Monday, May 25, 2015

Rewind: The World's Best Museum?

Here's one of my personal favorite ExhibiTricks articles.  I thought it was worth rewinding as an  "encore" posting.  Enjoy!

"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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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Show Me, Don't Tell Me: Thoughts on ACM's 2015 InterActivity Conference in Indianapolis

I love going to the Association of Children's Museums (ACM) InterActivity Conference for many reasons. First and foremost, Children's Museums folks are FUN to hang out with!  Also,  InterActivity is consistently one of the most thought-provoking professional conferences I attend.

So here are some of my InterActivity 2015 thoughts for those ExhibiTricks readers who were unable to attend this year's conference in Indianapolis.

My main takeaway is that the most effective sessions and speakers were those that could SHOW examples or ideas, and trust the intelligence of their audience to synthesize and apply the ideas back at their museums, rather than TELL the audience how to implement specific ideas or approaches.

The conference started with a series of "Small Talks" (similar to TED talks) with short, impactful messages.  Three talks stood out, and each covered very emotionally-charged topics.  Leslie Lagerstrom from Transparenthood shared her experiences as the parent of a transgender child, and spoke eloquently about the value of inclusiveness in museums.

Erica Hahn's son Spencer suffered a stroke in-utero, and doctors thought he would never walk or talk.  But Erica, a single mother, used an access pass to visit the Children's Museum of Indianapolis  every weekend to help her son learn to walk and talk.  Erica's presentation finished with Spencer coming on stage with Rex, the Indianapolis Children's Museum's mascot!

The last Small Talk that really stuck with me was a short dramatic presentation by an actor portraying Anne Frank's father, Otto.  It was part of the programming from the Children's Museum of Indianapolis  exhibition called "The Power of Children."  Even though I have read Anne Frank's diary recounting her experience hiding from the Nazis, I was touched by this portrayal of her father, and reminded of Anne's optimism about people despite the hardships she suffered.

Of course, it wasn't all about tugging heartstrings --- I also got to ride in a real Indianapolis 500 race car during one of the evening events, as you can see in the picture at the top of this post!

I'll quickly share two less than positive experiences at IA 2015, and finish with two positive ones.

One session on Intellectual Property was a real disappointment --- definitely more about telling, than showing.  In fact I haven't encountered more whining and finger shaking (outside of a preschool classroom) in a long time. Plus an added bonus of jamming an entire semester of intellectual property law into an action-packed (yawn!) PowerPoint of black and white slides filled with nothing but legalistic language.  IP is an important discussion for museums, but could benefit from a range of opinions in a presentation on the topic, as well as showing specific good and bad examples.

The other "tell-er" not "show-er" was a keynote speaker on transmedia topics.  What started as an evocation of childhood memories of Star Wars, soon devolved into a commercial for Disney products and some really off-target suggestions for how new technologies could be implemented inside museums that betrayed a basic lack of knowledge regarding the day-to-day realities of running a museum.  It's not surprising that at the end of the talk the audience could not muster the enthusiasm to raise even one question.  A real bummer that a smart person with a potentially interesting topic couldn't land her keynote before a receptive crowd. 

To end on a more positive note, the session entitled "Using Research and Evaluation to Inform Practice with Exhibits" featured two of my favorite PhDs!  Lisa Brahms, from the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, and Robin Meisner, from the Providence Children's Museum, as well as their colleagues showed some great examples of museum exhibition projects benefitting from evaluation. Take a look at the website to dig into some of the reports featuring Lisa or Robin's work!

Last, but not least, I was delighted to share presentation duties on the session entitled "Material Matters: Thoughtful Choices for High-Impact Visitor Engagement" with Marcos Stafne (Montshire Museum of Science); JJ Rivera (Portland Children's Museum); and Reid Bingham (NY Hall of Science).  We showed how to take common Children's Museum tropes, like mini-grocery stores, dig pits, and block tables, and shift them through the introduction of new materials and environments.  Then we finished the session with roundtable discussions and playing with materials based on the the four topics in our talks. 

So InterActivity 2015 is a wrap!  Thanks so much to the dedicated staffs of the Association of Children's Museums, and our host institution, Children's Museum of Indianapolis , for SHOW-ing us the way to have fun with colleagues while thinking about how to move our museums forward!

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.

P.S. If you receive ExhibiTricks via email (or Facebook or LinkedIn) you will need to click HERE to go to the main ExhibiTricks page to make comments or view multimedia features (like videos!)

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Writing and Responding to RFPs: The Dance Everyone Can Do Better

The following summary captures the discussion at the recent Conversation hosted by The Museum Group (TMG) during the American Alliance of Museums conference held in Atlanta.  This post was jointly prepared by Carol Bossert, Paul Orselli and Barbara Punt to appear on their respective blogs.  A briefer summary will appear on the TMG web site.

The Museum Group, a collective of independent museum professionals, has a history of bringing together small groups of people at conventions such as the American Alliance of Museums, to talk about topics important to the museum field. Carol Bossert, a member of TMG and host of Museum Life proposed a discussion about the RFP process, a process used extensively over the past ten years to select almost every type of outside contractor from an exhibit fabricator to master planner and campaign consultant.  She was joined by Independent Museum Professionals, Barbara Punt and Paul Orselli, to frame the ongoing conversation.

Bring together any group of consultants and specialty providers within the museum industry and the conversation eventually turns to the ways in which this process is poorly implemented from organizations that give respondents less than ten days to respond to the RFP, sometimes over Thanksgiving or New Year’s, to organizations that neglect to notify respondents after the selection has been made, or require respondents to submit fully developed design solutions and then ask the winning group to use a competitor’s idea.  But the greater concern is what the effect this process has on creativity, collegiality and the ultimate products the museum produces.

The goal of the TMG conversation was to move beyond whining to clarify the issues and think about solutions.  In fact, “no whining” was a stated rule at the outset. Nevertheless, the conversation was lively and thoughtful, and all participants—thirty in all—shared information.

The RFP process, whereby a museum issues a request for a proposal from a company or individual to perform a certain task such as designing an exhibition or developing a multi-media program, has a patina of fairness:  everyone receives the same information and has the same time frame to present themselves.  Boards and donors appreciate a transparent, documented approach to decision-making, especially when large sums of money are involved.  Unfortunately, a poorly crafted RFP, one that does not clearly express what the organization is looking for, or a process that is handled badly, can tarnish an institution’s reputation, lead to poor decisions and undercut trust—even from the company that won the job!

So, no whining.  Here are some key points that emerged from the discussion in Atlanta:

Be kind.  Everyone understands that this process involves competition.  A museum makes a selection.  There will be a winner and there will be losers.  But just because the selection process is competitive, does not mean that it should be stripped of civility and the niceties of human discourse.  This means that the museum needs to treat everyone involved with respect:  answer questions, keep to the stated deadlines for making decisions, and keep individual responses confidential.  At best, contact the firms that did not win the competition and tell them why.  Many RFPs provide a point system for selection.  There is no reason why the scoring cannot be shared with all respondents.  Also, appreciate the time it takes for a company or individual to put together their response.

Do your homework.  While there are no current standards for soliciting and managing RFPs for the museum industry as there are for architects, engineers and construction contractors, there are some good resources.  The National Association for Museum Exhibitions (NAME) devoted an entire issue of the Exhibitionist, entitled “The RFP Process,” published in Spring 2007.  (The articles from the issue are available for free online along with templates relevant to the RFP process.) Talk to other museums and organizations whose work you admire. Get recommendations.  Limit the number of companies or individuals you solicit.  The broader the solicitation, the less likely the museum will receive useful responses which respond to their particular needs.

Know how to evaluate the proposals.  Slick proposals and jazzy power points are nice, but which firm knows what to do when the budget starts to creep up or the timeline expands?  What happens when there are bumps in the road?  Will you trust that group over the long haul?  Will you enjoy being with that individual or team for long periods of time?  If the museum says that it is looking for a creative team, then how will they know when they see one?  What is the criteria for creative?

Reconsider the RFP process as the only way to select the individual or company.  The museum business is a people business.  It is a creative business.  The RFP process does not reflect this.  Do not use the RFP process to solidify thinking.  If you don’t know what you want—and many clients don’t, especially at the beginning of a project—the RFP process will not clarify it for you.  Spend your time talking with people:  other museums, companies and individuals whose work you admire.  It can be better to hire someone on a limited basis to help you figure out what you want.

Know the lingo.  There are RFPs, RFQs and bids.  They are all different, and they all should have different purposes.

Vocabulary says a lot.  The word “vendor” automatically creates a divide between the museum and its consultants and specialty provider.  We are as committed to museum best practice as museums staff and board members.  We attend conferences, read articles and work hard to improve our practice.  Many of us have worked in museums.  We have areas of expertise that compliment and augment the museum’s resources.  It takes both of us.  We are partners, not vendors.  Similarly, calling RFPs contracts and[P1] /or throwing in a lot of punitive contract language creates an adversarial relationship from the start that is bound to end badly.

So how can we address these issues?

The museum industry seems to be the only industry without industrial standards and code of ethics that covers the solicitation and selection process.  As more museums look to outside companies and individuals for specialized expertise, there is greater need for standards.

Data. We need to analyze good projects and find out what made them successful, not just on opening day, but beyond.  We tend to focus on the horror stories, but what about the projects where despite the inevitable bumps in the road, the team worked well together and was proud of the product?

Communication.  We need to have more conversations among museums and providers.  We need to work toward partnership.

Feel free to contact any of the folks below to follow up on this discussion.

Punt Consulting Group
We manage projects of all sizes to ensure they are completed on time and on budget. Our holistic and proactive approach takes into account the totality of your vision, not just elements of architecture or construction.

Contact Barbara at or call her at (310) 937-3366.

Carol Bossert Services
We help organizations think through, shape and document the ideas and stories that form the foundation for remarkable exhibitions. We bring a systematic and deliberate approach to content research, development and label writing.

Contact Carol at or call her at (301) 208-0303.

And you can always contact POW! and Paul Orselli at or (516) 238-2797.

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.

P.S. If you receive ExhibiTricks via email (or Facebook or LinkedIn) you will need to click HERE to go to the main ExhibiTricks page to make comments or view multimedia features (like videos!)

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Rogue Sessions and Conversations: Thoughts on AAM 2015 in Atlanta

I always have conflicted feelings about attending the AAM (American Alliance of Museums) Conference.  In many ways, the event is too big and unwieldy, and filled with annoying logistical hassles. (This year was no exception!)  On the other hand, there are opportunities for meaty and interesting conversations with fellow museum professionals --- most of which happen outside the confines of formal conference sessions.

This year in Atlanta, the "outside the session" construct was taken to the extreme with a number of well-publicized "rogue" (not officially on the AAM program) sessions taking place at different venues during the conference.

As you might expect for someone like me, the rogue sessions and outside-the-session-box conversations form most of my impressions of this year's conference.

One rogue session I did not attend in person, but kept track of via the lively Twitter feed, was the one about "Museum Labor" put on by the Museum Workers Speak group.  Certainly the issues revolving around museum worker's pay and treatment are essential, if uncomfortable at times, conversations to have.  Hooray for MWS for holding this important rogue session!  You can check out a "Storify" recap of the topics and conversations by clicking here.

The Museum Group (TMG) has had a longer tradition of hosting off-site "conversations" during the AAM Conference.  This year TMG presented a full roster of conversations, and I was pleased to be part of one entitled, "Writing and Responding to RFPs: The Dance Everyone Can Do Better" hosted by Carol Bossert, with Barbara Punt as my conversational partner.

I'll be writing a more extensive blog post soon, in collaboration with several TMG members, on this conversation and the topic of changing the (horribly broken) RFP process, but for now I'll say that we would all be better off if we could strive for ways to make the RFP process both kinder AND smarter.

I also took part in an impromptu session sparked by Jamie Glavic of Museum Minute with museum bloggers and museum social media folks during the conference, and I came away feeling more than ever that blogs and other social media outlets are the connective tissue that supports important conversations outside conference time.

Paul Martin from the Science Museum of Minnesota and Polly McKenna-Cress from the University of the Arts co-hosted an "Exhibits Roundtable" session which proved to be both eclectic and spirited. I hope Paul and Polly will publish a re-cap of the conversations, but things I'll be thinking about more include: how to use (Big) Data to tell important stories and leverage emotions inside museum exhibitions, and why museums should piss people off more! (For example, many Science Museums have "No Guns Allowed" signs on their doors, so why not also have signs saying "For the safety of all our visitors, only those who have been vaccinated will be admitted.")

Lastly, all the "rogue" conversations during AAM helped me continue my thinking about shifting the standard conversation about museums and their institutional mindset away from "For Profit" vs. "Not For Profit" to "For Profit" vs. "For Purpose."  It might provide a way to move away from relying only on metrics like visitor attendance numbers as the primary way of measuring museum success.

Hmmm ... perhaps "For Profit" vs. "For Purpose" is a rogue conversation that we can kick off right now in the "Comments" section below!

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.

P.S. If you receive ExhibiTricks via email (or Facebook or LinkedIn) you will need to click HERE to go to the main ExhibiTricks page to make comments or view multimedia features (like videos!)