Dialogue not Monologue

Last week, I attended the Association of Midwest Museums conference in Indianapolis.  The official conference theme was civic engagement and public discourse.  At the sessions I viewed a broader communication theme emerged:  no museum is an island.  You must dialogue with your public, your fellow institutions, funders, and the government (at the local, regional, state, and national levels).  These dialogues will build the relationships needed to survive in the 21st century.

I will begin with the key points from the sessions I attended and then share the cool details from the various behind-the-scenes museum tours I enjoyed.  The first session was from educators from various institutions in the Saint Louis Zoo-Museum District.  All the institutions shared a commitment to expanding civic pride and reaching out to new audiences.  Working together, the Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri History Museum, Saint Louis Zoo, Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Saint Louis Science Center created a journal/scrapbook that children can use at all 5 institutions.  The “You are the Expert!” spiral bound journal teaches children how to journal by recording their impressions and observations.  Each institution has about 6 pages in the journal and uses a worksheet type format to prompt the child.  Originally piloted to home schooled children, the journal is now distributed to schools and museum visitors.  Educators from the involved institutions have expanded this initial collaboration to other projects:  building relationships and sharing resources.

At the “Opening Doors” presentation, staff from the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park shared how declining attendance forced them to completely rethink their guest interactions.  Educators originally re-enacted life on the prairie and did not involve guests in hands-on activities.  Signage was poor, and seating was limited.  Focus groups and guest reviews suggested key changes.  Now signage and seating is widely available, and guests participate in activities with the educators.  The site uses the principle of “free choice learning” to guide their education initiatives.  The mission statement no longer includes the phrase “to educate”; instead the mission is “to inspire curiosity and foster learning”.  The staff admitted that reviewing the tough critiques was difficult but necessary.  If you are not willing to see your institution through your guest’s eyes, you may be shortening your lifespan.

The “Budgeting Basics for Museums” presented by staff from the Indianapolis Museum of Art was the best presentation.  We received handouts with sample budgets, lists of additional resources, and software suggestions.  Though the focus was on budgets for special projects (projects that cross multiple fiscal years), the lessons could be applied to any type of budget.  Key tips included:  1) add 5% per year until the start of your project to hedge inflation and cost increases, 2) record transactions as incurred or promised, 3) run variance reports to track changes, and 4) include impact assessments in your budget.  Websites like Nonprofit Accounting Basics and Nonprofits Assistance Fund offer more information.

For folks working at small institutions, the “Caching, Hashing, and Coding” session demonstrated that one part-time person and a cohort of volunteers can bring new technology to any size institution.  Jodi Larson, the part-time director of the Richfield Historical Society, used young, enthusiastic volunteers to create a QR Code virtual tour and geocaching.  Larson admitted that the technology wasn’t cutting edge but did engage new visitors at a minimal time and money cost.  The QR Code tour required 15 to 20 hours of time; the geocaching took 1 hour to set up.  Facebook is the go-to cheap and easy tool to establish a virtual presence.  Larson warned that neglecting your Facebook site will drive away fans. Her advice was to “share, don’t disseminate” and to connect with all the other relevant history and civic organizations.

In his keynote address, David Carr reminded attendees that “no object exists without human or social context” and an object is a “cluster of knowledge”.  Museums provide a non-judgmental platform or forum for citizens.  Thus, museums are “about thinking, not learning.”  Our behind-the-scenes tours presented the full swath of old school museum to 21st century interactive.

I began the conference by touring the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site and the Morris-Butler Home.  The elderly volunteer at the Benjamin Harrison site initially refused us entry because we arrive at 1:15, rather than 1:00 or 1:30.  Fortunately, an employee rescued us from the heat and humidity.  The tour was a classic presidential site tour, with no behind-the-scenes info.  The house is well maintained, and you learn about Harrison and his life & times.  At the Morris-Butler House, we toured and dialogued with the site managers.  The ladies were quite frank about the challenges of running a Victorian house museum that has few original objects.  We had a great discussion about admissions vs. event rentals vs. object protection vs. budgetary constraints.

The Indiana Historical Society has a unique problem:  it cannot exhibit objects.  The IHS is the archives for the state and is only allowed to collect manuscripts, books, and photographs.  The Indiana State Museum is responsible for objects.  So any donations to the state of Indiana are split between those two institutions per their missions.  So the IHS develops 3-D exhibits based on photographs.  The photograph is projected onto fog “screen”; the guest walks through the photograph and into a reconstruction of the photograph.  Interpreters play the people in the photograph and freely interact with guests.  The first interpreter begins with a short speech to set the scene.  Then the guests ask questions or chat with the interpreters.  I tried the Prohibition exhibit, complete with local sheriff standing next to a still, a policewoman in a police station, and the moonshiner in jail.  The conversations were fun, but you definitely needed additional background knowledge to keep the conversation flowing.  The props are either built in the IHS studios or by outside contractors.  The interpreters train for a month.  I give IHS credit for creatively resolving their no-object prohibition.

This post is getting scary long.  So I will close by recommending next year’s AMM conference in Madison, Wisconsin.  If you are in the museum field, the conference isn’t too expensive and is relatively small.  The sessions are pragmatic, and the attendees are convivial.

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