Sunday, March 21, 2010

Dear New Museum Director

Now that you've been open nearly a year, and the "puff pieces" in the local media have died down,  I'm sorry to tell you that most of your visitors find the new digs, and the exhibits and programs inside, pretty underwhelming.

I'm even sorrier to say that you also paid way too much for your "architectural envelope" and "master planning" and "experience designers" at the expense of real exhibit prototyping, a thoughtful staffing and programmatic plan, and an ongoing remediation program.

Surprise!  The hucksters who shook you down for every last dime (and then vacated the premises right after they took all the photos for their portfolios) left you with the impression that the soaring spaces they created, and the flashy technology they scattered around the joint would leave every visitor quivering with excitement, and anxious to visit again and again with at least two new friends every time.

Even though the horse is out of the barn, I could tell you why** you ended up where you are now, but honestly, as an exhibits guy (who has helped open several new museums) and for your visitors' sake, I'm more interested in sharing the one main way of fixing your problems and moving forward.

But it's going to take a commitment from you and your board to make some long term investments in ... PEOPLE.

Yes, people --- that's the way to transform a shiny palace of mediocrity into a humming, active, responsive museum that your local communities will genuinely feel pride and a sense of ownership in.

As your admission numbers start to dip below the "iron clad" projections you were given, you'll start to panic and look for flashy, expensive band aids: a new 3D IMAX mind-blower that has nothing whatsoever to do with your mission or content, ditto on expensive traveling shows that have more interesting marketing materials than exhibits. But really you should be looking for ways to invest in PEOPLE.

Yes, people --- and the tools and resources they need to be happy doing their jobs and interacting with the folks who come into the museum.  However, it's not going to be easy to build a strong, responsive staff (especially since so many of the players who were involved in the development of the new museum have been let go, or just ... left.)

So, are you thinking about ways for recruiting and hiring enthusiastic front desk and floor staff who are empowered to make and implement improvements in the ways visitors experience the museum?  What about creative (maybe even a little kooky and risk-taking) educators who love working with people (instead of viewing visitor interactions as a "chore") and don't forget about a group of dedicated tinkerers to fix and improve your existing exhibits, but just as importantly, to help create new exhibits. (You do have an exhibits workshop, don't you?)

It would have been nice if the high-priced geniuses who sold you on all the other stuff your museum "needed" would have been more realistic about the "people" part of the equation.  But let's face it, would you really have paid attention?

So there you are.  There's lots of unrealized potential in your new museum, but you can't just hope to drift into that potential.  It's not going to be easy (or quick) to help shift the course of this ocean liner you've set into motion.  But you can do it ... with the right people.  Bon Voyage!

** (The "why" of how you ended up here?  First off, you're not a "museum person" or you're so far removed from what it takes to build exhibits, interact with the public, or present programs, that you got sold a slick "bill of goods" from your architects/designers/master planners. 

Don't feel too bad.  Part of the "skill" attached to the firms that live off these giant-sized new museum projects is in presenting a super slick, and expensive, package of services.  But shame on you, considering the dollars involved, for not digging a little deeper and going beyond the prepared list of references they presented.  I hope if you stay in the museum biz long enough, and get the chance to open another new building, you'll do it a little differently next time.)

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  1. As a down-sized (former) staff member of a major museum, I will add a loud AMEN!

  2. This scenario is too often true. But I wonder if you're being a bit hard on the designers here? (Full disclosure - I've worked mostly on the design firm side of things but am passionate about visitor engagement).

    Expensive design contracts are a symptom, not a cause (private companies can only ever respond to market demand). Perhaps you should have a long hard look at funding streams, which often actively prevent investing in people over capital costs.

    Regan Forrest

  3. @Regan

    I'm going to push back on you here:

    What exactly are expensive design contracts a symptom of? Overpriced, bad design?

    So should designers just "take the money and run"?

    It's hard for me to buy the "funding stream" argument --- if you spec an IMAX or planetarium you assume staffing. If you want to create truly responsive interactive exhibit environments you should assume for staffing there as well.

  4. @Paul

    OK I'll bite :-)

    I have no specific experience of Imax or Planetaria projects, I'm talking purely about major exhibition projects.

    And I'll preface that most of my experience is from outside of North America. However in my experience (in the UK mostly) it is WAY easier to get money for capital projects than it is for operational funding. Many funding streams specifically exclude salaries, so the only option to get a project off the ground is to roll the whole kit and kaboodle into the scope of works of a third party contractor.

    Exhibition design is often shoehorned into construction-style procurement arrangements which dicourage creativity. And designers often have to commit to a fixed price long before they fully know the ins and outs of the project, its opportunities and challenges.

    Designers can also only respond to the scope of works they are given, and give their best guess as to how much it is going to cost. I've seen very little scope to 'take the money and run'. Conversely, designers can very easily end up with their fingers burnt over a job that turns out to be far more than they bargained for.

    The point I'm trying to make is that good designers are trying to achieve the same outcomes that their clients are. So why are design firms routinely painted as the Bad Guys?


  5. Well said Paul, although I suspect that many times (not always) designers are simply responding to the unrealistic dreams of the museums they contract for.

    Dan Bartlett

  6. Well said.
    Those in charge of a new museum project get to choose which voices to listen to. Too often they are overwhelmed by the excitement of the slick presentation. But their funders are usually involved because the museum people showed them the slick presentation. The funders want the project to succeed. In my experience, when the museum experts are willing to tell them straight out how much the operational costs really are, or make a case that staff costs are a part of start-up, they will listen.

    Long-term success will never come if we give up on what is truely at the heart of our business -- PEOPLE.

  7. I enjoyed your comments. I have just gone through the experience of opening a new facility just a year ago. After not liking what we were getting from a design firm, the Director and I, with over 60 years of combined exhibit experience, convinced the Board of Trustees to let us do the design in-house. Seems to be a rarity these day. The glitz we put into the design was accomplished by a fabrication firm. Over all I feel that is was a win win situation for all involved. I'll just have to see how the second year turns out.