finished.  The Frost is not merely a project "too big to fail" but "too big to finish."

In an eleventh hour move, the Frost project will be finished, but at a wrenching emotional price to the museum --- the museum's namesake funders — Phillip and Patricia Frost — announced that they're going to bail out the museum with a bridge loan to keep construction going. But they also exacted very tough terms: they’ve effectively “fired" the entire current 41-person board of the science museum.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, I suppose.  Full disclosure: I consulted on the Frost project up until late 2015 and I really admire the creative team there.  I sincerely hope they can move forward and open the museum in a positive and sustainable way.

Unfortunately, Miami's Frost Museum is hardly the exception to the museum edifice complex.  Here's a short list of news story links to ponder in a similar vein:


Newseum

Museum of Jewish Heritage

Exploratorium (here and here)

MOSI (Tampa)

Science City and Prariefire  (A geographically-related pairing in my view)

Please Touch Museum (here and here)

The National Children's Museum



All museums with problems that could be reasonably tied to their (overly?) large new facilities or expansion plans.


I offer these links and examples not merely as a litany of pain, or a map to the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, but as a plea to museum and civic leaders:  If you think it is difficult to build a new museum, it is much, much, much, more difficult to create a thriving and sustainable cultural institution that is responsive to the communities surrounding it.

Maybe there is something ingrained in the American psyche and in the mindset of wealthy philanthropists that prevents modest, truly sustainable projects from moving forward when more grandiose alternatives always seem to be waiting in the wings.

Before completely despairing for the museum business, I'll offer the example of COSI in Columbus, Ohio as an example of an institution saddled (for a variety of political reasons) with a new building that was too large and unsustainable from the day it opened in 1999, that has managed to claw its way back (over the past 16+ years!) through, for example, a variety of community partnerships that involved sharing and leasing unused space inside COSI.  (You can read more about COSI's institutional evolution here and here.)


Like most addictions, edifice complex is probably best kicked if it's never started in the first place, but, lacking that, I hope museums will continue to be smarter (and smaller!) with their facilities and financial projections in the future --- especially given the changing demographics and expectations of cultural consumers.




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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Customer Service 101 from the Disney Institute


What does customer service have to do with exhibitions?

Everything!  

Even if your museum has the world's greatest exhibits, if visitors' interactions with staff are lacking, you will create unhappy and dissatisfied customers.  Here are some comments from a colleague's less than stellar experience from a recent family visit: "I was actually quite underwhelmed by the new museum. A lot of broken stuff: broken keyboards in Maker Space. Piece #9 missing in catenary arch. Floor staff talking to each other, looking at phones. Hey folks, hate to bother you but got a spare #9 in the back?"

OUCH!  My friend and her family couldn't use an exhibit because a piece had gone astray, and she felt like the floor staff didn't even care.  Interacting with museum visitors is a tough job that requires dedication and training to do well.  But many, if not most, museums don't have the staff or resources to provide high-level, consistent training in interacting with museum guests.

Fortunately, I've found that the Disney Institute (the part of Disney's empire that offers professional, business, and customer service training) provides a wealth of free online information with great tips about providing exceptional and memorable customer interactions.

A recent article from the Disney Institute mentions a number of their foundational principles regarding customer service, but one of my favorites that can be applied to museum (and exhibit design!) work is "purpose trumps task."

Disney helps their employees recognize that it is ok to be "off-task" if you are "on-purpose."  If you and your employees can anticipate the needs of your customers, you can far exceed their expectations.

A recent example from my own exhibit design work involved making an interactive for a small museum that seemed really anxious about the maintenance needs for a digital tablet component. During our conversations, I offered a low-tech alternative that both the museum client and project designer liked better, and that was less expensive on the front-end to produce, and less expensive on the back-end due to minimized maintenance and replacement costs.  I purposely listened to the museum client's needs and offered a collaborative suggestion that recognized their concerns, instead of merely completing a task that everyone had initially agreed to before I was brought into the job.

(Another fun example of being on-purpose is the story of "Captain Pizza" an airline pilot who ordered pizza for an entire plane delayed on the tarmac.)

There are many other actionable Disney Institute gems like "Listen Beyond the Obvious" and "Why Satisfaction is Dangerous" that can easily carry over to museum/exhibit/design work.

So click on over to the Disney Institute website to find some customer service tips that you and your staff can put into action.



Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.  And if you want to create amazing exhibit experiences that lead to increased customer satisfaction at your museum contact Paul Orselli and POW! today.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Creative Design Toolbox: FotoJet



FotoJet is a fast, fun, and FREE online app for your creative design toolbox.

You can use FotoJet to create a variety of collages (like the 3D image collection below) or other photo effects using your own images (or the easy-to-use FotoJet templates) and then save and download the finished images to your computer.



FotoJet even provides templates for various Social Media sites, so you can create headers for your Twitter or Facebook or Instagram accounts.



So click on over to the FotoJet website to see what you can come up with yourself!



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Monday, January 18, 2016

Money, Politics, and Museums



The intertwined issues of money and politics are on full display with the U.S. Presidential Campaign in full swing.

I can't help seeing parallels to the issues being raised by the candidates, and the challenges of museums.

Starting with money, of course.  In both cases, one has to wonder if the needs and interests of the "people" (the vast majority of voters, in the case of political elections, along with visitors and most staff members, in the case of museums) are being swamped, if not completely lost, by the sway of big money donors and funders.  Recent revelations concerning the sway of funders in exhibitions that touched on issues of climate change are disappointing.  There is no such thing as a "neutral" exhibition, so why do museums continue to claim otherwise?

Fortunately, groups like The Natural History Museum are pushing museums to be more transparent and thoughtful in considering the implications of who their funders and trustees are.  


Wages and demographics are two related issues in the political process, but also in museum operations.  Politicians (and museums!) seem to have any number of excuses for not being able to pay some of their employees a living wage.  Lucky you if you work for a Wall Street firm or in the Development Department of a museum.  Too bad if you are a woman art museum director, or are part of the front line or education staff at most cultural institutions.

Again, groups like #MuseumWorkersSpeak and Museum Hue are bringing forward issues of inclusion and social justice in museums.

More than anything my takeaway from all this is to try to call out issues to be examined rather than hidden or "hushed up" in the museum community.  Kudos to museum organizations like NEMA who are building their conferences around such topics of common interest to museum workers.  I, and the general public, hold museums to high standards, and consider them highly trustworthy institutions.

But let's continue to earn that respect as a field by not falling victim to institutional laziness or craven pandering to funders.

Onward!





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Sunday, January 10, 2016

What Makes a Museum "Special" ?



I've written posts about "special trip" worthy museums before, but I'm after something a little different here.  I'd like to tease out the specific qualities of what makes a museum (or museum visit) "special".

I've been thinking a lot about why some museum visits seem special and some don't.  To me, a special museum visit feels much like a memorable restaurant experience.  Even if you've never visited before, you feel welcomed, you feel like you are in the "right" place.  Every staff person you come in contact with seems legitimately happy to be there and to interact with you. As your visit unfolds, you notice little things, attention to details, that combine to create a positive impression.

So help me ExhibiTricks readers!  What do you think are the "ingredients" for a special museum experience?  Leave your ideas in the "Comments" section below, and I'll use the submissions for a future ExhibiTricks post.

THANKS!


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Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Look Back at 2015. Happy New Year from ExhibiTricks!


As the New Year approaches, the urge to simultaneously look back at the year past, and forward to the year ahead is strong.

So who am I to resist?  I thought I'd share thoughts about the three most popular ExhibiTricks posts from 2015, as well as three upcoming topics for 2016, because I think the half-dozen subjects neatly encapsulate important ideas in the museum/exhibit/design world.

Looking Back.

The hands-down most popular ExhibiTricks post of 2015 was Hayao Miyazaki's Museum Manifesto.
I think one reason this post resonated with so many people is that the qualities of a great museum, and great museum experience, that Miyazaki outlines are hard to put together, but when these qualities come together, something truly sublime and memorable has been achieved.  A great inspirational read.

Up next was an interview to get at the story behind Beverly Serrell's second edition of her classic book, Exhibit Labels.  One thing I took away from Beverly's experiences was that even "classics" and great museums need to find the ways to keep current while still maintaining their core values.  The ultimate looking forward and looking back balancing act in our business.

The third most popular ExhibiTricks post in 2015 was a thoughtful piece by Axel Huttinger (borne out a frustrating exhibits meeting!) entitled What is Innovative Exhibition Design?  I was happy to publish Axel's thoughts because they really helped me re-consider my own exhibit design and development ideas.

I think one common thread between Axel's piece and the Serrell and Miyazaki posts is the importance of articulating and keeping track of core values.  What's really important to you and your work?  How can you best share it with visitors and include them in the creative conversation?   It's too easy to become distracted by technological gimmicks or the latest trendy buzzwords (can we please stop "hacking" everything in 2016?) in our business.



Looking Forward.

One of my museum/exhibit/design "resolutions" for 2016 is to be conscious of the "core" --- the fundamental values that can (and should!) be guiding our work.  With that in mind, there are three connected topics I'll be thinking a lot about in 2016 here on ExhibiTricks:

Inclusivity ---  I hope to give Margaret Middleton and others the opportunity to share their work in making museums and other cultural institutions more welcoming to more people.  It's no coincidence that both #museumsrespondtoferguson and #MuseumWorkersSpeak were important hubs of conversation in 2015.

The Opposite of "Neutrality"  ---  the work of groups like The Natural History Museum to push museums to consider that board members and funders (and the perception of where funding comes from) belie the notion of being "neutral" presenters of information.

Physical Participation and Creation --- lastly, folks like Rachel Hellenga have been making great strides in creating situations for visitors to physically (not just digitally) participate and create inside cultural institutions.

The core values and aspirations of museums are solid, but putting them into action in an inclusive and welcoming way takes hard work, not just rosy mission statements.   I look forward in the year ahead to being part of helping museums live their aspirations through actions, and not just words.


HAPPY NEW YEAR! 



Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

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