Monday, March 16, 2009

The World's Best Museum?

"We want to build the world's best science museum."

That's what the leader of a group of board members from an emerging museum said to me several months ago during our first lunch meeting.

My immediate reaction was to start laughing. But because: a) I wasn't raised by wolves, and b) my consulting business supports my wife, and our four kids, I instead nodded, and asked, "Well, what do you mean by best?"


Silence and blank stares. It was like being in a meeting with an oil painting.

Finally, one of the board members cautiously said, "We'd like to have all the newest high-tech exhibits, but we want ours to be unique." Another said, "We think we should have an IMAX theater. But we'd like ours to be the biggest, so we could have a good PR angle to drum up more funding support."

I tried to redirect the conversation to get the board members to discuss WHY they wanted to start a science museum in the first place, to try to uncover and understand their passions about their soon-to-be (hopefully!) museum, but we just kept circling back to making the "world's best" museum --- and worse, the terms "best" and "biggest" now started getting used interchangeably.

What about starting a small demonstration site to get things started? No, not "sexy" enough. They "needed" to start BIG.

What about learning to build up internal capacity, so that staff and resources could be allocated to be able to create things locally, both internally, and collaboratively, with folks from local communities?

A new round of blank stares.

I could see this was going to end in tears, so I gently suggested that their project might not yet be at the stage where I could help them. This group seemed destined to be spinning this project around for years without it going anywhere.

I thanked them for the (soggy) sandwich, and drove off into the sunset.

Even though as a consultant, my brain is usually for rent, here are a few lessons I took away from this experience that I'm happy to share:

• You can't claim the title of "world's best" for yourself before you even start something (or even after you start something, for that matter.) It makes you seem arrogant and/or clueless.

When your visitors start telling all their friends to go to your museum, and better yet, start referring to the place as "their" museum, you will have started down the road to success.

• Start small, and build thoughtfully from there. It's o.k. to stay small in order to maintain quality.

• Focus on building internal capacity by investing in staff, training, and tools appropriate for your situation. Paradoxically, I like to teach museums and their staff how to "fish" (metaphorically speaking) rather than having them always feeling like they need to buy "fish" from folks outside of their organization.

Starting a museum is tough, but making sure your museum continues to improve and evolve after it opens, is even tougher. Good Luck! (and if you need help with a museum project that you would like to grow into being one of the "best" , let me know.)

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