Many of the posts in this New York History Blog report on new exhibits, public programs, outreach to schools, and other initiatives. This variety of initiatives reflects the fact that here in New York we have some of the most progressive, innovative programs in the nation.
But are there really any new ideas out there – new ways of looking at and carrying out our mission as historical societies, history museums, and other public history programs?
There may be something new or at least novel, in a package of ideas with names like entrepreneurial management, design thinking, lean startup, and agile design. These are adapted mostly from business management techniques. You can get an overview from the American Association of Museums’ Trendswatch 2017 (you need to provide your name, job title, organization, and e-mail to download the report now; it will be fully available online and in paper form later this year); an article “Failing Toward Success” in the March/April issue of AAM’s Museum magazine; Stanford University’s d [Design] School’s Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking; and the website Design Thinking for Museums.
Some features of this emerging way of approaching our work:
- Look to progressive enterprises beyond the public history arena for ideas we can adopt and use. For instance, consider, modify, and adapt good ideas about world-class customer experiences from companies such as Disneyworld, the Ritz Carlton, and Southwest Airlines; about customer responsiveness from companies such as Starbucks and P&G; and about design and progressive change amidst rapidly-changing circumstances from Apple, Amazon, IDEO, and others.
- Much of the new thinking is user or customer-centric. It focuses on connecting with users on a deep, even emotional level, recognizing that for younger people in particular, it is often about me, my experience, my interest. Museums in particular are recognized by the public as authentic, trustworthy places. But we need to provide vivid, engaging experiences for visitors. It also means that some of their information needs to be available “anytime, anywhere” on the web, accessible by mobile phones and other mobile devices.
- Museums, historical societies, and other similar programs welcome all visitors. But resource constraints mean that they have to set priorities in deciding what groups they most want to attract. This may include getting more of their current visitors or users, or reaching out to new groups. A helpful way of doing this is to analyze and profile audience groups — their interests, concerns, media usage, barriers to participation, what they want from our program, etc. An American Association of Museums’ report Demographic Transformation and the Future of Museums provides some helpful insights into the demographics of museum visitorship. An interesting study from an entirely different venue, Rotterdam in the Netherlands, is an example of profiling various groups’ preferences for cultural exhibits and festivals.
- Engage users in soliciting and developing ideas for new initiatives and programs.
- Instead of, or in addition to, our frequently used approach of coming up with major new program initiatives, try “small bets” — small, controlled experiments to introduce innovative design and try out things on a small scale (which also means small investment of time and resources), test them as experimental prototypes, and if they work, scale them up.
- New initiatives, e.g., exhibits, public presentations, etc., do not have to be absolutely perfect before they are launched. Many times, insisting on perfection may mean the work takes too much time and costs too much. Instead, we should build a culture of continuous improvement and consider launching when we have a “minimally viable product” and something is “good enough.” Let the public know it is something of a prototype and that you are inviting their reaction in improving it. Use that input to make it better.
- Taking risks, experimenting, and occasionally failing are not bad. We always want things to run smoothly but, as the article “Failing Toward Success” cited above emphasizes, fear of failure can sometimes lead to being overly-cautious, too risk-averse, and discouraging staff and others from advancing iconoclastic new ideas.
- Use exhibits and programs to explore and discuss sensitive, uncomfortable or controversial issues such as diversity, immigration, discrimination, law and order, and slavery. This in effect puts history to work in pointing out historical parallels and precedents and demonstrating the historical roots and developments that led up to the present day.
Here in New York, many history programs are moving in this general direction, starting with an intense customer focus. For instance, the Albany Institute of History and Art’s Strategic Plan 2015-2018 cites as its “Guiding Principle:” “Audiences are central to the AIHA experience.” The Vision Statement of the Buffalo History Museum is “Inspire personal connection through community stories.” But a couple of examples from beyond New York may be interesting.
One is the innovative new-style exhibits, cited by the AAM, is the interactive exhibit NEUVOlution! Latinos and the New South at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, N.C. The Levine Museum is a pioneer in exhibits and public events that explore the changing demographic makeup of the South. The exhibit was developed using a good deal of community input. Exhibit designers worked with Latino and non-Latino community members to identify key themes, select stories, and create interactive experiences. “Even after the exhibit opened to the public,” the article”Failing Toward Success” mentioned above notes, “staff continued to redesign sections, create new content for panels, and add activities in response to community input.”
Another is the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, California. It has multiple initiatives for reaching out to and engaging current users and attracting new ones, particularly people who have not been interested in museums. Its director, Nina Simon, writes the very interesting Museum 2.0 blog and is the author of two books The Participatory Museum and The Art of Relevance, about how to make museum programs relevant and popular.
Of course, this new approach to things is not appropriate for every program. Parts of it, e.g., the suggestion that not everything needs to be absolutely perfect when it is launched, may seem to counter our long tradition of absolute accuracy and quality. But the new ideas are worth considering as we continue to keep our programs vibrant and dynamic.