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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