Tuesday, March 06, 2018

This is What the Participatory Museum Sounds Like

It's late in the afternoon. I'm cranking away on a grant proposal, when suddenly, a classical rendition of "All the Single Ladies" wafts up the stairs. In the office, colleagues lift their heads. "Is that...?" someone asks. "Yup," another nods. We grin.

This is the magic a piano in the lobby makes.

We've now had a piano in the MAH lobby for several months. About once each week, a visitor walks in and blows everyone away. Sometimes it's a homeless person. Sometimes a lover's duet. This week, it was a little guy, attended by a stuffed toy on the piano bench. It's rare that someone sits down to bang out noise. 95% of our piano users play music, beautifully.

The piano is a simple invitation to meaningful visitor participation. The activity is clear and well-scaffolded. The outcome is open-ended and visitor-driven. It invites visitors to make the museum better. When visitors share their brilliance, it brings the museum to life.

I believe that every person who walks into our museum has something valuable to share. A creative talent. A personal history. A special skill. It's not their job to present their abilities to us. It's our job to welcome them, invite them to contribute, and give them the tools to do so. This is the participatory museum, played out loud.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Are Participant Demographics the Most Useful Single Measure of Community Impact?

Let's say you want your organization to be rooted in your community. To be of value to your community. To reflect and represent your community. To help your community grow stronger.

What indicator would determine the extent to which your organization fulfills these aspirations?

Here's a candidate: participant demographics. If your participants' demographics match that of your community, that means the diverse people in your community derive value from your organization. The people on the outside are the ones coming in.

We use participant demographics as a core measure at the MAH. At the MAH, our goal is for museum participants to reflect the age, income, and ethnic diversity of Santa Cruz County. We compare visitor demographics to those of the county. We use the county census as our measuring stick. We set our strategy based on the extent to which we match, exceed, or fall short of county demographics.

Is this overly reductive? Possibly. There are at least four arguments against it:

Serving "everyone" shouldn't be the goal. I understand this argument, but I think it's suspect when it comes to demographics (especially income and race/ethnicity). Organizations can and should target programs to welcome different kinds of people for different kinds of experiences. But should those differences be rooted in participants' race or income level? Would anyone say with a straight face that it's OK to exclude people based on the color of their skin or the balance in their bank account? I don't think this holds up.

People are more than their demographics. I agree with this argument, but in my experience, it doesn't invalidate demographic measurement. For years, we focused at the MAH on non-demographic definitions of community, seeking to engage "makers" or "moms seeking enrichment for their kids" as opposed to "whites" or "Latinos." I believe that there are many useful ways to define community beyond demographics. BUT, when we actually started measuring demographics at the MAH a few years ago, we saw that we were engaging the county's age and income diversity... but not the county's ethnic diversity. How could we credibly argue that this wasn't a serious issue for us to address? Was it reasonable to imagine that Latina moms didn't want enrichment as much as their white counterparts? When we saw our race/ethnicity mismatch with the county, we started taking action to welcome and include Latinos. We changed hiring practices, programming approach, collaborator recruitment, and signage. Taking those actions led to real results, helping us get closer to our participants matching the demographics of our county.

Participants matching your community's demographics is insufficient. This is an argument I'm still grappling with. It's an argument advocating for equity instead of equality. Many cultural resources are disproportionately available to affluent, white, older adults. So, to advance equity, your organization should strive to exceed community demographics for groups that may be marginalized or excluded from other cultural resources. This argument encourages organization to strive for a demographic blend that over-indexes younger, lower-income, more racially diverse participants. This argument is also often linked to related arguments that changing participant demographics without addressing internal demographics of staff and board is inadequate and potentially exploitative. I'm torn on this too. In my experience, you can't effect community impact without internal organizational change. But the internal changes are a means, not an end. I wouldn't use internal indicators to measure whether we succeeded in reaching community goals. 

Attendance is not the same as impact. I'm torn about this argument too. On the one hand, showing up is not a particularly powerful indicator of impact. You don't really know why the person showed up or what they got out of the experience. On the other hand, on a basic level, attendance is the clearest demonstration that someone values your organization. They're only going to invest their time, money, and attention if they think they'll get something worthwhile out of the experience. Attendance may not be a signifier of deep impact, but it is the clearest way that people tell you whether they care or not about your offerings.

What do you think? Are participant demographics a worthy bottom-line indicator of success? Or is another measure more apt?

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Introducing Community Participation Bootcamp at the MAH

For the past five years, each summer, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History has hosted MuseumCamp. MuseumCamp is a professional development experience that is part retreat, part unconference, part adult summer camp.

MuseumCamp is amazing, but there are two issues that come up every January when we announce the new session:
  1. The application process is very competitive, and hundreds of people end up being rejected or waitlisted. This is agonizing for everyone involved. 
  2. Some people want an outcome-oriented training (as opposed to a community co-created summer camp).
This year, to address these issues, we're experimenting with hosting two camps instead of one:
  • COMMUNITY PARTICIPATION BOOTCAMP, June 7-8, 2018. This new, experimental training is a hands-on deep dive into the MAH’s model. You will learn the theory and practice of how to open your organization to robust community participation. This bootcamp will be led by me, Nina Simon, MAH executive director. Registration is first come, first served. Learn more and register here.
  • MUSEUMCAMP REUNION EDITION, August 15-17, 2018. This retreat is all about learning from each other. Come share your projects, challenges, questions, wild successes and epic failures with creative changemakers from around the world. 2018 MuseumCamp spots are offered first to MuseumCamp alumni. If additional spots are available, we will make an application process available in April 2018. Learn more here.

More about Community Participation Bootcamp

We're offering Community Participation Bootcamp as part of a broader exploration of ways the MAH might share our model with others. I've learned a lot from attending and teaching workshops this year. I'm excited to share the MAH's community-first model and to invite you to this in-depth, immersive learning experience.

Come to this two-day bootcamp to:
  • Articulate your goals for community participation at your organization. 
  • Map your community’s assets and needs and how they align with your goals. 
  • Get a crash course in social capital theory and ways of measuring community participation. 
  • Develop compelling, powerful participatory offers and promises for your prospective partners. 
  • Gain new community participation tools you can take home and adapt to your organization. 
  • Connect with diverse colleagues who can help you as you continue your journey. 
  • Tour MAH participatory exhibitions and shadow MAH community events. 
  • Get inspired, laugh out loud, and share honest lessons from the messy, joyful world of community participation. 
And it's not just for museum people.

Bootcamp is for working professionals seeking to implement community participation in your organization or program. While we will tour some of the MAH’s participatory programs and exhibitions, this bootcamp is not museum-centric. We welcome campers from diverse community, civic, and cultural sites. Our first registrants for Bootcamp are from a library and a religious institution. We'd love to have you here for this pilot year.

Want to support these events?

While our camps have a registration cost, we work with sponsors to underwrite camper scholarships. Most sponsors are generous former campers or amazing companies serving museums, libraries, performing arts organizations, and grassroots community organizations. If you are interested in helping provide financial aid for one of these amazing events, you'll be in good company. Thanks in advance for considering it.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Instead of Selling Objects, Build Public Trust

You run a regional museum. It's been struggling financially for years. Now, you have a new vision--co-created with trustees and community leaders--for a path forward. You'll transform it into an interactive science-oriented institution. And you'll build your endowment, too. How will you pay for it? By selling off artworks that no longer serve your mission.

This is the plan that plunged the Berkshire Museum into hot water. It's sparked public uproar, legal battles, and nationwide press coverage. It's cracked the crumbling, outdated rules around deaccessioning--and unearthed more serious issues of public trust.

Here's what happened. In July, the Berkshire Museum released its $60,000,000 New Vision, along with a funding mechanism: selling 40 of its most valuable artworks. Berkshire Museum officials argue that art is not core to their institution going forward and that they are therefore deaccessioning material that is no longer relevant to their mission. But it's not that simple. The 40 artworks are valued at $50 million. They include two of the most famous paintings by Norman Rockwell. Rockwell donated those paintings himself to the Berkshire Museum to be enjoyed in his home community. The Berkshire Museum has been unwilling to sell or transfer the paintings to another regional institution, presumably assuming they will get the highest price at auction.

Cue public uproar and legal action to block the auction. Cultural organizations, community members, and museum leaders have spoken out against the sale. The controversy started in July of 2017. The Attorney General of Massachusetts has put a hold on the sale and will issue a ruling at the end of January. It's taken me six months to figure out how I feel about the whole thing.


At first blush, I'm sympathetic to the Berkshire Museum. I am not a fan of the rule that restricts deaccessioning of museum artifacts for purposes other than improving the collection. I think the rule needs to be overhauled, for three reasons.
  1. The rule is simplistic. It states that museums can only sell objects to purchase or care for other objects. No other assets in a museum are restricted in this way, and this restriction can lead to lopsided priorities and bizarre practices. I once consulted with a museum that had no museum--no building, no public programs, no exhibitions. It had a collection and an endowment (funded by deaccessioning) to grow and perpetuate that collection. Their objects were locked in a private prison, protected far from the public in whose trust they purported to be held.
  2. The rule is weak. This rule is poorly enforced with few consequences--which is the very reason an issue like the Berkshire Museum's arises. The rule against wanton deaccessioning is a kind of gentleman's agreement in the museum world. Professional organizations like AAM and AAMD are against it, but their forms of censure are few. Individual museums might risk bad press, finger-shaking, and loss of funding for taking these actions, but the consequences are highly variable and often short-lived. Trustees can hold their noses and roll the dice if they want to.
  3. The rule is outdated. The deaccessioning rule (last updated in 2000) perpetuates the hegemony of artifacts as the heart of museums. While some museums have, admirably, stuck with an object-rooted mission, many have shifted to other goals. It doesn't make sense to maintain a special class of protections for one category of assets when many museums no longer base their missions on the care and stewardship of those assets. This is essentially the argument that the Berkshire Museum is making--that they will no longer BE an art museum and therefore should not be required to protect art objects uniquely.
I think the deaccessioning rule has outlived its usefulness. But that doesn't mean I support the Berkshire Museum's choice. I don't.


To me, the issue in the Berkshires is not about deaccessioning artwork. The issue is violation of public trust.

The Berkshire Museum isn't deaccessioning artifacts of questionable public value. They are selling off forty of their top artworks on the open market. By deaccessioning the most valuable art in their collection, the Berkshire Museum is transferring valued public assets into private hands. They are making an arrogant gamble, claiming that their planned new museum will have equal or greater public value than the artworks they are selling to fund it. Maybe it will. Maybe it won't. They are selling heritage to finance progress. It's not surprising that not everyone takes their claims on faith.

It's not entirely the Berkshire Museum's fault that they are in this position. The inflexible rule on deaccessioning forces them into an all-or-nothing choice. Right now, there is no "ethical" vehicle by which a museum might sell high-value artifacts for any purpose other than to buy and protect other artifacts. An institution like the Berkshire Museum risks professional censure whether they sell a painting on the open market or to another museum--assuming they plan to use the proceeds to fund their New Vision. Why wouldn't they make the rational choice to get as much money as possible for their sins?

Because their choice has consequences beyond their own self-interest. It exposes the fragility of the rule of deaccessioning, the thin line between "treasured public asset" and "hard cold cash." The rule is built on a sleight of hand, a conceit that says that museums WON'T acknowledge the market value of objects... until they will. As Diane Ragsdale put it, "When communities become markets, citizens become consumers, and culture becomes an exploitable product."

When museums start putting price tags on their objects, other institutions do too. When Detroit was going bankrupt in 2013, the city's emergency manager fought to sell off some of the prized artworks in the Detroit Institute of Art. In 2009, Brandeis University came close to looting and liquidating its Rose Art Museum, and today, a similar controversy is raging over the museum at La Salle University. At La Salle, as in the Berkshires, university leadership argues that the deaccessioning and closure of the museum is a necessary, painful corrective to dire financial conditions. These museums and their artworks were exposed as market assets to be cashed in as needed.

Museum professionals often decry these actions because they will disincentivize future donors from giving valuable artwork to museums (and therefore, the argument goes, to the public). But I think there's a much more insidious impact of these actions: it encourages the continued slide of museums away from the public trust and into the market economy.

And once that happens, all bets are off. Two years ago, the Detroit Institute of Art won the battle to keep their treasured artwork in the museum. But other battles have been--and could be--lost. It could even happen on a national scale. If a rapacious, short-sighted federal government is willing to strip protected land for natural resources, what's to stop them from looting the Smithsonian to fund their own version of progress?


There are creative alternatives to traditional museum deaccessioning policies that could solve this problem. Instead of fighting to protect an imperfect and antiquated rule, we could create new rules--rules that put the public trust, not objects, first.

Other nonprofit industries have done this. Accredited American zoos, for example, have a strict policy that governs how animals move from one institution to another. If your zoo no longer plans to exhibit giraffes, those giraffes don't suddenly become fungible assets on the open market. They become tradeable assets within a controlled market--with other accredited zoos, who will care for the giraffes as well as you once did.

Food banks have an auction-based model. There's a national online auction site where food banks can bid on large lots of donated food with fake money, called shares. The auction system helps individual food banks determine what they need most, rather than a national agency guessing--and sometimes, guessing wrong.

Both zoos and food banks have gotten creative about how to manage their assets AND serve the public trust. Instead of clinging to outdated deaccessioning policies, it's time for museums to get creative as well. If we don't, we risk betraying the public trust in a venal grab for more flexible assets.

Rather than converting assets from the public trust to the private market, I'd like to see more creative ways for nonprofits to INCREASE the number of assets in the public trust. I'd like to see dividends from large endowments shared among nonprofits in their respective communities. I'd like to see more land trusts sharing their space with other organizations. I'd like to see more museums sharing their artifacts. I'd like to see more marketplaces like those of zoos or food banks, so assets in the public trust can be shared wisely and efficiently.

We shouldn't have to choose between the Norman Rockwell paintings and a great Berkshire Museum. There should be a way to expand the pie of public assets instead of swapping the heritage we have for the future we will build.

What if the Berkshire Museum could sell a fraction of their prized artworks to other museums, for a fraction of their fundraising goal, so they could test out whether their "New Vision" actually served their community better? What if they got involved in a project like Culture Bank, to invest the artworks securely to fund some aspects of their planned transformation? What if they worked out a way to accrue less and get more -- more for their community, more for the public at large?

The pressure will always be on to capitulate to the market economy, to embrace the market and live by its rules. But we can resist. Nonprofit organizations have unique opportunities to resist. If we want to embrace communities instead of markets, we have to fight for it. We have to fight for the public trust, generosity, and shared ownership. We have to be ingenious in coming up with alternative forms of economic value, accumulation, and transfer. No one is going to do it for us.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

What is the Turkey and the Bread (or the Sourdough Starter) of the MAH?

Last month, I went to an amazing training called the Skid Row School for Social Change. The mission of the Skid Row School is to train leaders to scale solutions to the world’s biggest problems as rapidly as possible. It's run by Becky Mangiotta and Joe McCannon, two brilliant nerds who led national movements in homelessness and public health and then decided to teach others how to do it. I attended because I'm seeking new ways to share the MAH's model and support the development of more community-centered cultural institutions around the world.

I learned a ton at Skid Row School, but the lesson that still keeps me up at night is this one: when you want to scale and spread a model, you have to distill it to its essence. Unless you're going to franchise, you can't maintain control of 100% of how your model spreads. Nor should you want to. The power is in unleashing the model, ceding control to others who will adopt it and take it further than you ever could.

But if you're going to unleash something, you better make sure that you believe in it 100%. Some people are rightfully fearful of "dumbing down" their model for scale. As Becky and Joe noted, it can sound like taking your amazing craft beer and distilling it into a Bud Light. But they suggested another metaphor: the turkey sandwich.

Imagine that your existing project is a turkey sandwich. You've spent years making it the perfect, artisanal turkey sandwich. You've got just the right mustard, two slices of lettuce, pickled onions... it is dialed-in delicious.

But if you want to share and spread that turkey sandwich, you've got to focus on the basics. To make a turkey sandwich, you only need two things: the turkey and the bread. When you want to scale, you need to get clear on what is the turkey and what is the bread. If you insist on all those artisanal fixings, you severely limit the clarity and scalability of your model.

That's not to say the mustard isn't important. The mustard matters! But it's not the heart of what you are trying to share. And if you get it right, others who adopt your model should be able to pick their own mustard, or leave it out entirely, to the tastes and needs of their community.

What is the turkey and what is the bread of the MAH? I've asked myself this a thousand times in the past month. Is it partnerships and participation? Treating the museum as a community platform? Igniting events and activities? Social bridging? Our participants reflecting local age/income/ethnic diversity?

I love asking people what they think the turkey and the bread is--especially folks who appreciate the MAH but aren't deeply involved. Sometimes, a donor might identify something I hadn't considered--like being located right in the middle of a vibrant downtown. Other times, a visitor might use the exact language of our strategic documents. The more people I ask, the closer I get to understanding what's a condiment and what is core. (And if you have an opinion on this, I'd LOVE to hear it.)

I've also started tinkering with an alternate food-related metaphor for this quandary: sourdough. When you make a loaf of sourdough bread, you begin with a "starter." The starter is a living culture of bacteria, yeast, flour, and water. Each time you bake a loaf, you use a little bit of the starter to get it going. In-between loaves, you feed the starter flour and water to keep it growing and healthy. The starter is alive and infinitely expandable. You can share it, split it, grow it, or let it die.

As I think about how the MAH might share our model, I find myself gravitating to the sourdough starter metaphor instead of the turkey and the bread. Like the turkey and the bread, the starter is the epicenter, the beginning, the core. It has a unique flavor profile, but when you bake it you can add other ingredients to your preferences. It can be shared, used, and expanded. But starter is more than just core ingredients. It is alive and mutable. It's a catalyst for expansion, but it needs love and attention to keep growing.

Do you have any ideas for me on the identity of the "starter" from which the MAH's work grows? If we shared a slice of the MAH's starter with you, what would you hope it might cook up in your world?

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Guest Post by Jasper Visser: Storytelling for Social Cohesion at Story House Belvédère

I first read about Story House Belvédère on Jasper Visser’s excellent blog, The Museum of the Future. This small, startup cultural project in Rotterdam works directly and intimately with community members to share their stories. It is a platform for social bridging and cultural exchange. Jasper enhanced his original post to share with you here. I hope you’ll be as charmed and inspired by Story House Belvédère as I am.

Story House Belvédère in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, is a magical place. On a beautiful location in a former jazz-era night club, a committed team works on storytelling activities to bring different communities in the city together, and contribute to a happier, more engaged city. They do so by making the stories of individuals and communities visible, and encouraging new encounters. In its short existence (it opened in 2013), the place has made a name for itself as a successful community-driven, innovative cultural initiative.

I visited Story House Belvédère as part of the new Intangible Cultural Heritage and Museum Projects I am involved in. I had heard a lot about Belvédère before my visit, so my expectations were high. The place surpassed them. I spoke with some of the people working there, especially founder Linda Malherbe.

What makes Story House Belvédère so special?

It is rooted in its diverse neighborhood and the people who live there.

Story House Belvédère is in Katendrecht, in southern Rotterdam. Katendrecht is a part of town that for over 125 years has been a home for migrants and newcomers to the city. The neighborhood is a mix of people and communities by design and has a rich social history. Currently, the neighborhood is being gentrified and its development, which tells a wider story about the city, is ongoing. The team found the current home of Belvédère almost by chance when they were looking for a temporary working space. But the location proved perfect. According to Linda, the project could not have been imagined and developed anywhere else in the city. A diversity of people and stories is the reason it exists.

It started as a community project rooted in relationship-building.

Before there was a house, the team behind Belvédère organised a community-focused social photography exhibition outdoors on one of the quais in the south of Rotterdam. It was an exhibition of group portraits of the many communities in the area. City officials doubted the idea of an exhibition in the public space in a part of town they considered dangerous. They said, "you will get shot at, and in two weeks everything will be destroyed." But they were wrong. The exhibition was up for a year and a half. When it ended, the portrayed communities took their portraits home, starting relationships with Belvédère which in some cases still persist.

After the photography show, the team was encouraged to continue their work. They focused on one of the key events in Rotterdam history: the bombing of the city at the beginning of the Second World War. Inspired by Story Corps, they toured the neighborhood with a mobile recording studio and captured memories of the bombing. They created storytelling events and shows, which prompted other communities to start telling their own stories. As Linda says, “Every story inspires a new story.”

The success of the storytelling events encouraged the team to look for a permanent location. They found it in the old jazz club/boxing gym/neighborhood museum Belvédère, a building which dates back to 1894. Together with the communities they had worked with before, they are now renovating the building. In 2018 it will officially reopen. But currently you can visit when the door is unlocked - which is almost daily. After the formal reopening, they still expect to evolve. As Linda says, the process will never be finished, as people will always continue to add and make changes to the building to reflect new stories and ideas.

The community values of the team permeate the space and their projects.

Already you can feel Story House Belvédère is a special place. You feel it the moment you step into their warm and welcoming space. It feels like a living room, where everybody can be a friend. Even the coffee cups and the cookies are in style. The magic, of course, goes beyond aesthetics and is deeply embedded in the organization.

A small team is the driving force behind all projects. It is a committed, dynamic group of freelancers who care about the mission and magic of the place. The place they created is warm and welcoming, and yet it is their energy and enthusiasm that stuck with me most after my visit. I asked Linda to describe what defines the team, and received over a dozen characteristics:
  • A shared love for people 
  • They are good listeners 
  • Positively curious, and always asking new questions 
  • Actively looking for (a diversity of) people 
  • Etc. etc.
The approach the team takes to connect with communities and then connecting communities is straightforward. In projects, they build a profound relationship with one specific community, such as the Chinese, Bulgarians, or football hooligans. This relationship is based on a genuine interest and includes a long-term commitment to stay involved with each other. When I visited, a community member had made our delicious Bulgarian lunch. Such profound ties make it possible that when a new project focuses on another community, the team can personally invite people from other communities to join. In that way, they build bridges between communities. Everything starts with listening and being curious about the other, and then inviting people, as guests, to take part.

This approach permeates all activities of Story House Belvédère. If you rent the place for a private event such as a wedding, some spots at the event are reserved for people from other communities. So, if you’re interested in joining a Syrian wedding or Jewish Bar Mitzvah, you can. The reason this works is because of the personal ties between the team and the communities. The aim of Linda and her team is to create relationships with people that are everlasting.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Introducing #museumfitness, a Side Project where Art & Athletics Mix

When I have a day to myself, there are two things I like to do most in this world:
  1. work.
  2. work out.
To celebrate the confluence between these passions, some buddies and I have started an instagram account called @museumfitness. We are posting short museum-based exercise videos each week. I invite you to follow the account, send in your own videos (tagged #museumfitness), and sweat along with us at your institution.

While it's a silly project, #museumfitness is also a small attempt to break down unproductive divisions between "art people" and "sports people." Pop culture often tells us that intellect and sports don't mix. Some of my museum friends seem viscerally uncomfortable with athletics. Some of my fitness friends would never set foot in a museum. I believe that smarts and sports DO mix... and at least for me, they enhance each other.

I've been a nerd my whole life, and a jock since high school. When I was 14, I joined the water polo team. I spent every morning and evening in the pool. I loved it--the hard work, the yelling coach, sweat in my eyes and chlorine in my hair. I felt like part of something challenging and communal.

After high school, I stopped playing high-level sports but kept building my passion for social sweat. I boxed. Played ultimate frisbee. Climbed rocks. Played beach volleyball. Right now, when I'm not at work, I'm training for obstacle course races with a local team.

For me, sports are a way to push myself and to connect with people who are different from me--both skills that enhance my work as well.

I love challenges. Challenges at work can be messy and interpersonal. Challenges in athletics are simpler. Cleaner. How far can I run? How hard can I push myself? I can dig deep when I want to, and if I decide to quit, I'm not letting someone else down. When I challenge myself in sports, I train myself to be tougher in a low-stakes environment. That helps me confront challenges at work--which often come with emotional or political stakes--more confidently.

I love building social bridges. My museum focuses on it, and I really believe that building bridges across differences can build a better world. I get to practice bridging in my personal life through sports. My fitness friends come from all walks of life. They are more diverse than my colleagues economically and politically. Despite our differences, we trust each other and support each other. We work together to achieve impossible, trivial heights.

For no obvious reason, we have quite a few #museumfitness fanatics at the MAH. I love working with people who know how to push themselves beyond their comfort zones. I love working with people who aren't afraid to shoot for a big goal. I love working with people who are ready to dive in and support each other so we can reach that goal. I learned a lot of these lessons playing sports. I have no doubt you could acquire these skills in other ways. But I learned them--and keep learning them--through fitness.

If YOU are a closet member of the #museumfitness tribe, join us in bridging these divides. Take a five-minute pushup break in the office. Run up the stairs. Invite your colleagues to sweat along with you. Invite your gym-mates into your museum. And shoot a video for instagram. We'd love to have you as part of our team.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Reimagining Museums with Latin America Leading the Way

Earlier this month, I went to a conference that renewed my faith in conferences. I first sensed the difference at the front door. There wasn't one. Instead, I walked into a lush garden in the middle of the city. Courageous speakers from dozens of countries described bold, participatory projects. Birds flew through the proceedings. The sounds of Spanish and English comingled as 800 delegates argued, danced, and envisioned el museo reimaginado.

El Museo Reimaginado is a collaborative effort of museum professionals in North and South America to explore museums' potential as community catalysts. While I've been to conferences with this focus in many countries, El Museo Reimaginado is different. The Latin American delegates in Medellin reimagined change on a level beyond what I've experienced in other places. They were more committed. They were doing the work. They were coming together to celebrate and push forward. And the conference itself resonated with joy, participation, and community. It was an incredible event and I felt honored to be part of it.

Here are some of the things that made El Museo Reimaginado so special:

It seems that Latin American museums are more vigorously pursuing community-based work than institutions elsewhere in the world. I'm generalizing grossly here, but for the most part, I find European museums to be conservative. I find North American museums to be risk-averse. The Latin Americans I met in Medellin seemed way ahead of the rest of us. The delegates appeared collectively convinced of the value and power of community-based work. Everyone seemed to agree on two basic concepts: that museums should embrace community co-creation AND that museums can play significant roles in city-making. There were curators co-creating with prostitutes. Young guns making radical museum radio talk shows. Pioneers of communitario museums. Designers creating space for nationwide reconciliation and transformation. We met in Medellin--a city where cultural institutions were instrumental in turning crime and fear into hope and beauty. The examples were all around us, not just in the voices of speakers but in the physical sites where we met. It was refreshing and powerful to talk shop with shared community values as a starting point.

The host venue was a living, breathing example of how museums can serve as community catalysts. Parque Explora opened ten years ago as a community development project. It offers a science center, aquarium, botanical garden, and lots of open plaza space in a marginalized neighborhood. Parque Explora's staff are deeply committed to co-creative, ambitious, community building work (read a bit about their community work here). It was amazing to see the diversity of visitors eagerly using the site from morning until night. Families playing, vendors hawking, students kissing, old ladies kibitzing. Even the conference itself was a model of social bridging. Big signs, public talkback walls, and open spaces made the conference porous to the community. One evening, there was a free outdoor concert of the Medellin Symphony as part of the conference. Every seat was taken--with conference delegates and neighborhood families sitting side by side.

The conference delegates were geographically diverse and eager to connect. What a treat to learn together with people from so many different countries and contexts! The entire conference was simultaneously translated into English and Spanish. On most panels, it was common to have speakers from several countries. Each room was a diverse mix of voices, perspectives, and language. I heard fresh ideas, stories, and challenges in each room. I was continually hungry to learn more.

The conference was joyful and full of energy. The sessions were smartly structured with different lengths and formats, ranging from panels to workshops to participatory performances to an intense "courtroom" in which co-creation was put on trial. But the energy flowed far beyond the sessions. The outdoor setting lent itself easily to side conversations, wandering from table to table, or breaking into conga lines (yes, it happened). It wasn't uncommon for a group to break into song, or for people to stand in spontaneous applause halfway through a presentation. Many delegates brought gifts. Instead of sponsors and trade shows, individuals handed each other trinkets and tshirts and catalogs. The closing event was a wild dance party. I lost my voice singing along to songs I don't know in a language I barely speak. The whole experience was exhilarating and deeply human. I felt like I made new friends in aggregate, a whole community of people who I look forward to seeing again.

Muchas gracias to the organizers: Fundacion TyPA, AAM, and Parque Explora. I can't wait to go again--and I hope many of you will join me--at the next El Museo Reimaginado in 2019.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Learning to Love the Re-Org: How We Executed a Staff Restructuring

My original "kitchen table" brainstorm.
The Packard Foundation asked me to write a blog post about our 2016 staff restructuring (which they supported with a capacity-building grant). Here's that post, lightly edited for your enjoyment. You can read the original post on the Packard Foundation's Organizational Effectiveness site.

I sat at my kitchen table with a brown paper bag, timer by my side. I sliced the bag open and folded it into 12 rectangles, each about the size of an index card. I set the timer for five minutes and started working. In the first rectangle, I sketched out one version of how our organization could be structured. When the timer dinged, I reset it for five minutes, moved to the next rectangle and did it again. After an hour, I had 12 different versions of our staff structure, each in its own little box. Some were impractical. Some were poetic. But among them lay the seeds of our museum’s future.

By the time we applied for a Organizational Effectiveness grant from the Packard Foundation in early 2016, it already felt late. Our nonprofit museum had outgrown our grass roots. In five years, what was seven staff members when I arrived became 10, then 15, then 20 – and is now 27. When we had seven people, we barely needed an organizational chart. We were a scrappy band of creative folks trying to turn around a struggling organization. As we succeeded, we grew. But I resisted structure. I was wary of too much process. And so we stayed egalitarian and collaborative. It got chaotic. Almost everyone reported to me, and that caused frustration and bottlenecks all around. I was knee-deep in a capital expansion (Abbott Square) that would dramatically change our services, and I had less and less time for everyone. I knew that our smart, talented, wonderful staff could do more. I knew the capital expansion would mean new roles and functions. Our team deserved a new structure that sustained and empowered them.

I was scared. I had never heard anyone at any organization say, “that re-org sure was great!” They always seemed to bring even more confusion, frustration and pain than whatever had preceded them. I didn’t know whether or how we could do it well. I was also suspicious of consultants (the Packard Foundation funds capacity building largely by paying for consultants). Running a small, unorthodox nonprofit, I’d had bad experiences with consultants who didn’t seem to give us their full attention. They wanted to fit us into their boxes instead of helping us excel in ours.

My fears about consultants were allayed when I realized we had a consultant whom we trusted and really knew us, Keri Crask. Keri was like a hidden Jedi consultant. She was a retired HR executive  and a treasured museum volunteer. She had volunteered to run management trainings for staff as we had started to grow, and she had become a trusted confidant to me and to some of my colleagues. At the time, she wasn’t consulting. But we realized that she could help us execute a reorganization, and she realized she wasn’t quite ready for full retirement. And so, with the blessing of our Board, Keri and I worked together on a plan.

Over the next six months, with Packard Foundation support, we worked out a plan for a reorganization with two lead staff members, Stacey Marie Garcia and Lis DuBois. I brought creative vision in the form of folded up pieces of paper with wild ideas on them. Keri brought structure and expert knowledge about how to coordinate the change. Stacey and Lis brought openness and honesty with regard to how their roles would change as they evolved into new director-level roles. And we all brought courage – lots of it.

I spent some time alone at my kitchen table at the beginning of the process, but quickly, planning the reorg became a team sport. At Keri’s urging, we first mapped out a new structure for the organization, one that could scale if we grew (which we did, almost immediately). We defined “buckets of work,” putting them in departmental groupings, noting the intersections. We shaped those buckets into jobs. We kept our eye on our core values and how to bake them into the departments, jobs, and interfaces among them. It was a full six weeks of work before we started talking about names of existing employees and tentatively slotting them into roles on the new chart.

When we started this project, I expected about 30% of the museum’s jobs to change a little bit, and about 20% to change a lot. As it turned out, everyone’s job changed. Some people changed managers. Some people changed responsibilities. Some people changed jobs. Everyone changed titles. Executing these changes was the most coordinated, interlocking, emotionally-intense activities of my career. Stacey, Lis, and I held conversation after conversation, one-on-one and in groups and just us, each dependent on another, urged and cheered and supported forward by Keri.

Was the re-org perfect? Of course not. It was a challenging process, and the challenges continue to surface from time to time with our staff. But it was better than I could have expected and ultimately made our organization stronger. In Keri, we had an expert guide who had rafted that whitewater before. She kept us going to the finish line, and she helped us grow as leaders and as an organization along the way.

What have you learned from the re-orgs you've been part of? What were the bright spots? What were the surprises?

Thursday, October 12, 2017

What's Your Vision?

It's 8am in the classroom; 5am in my body. I'm sitting at my assigned seat, next to a man who sells trailers in in Indiana, a woman who runs a Chamber of Commerce in Pennsylvania, and a guy who provides liability insurance to doctors across the US. A cheerful curly-haired deli owner stands in front of 30 of us and shares a quote he loves: "Artists live in the present and write detailed histories of the future." Something tells me this is not the business visioning workshop I anticipated.

Last week, I attended a workshop on Creating a Vision of Greatness at ZingTrain, the training arm of Zingerman's Deli, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Zingerman's is a deli that has pioneered some innovative ways of doing business. One of those is the use of visioning (also called future-casting).

You can write a vision for yourself, your organization, your project, or your team. At the training, we saw examples of small visions--like a restaurant barback who had a vision for a better way to make juice--and big ones--like the 10-year vision for the 700-person Zingerman's community of businesses. We learned how to write visions, how to use them, and how to share them with others.

For me, writing a vision was empowering, exciting, and useful. It was even more useful to learn how participatory writing visions can be. In the Zingerman's model, visioning is for everyone at all levels of the organization. It's for anyone who wants to go somewhere in their day, their year, their life. Writing a vision can empower you, clarify your thinking, and help you change the world.

So here are a few notes on how to write a vision. If you want to know more, I recommend you check out the related ZingTrain articles on visioning, or even take their two-day course.


A vision is not a solution to a problem. A vision is a detailed history of the future. It's a story written from the vantage point of a few months or years from now. It's a story of what happened after you launched that program, gave that speech, conquered that challenge. What does the world look like in that future? What's different about your life, your work? That's the story a vision tells.


A vision is a story. Write it that way. Write your vision with as many specifics as possible, in narrative form. This is a detailed history from the future. Imagine you're seeing an old friend after a few years, telling them about all the amazing stuff you've done since you last met. Use evocative language, engage the senses, engage your emotions. Make it a positive vision. Put in everything you want to see happen--even if it seems impossible. Don't focus on how you got there. Write about where you arrived.

If you have trouble writing a vision, here are some tips:
  • Before you start writing your vision, write a list of things you are proud of, in any part of your life. The goal here is to write down as many as possible. You'll warm up your hand and get yourself in a positive frame of mind. 
  • Use the "hot pen" or automatic writing technique. Start writing, and don't stop--for ten minutes, thirty minutes, whatever you need. If you get stuck, write nonsense words. Don't take your pen off the paper until the time is up. When you break through stuckness, you might be surprised what you find on the other side. 
  • If you get stuck thinking about the steps to achieve a certain part of the vision, write your way out of it. Imagine you already figured it out. Write something like "It took awhile to raise the money, but once we did, we had even more than we needed." 
  • If you're focused on big picture goals, cast your vision far enough in the future that you're on the other side of all the obstacles you face today. The trainers suggested writing a vision 5-10 years out, and they encouraged us to go for ten if we could. 
  • Dial up the "want." Put in everything you want to see happen. If you want a hot tub in the staff break room, put it in. Don't put in the stuff you're supposed to want. Put in what you really want! No one else is going to guess what you want, and this is your vision. This is your dream. Put it all in. --share it. Get feedback on what parts feel alive and compelling, and which parts seem cloudy or forced. If it's a vision for a group, involve others in the group in the redrafting of the vision. They will make it better, and you will all feel greater ownership over the final version.


This week, we experimented with visioning at my museum in an all-staff meeting. We took 30 minutes for the exercise. Here's what we did:
  • We reconnected about a year-long (already-established) goal to improve our work experience individually and collectively. 
  • I briefly explained what visioning is and why it might be valuable for us. 
  • We took ten minutes to do personal, "hot pen" writing of a vision for spring of 2018. The prompt was to write a detailed story about a day in spring 2018 when we are working even better as a team (whatever that means to you). We all wrote for ten minutes straight. 
  • We paired up, shared our visions with a colleague, and wrote down things we heard that excited us. 
  • We shared those energizing elements with the whole group. These included ideas like "musical chairs job shadowing," "foot massage conference-call room," and "more meetings in public settings." 
  • A small group volunteered to take this work forward to establish a shared vision we can then use to guide us to more collaboration in the coming months.
I'm not sure yet if visioning will become a go-to tool for me or for the MAH. But I'm going to keep trying it. And I hope you will try it too.

In fact, I have a vision for one month from now. It's a Thursday morning, I'm scanning emails, and I'm delighted to get a note from you. After reading this post, one morning, you woke up early, grabbed an old journal, and started writing. You wrote a vision for that big dream of yours coming true. You wrote yourself into a position of agency and leadership. You wrote yourself overcoming obstacles to reach your goal. You wrote a future that is more beautiful because of your efforts. And you shared it with someone. You enlisted them in helping make your vision real. You wrote to me to tell me you tried it. It was uncomfortable, a little weird, but empowering too. I'm looking at my screen, smiling with appreciation for you.