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AASLH

How Regional Associations Are Models for Museums of The Future

Folks engaging and learning from one another at last week's CAM Conference in Pasadena, or a peek into the future?

I’ve noticed that a great deal of my favorite resources come from national, regional, or local associations. This makes sense to me. Professional and organizational development is their thing, right? But if you think about the role that these associations play in their communities, it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to conclude that the museum of the future is a regional association.

The California Association of Museums shared their new strategic plan during the CAM Conference in Pasadena last week. When Phil Kohlmetz, the CAM President was speaking, he mostly used the future tense, describing what the organization will be because the plan is in its first of five years. But in actuality, he was pointing out how the association has adjusted and arranged priorities to strengthen what it actually is. During their presentation, I thought simply, “If all cultural organizations adopted these areas of focus, then every cultural organization would be a high-impact organization.” Take a look at the focus areas that make up CAM’s strategic alignment:

  • Build capacity
  • Heighten advocacy
  • Foster community

Perhaps national and regional associations, being connector organizations made up of individuals who can maintain a day-to-day bird’s-eye view of the industry, are terrific models for museums’ strategic futures. Even if they didn’t take up any new practices or adjust to the times, the past and present function of associations may be similar to museum functions of the future.

Looking at attributes that make up national and regional associations reveals that what associations are now, and what museums may be in the future, may be close to the same thing. As such, examining the goals and operations of associations may be a helpful exercise for nonprofits preparing for the future.

National and regional associations actively have aimed to:

  • … Exist as connectors. Between every session at the CAM conference, the organization provided an opportunity for networking and building connections. They put on breakfasts, lunches, even an ice cream social! The Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN) actively conducts meet-ups to get folks connected. Associations bring in different speakers and writers to offer different opportunities to connect, and, like a museum, they bring in people eager to learn and explore. Like museums and other cultural organizations, associations aim to get people to interact and learn from one another.
  • …Create horizontal professional communities. Most associations that I’ve come across have committees. The American Association of Museum’s (AAM) committees are the first to come to my mind as an example- probably because they have so many of them. Within these committees, folks are invited to engage equally and contribute to the conversation. Organizations are becoming less vertical (hierarchical) and more horizontal in the way that they operate. They are welcoming more voices when making important decisions and they are working more often in groups. National and regional associations have been putting like-minded folks in groups for years in order to support one another and help come up with industry solutions.
  • …Cultivate professional development and encourage skill-building. The nonprofit sector is notorious for ducking out on providing employees with professional development opportunities. For associations, professional development and skill building is front and center. It’s not a surprise: cultural nonprofits that follow the lead of investing time and energy into their people will develop stronger, more valuable people and build a more successful organization.
  • …Share resources and strengthen their communities. Museums and cultural organizations aim to educate in order to build more vibrant, healthy communities. The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) invested the time and energy to develop a format for online engagement during their 2010 annual meeting. The organization realized the location barrier that existed; not everyone can be in Oklahoma City, but everyone at a cultural organization could likely benefit from involvement in the conference. They paid attention to issues threatening their ability to share quality resources, and they employed new media solutions to create an interactive platform to keep the information flowing, and people conversing. Speaking of which, most associations have the benefit of being able to…
  • …Pay attention. They have a macro-view of the community they serve and industry needs. If you have your eyes open to things happening in the outside world, then you are better able to adjust. Moreover, you’re more likely to see changes coming and ensure that you’re organization doesn’t get left behind.
  • …Create a hub. Do you remember a few years back when marketers would do whatever it took not to link to another webpage? The fear seemed to be that if the web user clicked on something else, they’d leave your page. There’s no way to know if they’d come back. At the CAM conference, Maria Gilbert of The Getty said simply, “create a hub.” Make your website (or your people) the go-to for desired information, and folks will come back. Regional associations have been creating hubs long before the boom of online engagement.
  • …Welcome evangelists. Like me, because they know that if I can find a way to get to the CAM conference, I’ll likely learn something and share it with my friends and networks. Similarly, many associations give out fellowships or scholarships that allow young professionals and students to attend events. This is a great idea because young people are using social media the most to create online content. Cultural nonprofits (and public sector entities) should do this too. Know who your evangelists are and make it easy for them to help you spread your message- online or otherwise.
  • …Master the market. What I mean by this, really, is that they function based off of traditional utility functions. This isn’t new for museums, which do the same thing. They produce goods and services that are desired by a population, and they make a portion of their revenue from “selling” their product to donors. This is worth attention, because an organization that does not utilize the market or work to sustain itself would be a bad example of an organization to mimic.

Perhaps association organizations are museums that are not place-based or artifact-based, but people-based. That may be the reason why some of their traditional functions serve as good models for future cultural nonprofit operations. As society continues to evolve to be more social (or anti-social, depending on what you think about online communications) and participatory, the traditional practices of association organizations become even better models. Perhaps they aren’t ideal (how do you incorporate ‘place’?), but they may be a cheat-sheet about how to think about the future.

What do you think? Can museums of the future learn a thing or two from national and regional association organizations? Please weigh in with your thoughts.

Posted on by colleendilen in Big ideas, Community Engagement, Museums, Nonprofits, Public Management, Social Media, The Future 1 Comment

Museums May Need a Social Media Mentality Makeover to Keep up With For-Profits

Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to sit in on two separate events pertaining to the role of social media in the world of location-based environments. One conference focused on social media in museums and historic sites. The other focused on social media in the for-profit world of location-based experiences. Here’s what happened: The museum folks discussed the fear of radical trust and user-generated content, while the for-profit folks only spoke with excitement about the opportunities user-generated content provides that sector.

Nonprofits started with the edge in social media over for-profit companies. If our attitude doesn’t evolve (like our business practices regarding social media did), then many nervous museums may fall behind quickly while our for-profit counterparts take the lead on social media innovation.

 

The Museum Attitude:

“We live in a golden age of the flowering of amateur experts” – Lee Raine, Pew Internet & American Life Project, as quoted during conference AASLH.

I was delighted to listen in and take part in the American Association for State and Local History’s (AASLH) online conference session on Thursday, “What’s Radical about Radical Trust?” It focused on the confidence museums have (or don’t have) in empowering/ collaborating with online communities. The session was exciting! The panelists attempted to make opportunities related to social media understandable to nonprofit professionals on the conference. Panelists shared success stories their institutions had experienced through crowdsourcing and the utilization of social media. However, all the while panelists asked questions like, “Do you have a policy on user-generated content?” and “Do you think user-generated content is a threat?” There was great concern about the sharing of opinion verses knowledge on museum blogs and interactive sites. This is why radical trust is considered “radical.” What does user-generated content mean for the authoritative voice of the museum?

 

The For-Profit Attitude:

“People are awesome!” – Scott Trowbridge (Disney Imagineer) & Dave Cobb (Thinkwell)

Later that day, I headed to Thinkwell in Burbank for Social Media Week- Los Angeles to attend a session called “The Online/Offline Future of Social Media: Multidimensional Engagement Across Digital and Physical Environments.” Panelists included Disney Imagineers, Thinkwell staff, representatives from 42 Entertainment and Village Voice Media. This session seemed to pick up where the AASLH conference left off– but from a different perspective. It started with the idea of authorship and authority, and spun into an exciting, high-energy panelist discussion about the bright future of engaging audiences through storytelling. These mindsets fill in the gaps and outshine some of the hesitancy surrounding museums’ social media mentality. Here’s how for-profit folks are thinking about social media and the merging of online/offline environments:

  • Sharing authorship does not mean giving it up. People still want expertise, Susan Bonds of 42 Entertainment insisted at the session. Without expertise, it’s hard to follow the story. And creating and engaging visitors in a story is a shared goal in both location-based entertainment companies and nonprofit museums. Giving up complete authorship doesn’t have to threaten the authority of the institution. It’s not “losing” control, but changing up the system of control. If museums are turning into cultural centers and increasingly becoming places for dialogue, learning, and conversation, then social interactions (real or virtual) with other visitors/users can be thought of as an extension of successful community engagement, rather than a threat to museum authority.
  • Accept that visitors will be using new media and ask, “How can I integrate this?” I think museums are doing this, but reinforcing the “How can I integrate this?” question helps create insertion points for visitors to discover to connect with the institution, and helps to create a more multidimensional experience. Quite simply, your visitors will be texting, tweeting, and checking in on foursquare at your museum. This isn’t a nuisance, it’s an opportunity to remain relevant and to reinforce your mission.
  • Add layers of experience. Some of the negatives of using social media- as brainstormed by AASLH conference participants- included that it was intangible (what if you create social experience on-site?), there was a risk of appearing less professional (perhaps this makes your museum more accessible and builds community relationships), and a large amount of staff time is spent vetting responses (how much do you/should you really vet responses?). For-profit location-based counterparts, however, have turned these negatives into positives or found ways to use them to their advantage. This is innovation. And to stay on top of social media, we need to go one step further than just listing pros and cons; we need to change the cons into pros and utilize them to add positive layers of experience to museum visits.
  • Social media and online worlds mean physical places need to be more magical. There’s probably less incentive to visit the museum when you can stay at home and get the same information on your computer. At first I scuffed at the word “magical” as it was being used by Disney Imagineers on the panel. Museums don’t have magic; we have science. But science, I think, can function a lot like magic in that it creates a spark of interest. Thinkwell is creating and exhibit for the Fernbank Natural History Museum that is an interactive recreation of Georgia’s ecological and environmental zones. These kind of  themed exhibits aren’t new at all– but consider that this exhibit is driven almost solely by experience? The exhibit, he said, doesn’t even have signs or touchscreens. It has guides for parents so they can lead the way. This helps build community and social capital. This, I would argue, has the potential to be pretty magical. And it’s not something you could experience on a computer screen.
  • The best (not worst) insight and information-share comes from users. The AASLH session made it clear that social media was a valuable tool, but panelists and participants spoke a lot about vetting and monitoring user responses, deciding what does/does not get shared publicly, and the issue of authority. The tone seemed to be that social media is good, but museums need to supervise and be careful. The Social Media Week session, on the other hand, praised social media and told nonstop stories about this-and-that cool thing that companies were doing to create a fusion between online and offline worlds. The tone at this event was that visitors/guests come up with the best ideas. While there are certainly issues to be discussed regarding museums and the possible evolution of their authoritative voice in the merging of online and offline worlds, there could be value in simply switching the way we think about user-generated content. There’s likely more value and innovation to be had if we think of our visitors as willing and eager contributors, and not threats.
Posted on by colleendilen in Big ideas, Community Engagement, Exhibits, Museums, Nonprofits, Social Media, Technology, The Future 4 Comments