Sunday, June 28, 2015

What is a High Quality Museum?

How would you define "High Quality" in the context of museums?  It's a slippery term (like "World Class" which we've written about before here on ExhibiTricks.)  Every museum wants to be described as "High Quality" and "World Class" but what do those terms actually mean, in a practical sense, and how do you know when you truly have become a high quality organization?

What does high quality mean to you, or to the museums you work in, or visit?  

I was asked to contribute a short article (excerpted below) to the Association of Children Museums journal, Hand to Hand, about just this topic.  In fact, all the articles in the entire issue are focused on the notion of "High Quality."  The current issue of Hand to Hand is available as a free PDF, so click on over to the ACM website to check it out.  (And enjoy my "high quality" thoughts below!)

High Quality = Internal Capacity  by Paul Orselli

“High quality” to me means something of lasting value, something special that is meaningful over time and across generations.  And children’s museums—any museums, really—that can be described consistently as high quality are quite uncommon.

As a practical matter, the way to develop a truly high-quality children’s museum experience means having a clear sense of what you want your museum to look like two, three or more years in the future—not just two months after opening! That means investing for the long-term in thoughtful experiences, materials, staff, and expertise.

In my exhibit design and development practice, I ask museum collaborators two simple questions: How will you (the staff inside your museum, not contractors orconsultants) 1) fix things that break or don’t work? and 2) transform great new ideas into real exhibits and programs? If you can’t come up with credible answers to both questions, I’m afraid that not only will you be constantly racing to “put out fires” in the form of problems that could have been anticipated (as opposed to the many un-anticipated ones you’ll encounter) but your bright, shiny museum will soon become dingy and boring, not only physically, but in its intellectual and emotional spirit as well.

Creating a strong institutional culture of internal capacity is the key difference between a great museum and a mediocre one. Building and investing in this strong institutional capacity doesn’t mean that you work in isolation.  On the contrary, carefully understanding the strengths and weaknesses across your institution makes it clear when and where you need to invest time and resources. Those investments in time and/or resources can involve seeking out expertise in your local communities, sending staff to national or regional conferences or local professional development opportunities, or (gasp!) bringing in consultants to help build up internal capacity in other areas of institutional need. There are many choices.

What is not a choice is doing nothing. Because doing nothing will surely begin the slide from “high quality” to “who cares?” And is that the kind of museum you want to be part of?

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