What Makes A "High Quality" Museum?
How would you define "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?
“High quality” to me means something of lasting value, something special that is meaningful over time and across generations. And museums that can be described consistently as high quality are quite uncommon.
What does high quality mean to you, or to the museums you work in or visit?
I'd say that all "high quality" museums have a strong capacity to create programs and exhibits internally. Not necessarily everything, but many things. High-quality museums know their strengths and build upon them. Great museums also know what their weaknesses are, and where to look for help in those areas.
High Quality = Internal Capacity
As a practical matter, the way to develop a truly high-quality 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, staff, and expertise. ("Invest in staff, not stuff!" as Jane Werner might say.)
In my exhibit design and development practice, I often ask museum collaborators two simple questions: How will you (the staff inside your museum, not contractors or consultants) 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 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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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul is an instigator, in the best sense of that word. He likes to mix up interesting people, ideas, and materials to make both individual museum exhibits and entire museums with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.)
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