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Museums

Museum Accessibility: Are Museum Professionals Sending the Right Signals?

Getting this post via e-mail? Click here to see the video.

Check out this video above, which I discovered thanks to Jennifer Souers of MuseoBlogger. Whether you work in a museum or not, it’s sure to bring a little smile to your face– not a warm and cuddly, feel-good smile– but a it’s-funny-because-it’s-true kind of smile. But this little video gives museum professionals something interesting to think about as well.

Sometimes it takes somebody outside of our niche to show us how our tribe/institution/industry is perceived, and this video can provide some insight for folks working in museums and cultural nonprofit organizations. For better or worse, this video shows us how museums and museum professionals are perceived. We must ask ourselves: is this how we want our professions and institutions to be viewed?

Below are some red-flags that emerged for me while watching the video. I’ll call them ‘misconceptions,’ though it could be argued by some that these are not misconceptions at all. If museums are increasingly becoming places for community, let’s make it clear.  If we want folks to be sure these things are misconceptions of museum professionals then let’s do what we can to prove it.

 

Misconception #1: Museum professionals are nothing like normal people. Kim the cat says, “Chances are, the museum people who decide what gets to be put in the museum probably don’t have anything in common with you.” I laughed at this because museum professionals (administrators, scientists, exhibit designers, researchers) often try hard to be accessible to the public, despite their often-vast knowledge of very particular subjects. (High levels of education is what Kim seems to identify as the leading barrier between museum staff and visitor). It’s a funny statement, but it also means that museum professionals, despite their efforts, aren’t doing their jobs right because their professional backgrounds can create a disconnect. Building upon the growing sense of community that museums are currently nursing may improve this, as well as incorporating accessible and engaging on-site professionals that can tell a personal story or two. Lesson: If museum professionals want their displays to exhibit accessibility, then museum professionals must be accessible themselves.

 

Misconception #2: Museum professionals think visitors can’t handle context. Kim says,”Blank walls are good so that the visitors won’t have to deal with too much context or history.” There are some valid reasons why museum professionals keep the walls blank. For instance, to draw attention to the formal elements of the art. However, when a visitor comes across an object and little context is provided, it can produce a negative effect. As the video hints, one effect is the notion that museum professionals draw academic boundaries to make themselves and the objects they display inaccessible. Moreover, in the video Kim points out that museums tell the community what to think.  In this era of new technologies and social media, some museums are aiming to allow visitors to be their own curators. Lesson: In order to increase accessibility, museum professionals should provide enough context that visitors may draw their own conclusions and connect to the object in a meaningful way on their own.

 

Misconception #3: Museum professionals fuzzy up concepts such as value and importance in order to appear authoritative. The video does more than hint that it’s unclear how museum professionals determine importance and value in regard to museum exhibits (namely, deciding what goes into the museum and what stays out). Perhaps professionals are fuzzy in communicating this process because cultural gatekeeping isn’t completely understood on the whole. Kim simply advises museum professionals to use tidy and sharp labels, and only use language that sounds academic, “otherwise, the authority effect won’t be so convincing.” By including enough context, making scientists and historians personally accessible, and allowing visitors to draw their own conclusions in regard to objects, only some of this misconception could be corrected. Lesson: Museum professionals must be communicative in regards to the exhibit design and creation process by explaining decisions that affect how the ‘story’ is presented.

 

Misconception #4: The work of museum professionals is about the objects. This video talks a lot about object-worship, and introduces the museum as a place that houses important things. In some ways, this is true– but museums tend to be fueled by ideas, theories, symbols, and a greater notion of sparking and expanding education, rather than objects themselves. This misconception makes sense: museums take great care to preserve and display objects because of what the objects represent. To call a museum a place of things is right- but also wrong. Museums’ missions are most often about ideas, and the objects are meaningful symbols of important stories. Lesson: Museum professionals must emphasize the stories and lessons that objects symbolize or represent– rather than focus on the object itself, as that appears irrelevant (because it’s missing context).

 

Misconception #5: Museum professionals only care about the wealthy. If this isn’t a misconception, then it should be. Kim the cat says, “At first I thought there must be some law against having poor people on a museum’s Board of Trustees, but then later I found out that actually there isn’t any law like this. This is just the way they like to do it.” What’s missing here is an explanation: the Board often secures significant funding, and the wealthy attract other wealthy folks who can give to the museum and help keep its doors open. But with or without the explanation, it’s still a telling and jarringly true statement. Many museums are placing more focus on diversity, and are arguably gearing themselves away from a white, upper-middle class visitor and donor base. There’s a lot of work to be done (3 of 17 of the top 25 most visited museums in the US are run by men. Over half have PhDs indicating that many have similar academic backgrounds). Lesson: In order for museums to connect to communities, it may help to have a Board and staff that match the community demographic. Or rather, having an all-wealthy and homogeneous Board can be off-putting for visitors who do not fit that bill.

 

Misconception #6: Museum professionals are magical masters of time-freeze and corps display. Do museum people fight nature every day, as Kim states in the video? Maybe– and it’s probably not a terrible misconception either. Museum professionals certainly go above and beyond to preserve objects that tell important stories about culture and the world around us. However, this time-freezing becomes wrapped up in Kim’s little paper, “An illustration of how everything in a museum is something like a corpse.” Museums are certainly doing a great many things to remain relevant and to shatter the notion that museums are merely houses for old, irrelevant things. However, the old stereotype lives on. Lesson: Old habits die hard, and despite recent efforts, it will take a lot of collaboration, forward-thinking, and community engagement for museums to break away from past reputations.

But it will be well worth the effort.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Sector Evolution, Trends 3 Comments

5 Reasons Why I Chose to Pursue an MPA over an MBA

USC's 2009-2010 Officers of the Graduate Policy and Administration Committee with Associate Dean, Carol Rush

USC's 2009-2010 Officers of the Graduate Policy and Administration Committee with Associate Dean, Carol Rush

 

MPAs and MBAs have a lot in common: they are both professional degrees that provide management training by way of economics, policy, statistics, and finance. What made me pick an MPA (Master of Public Administration) over an MBA (Master of Business Administration), you might ask? The MBA is surely a beaten path with many, well known benefits…but considering my interest and passion for museums and nonprofits, an MBA just wasn’t for me. I liked the idea of a professional degree, but an MBA overlooked the defining features in my field of interest. Here’s why I decided to pursue an MPA over an MBA:

 

1) Museums and nonprofits have harder-to-measure outcomes

A defining characteristic of the nonprofit and public sectors is unmeasurable outcomes because the point of most nonprofits is to fulfill a social mission (nonprofit organizations cannot distribute profits). A powerful business is one that can make the most money (measurable). A powerful nonprofit is one that helps more people, most effectively (not-so-measurable). This does not mean that impact assessments are not critical in the nonprofit world and that they are strongest when they include quantitative data. However, to get an MBA would mean overlooking an opportunity to really think about solving problems of nonprofit outcome measurement and would mean focusing heavily on a monetary bottom-line, which is just not a characteristic of the sector. The MPA focuses on social missions while also emphasizing the skills required to obtain funding for an organization, which is much more relevant to my continuing work with nonprofit organizations.

 

2) It’s a problem-solving degree- ideal for an evolving sector

If MBA programs study the market, then MPAs try to solve market failures– and there’s an obvious difference between studying and solving. In the former, it’s been figured out, you’re just learning how to do it. In the latter, there’s a large-scale problem to be solved. MBAs are hired to make an individual company more profitable and there are books on this (lots of them!) with clear rules (“buy low, sell high,” “always be closing”). In contrast, MPAs are hired to take action to lead their organizations in making the world a better place… and our literature is not nearly as abundant and the tone is less certain. Our academic journals are filled with what’s happening right now or what’s happened in the past. This is ideal for the nonprofit sector because need and the way people communicate and connect (securing funding, donors, etc) is always evolving.  There is certainly no better degree in this case, it’s just based on your goals and interests. Considering my interests, an MPA was the way to go.

 

3) My utility function includes public service

This is not to say that my utility function– and those of my MPA peers– doesn’t include income at all (or that the utility function of MBA grads never includes public service), but it is to say that public service drives my behavior more than money, and most likely drives the behavior of my classmates as well. It shouldn’t be surprising that nonprofit CEOs don’t make as much money as for-profit CEOs. On top of that, nonprofits are often understaffed and leaders may suffer from serious burnout. So why would us MPAs put ourselves through that? Because we want to make a difference. For some of us (and I’ll blame my background at The University of Chicago for the sincerity of this statement), we want to solve big problems and aren’t afraid of hard things. Some people might hate to look back and say, “I wish I made more money.” I respect that– and to each, his own. But for me, the most heartbreaking thing that I can imagine saying is, “I wish I made a difference for someone,” or “I wish I spent my life doing something I deeply cared about.” The MPA degree helps me build the skills to accomplish the things that I care about.

 

4) MPAs want to change the world… but we’re not impractical about it

I spend every day with folks who are determined to change the world. Are we starry-eyed and optimistic? Maybe. Too impractical to be effective? Definitely not. These professionals come from top tier institutions, much like the professionals that enter top MBA programs. Moreover, as an MPA, our speakers, mentors, and professors are professionals in policy and the nonprofit sector– rather than bankers and for-profit professionals. If I were to have pursued an MBA, our speakers and mentors would be those who best understand investment banking recruiting and achieving measurable outcomes– which would be much less relevant to me and my interests. Instead, I am surrounded by future foundation CEOs, grant writers, program producers, and nonprofit directors. A frequent happy hour topic for us: how not warm-and-fuzzy it is to work tirelessly for a mission.

 

5) The future: society’s priorities are placing higher importance on social good.

Signs are pointing toward the need for corporate environments to take on social missions– or at least some corporate social responsibility. Does this mean we might see some MPAs in corporate environments changing up the system in the near future? Perhaps. Consider this: Generation Y, the incoming professional leaders, are said to run on public service motivation. Unlike Generation X, these folks would much rather work for the government than a corporate giant. They want to give back to communities. Moreover, customers are more likely to consume goods that align themselves with some sort of social mission– and communication, transparency, and connection (nonprofit focuses) are beginning to lead corporate environments. In sum, the days of caring primarily about income and individual companies may be coming to a close. In fact, that’s what The Economist predicted for 2010 when they discussed the oncoming decline of the MBA.

When young nonprofit and museum professionals spout their desire to get an MBA because that’s what they think they “should” do, I cringe. There are many incredible reasons to get an MBA and great reasons to get an MPA as well; but I think it’s the responsibility of professional-degree-advocates to know why they are choosing one degree over the other.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Miscellaneous 51 Comments

Social Media in Museums: The Best Devote Their Websites To It

Museums are placing higher priority on engagement. With the social media revolution upon us and nonprofits’ growing reputations for utilizing social media to build connections and share stories, it’s no wonder museums are turning into community centers. Nearly every museum has a link to Twitter or Facebook these days, but museums are actually doing much more to engage their audiences online.

To illustrate the growing importance of social media as a mechanism for creating connections and increasing community engagement, I’ve taken screen shots of the websites of three of America’s most visited and successful museums. I am highlighting not just traditional social media, but also media that is social (online collaboration, sharing of resources, technology in strengthening the community, etc).

– Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, or the most visited museum of 2009. (Washington D.C.)


  • Social media comes first: Links to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and podcasts are accessible via the Natural History Museum’s homepage. In fact, this was the single most visited museum in the United States last year, and it is also one of the only museums in the top 25 most visited museums that gives social media such a prominent space on its homepage. This is most likely a case of correlation over causation, but if the most frequently visited museum in the country doesn’t put social media icons below the fold, why do so many museums make visitors scroll to the bottom of the page to see them?
  • Mobile applications are front and center: The most prominent item featured on the museum’s homepage is the announcement of a mobile application, MEanderthal, for iPhone and Android that highlights the museum’s Hall of Human Origins. The application is engaging, as it allows you to morph back in time to see what you might have looked like. Not only that, iPhone users can use iSmithsonian for free to get updates on museum happenings. This museum is successful, and places a strong emphasis on both engagement, and keeping up with the times.
  • Engaging community events that educate: This isn’t new for museums; there’s always interaction taking place. The museum is currently celebrating Savoring Sustainable Seafood, which features events that are open to the public and aim to engage the community. The Natural History Museum’s website is devoted to personal connections and accessibility.

– The Getty (Los Angeles, CA)

  • Community building through resource sharing: The Getty’s website doesn’t just supply museum information, it also serves as an online resource in education for parents and teachers. The website has ideas for art activities and lesson plans. Through these efforts, the museum shares it resources and strengthens the community.
  • Collaborative content: It might seem natural for art museums to view one another as competitors for visitors and donors- and perhaps they are- but Southern California’s art museums put their missions to inspire and educate first in the creation of a virtual exhibition. In this case (like the one above), the museum uses technology to build bridges and generally strengthen the community.
  • Blogs as a space for interaction: This popular museum understands the importance of allowing visitors to interact with the museum through blog comments. Moreover, the blog provides readers the opportunity to see what happens behind-the-scenes at the museum. Allowing folks to take a peek behind the curtain make The Getty more transparent, accessible, inviting, and gives a sense of trustworthiness.
  • Calendar of public programs: The inclusion of the calendar reminds website visitors that all the good stuff isn’t just online. In fact, the best stuff takes place within the museum. The calendar is an important inclusion here, as it puts a focus on experience and interaction.


– The Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, IL)

  • INTERACT and creative engagement: The Art Institute of Chicago puts the bulk of its interaction in one place– on its own page off of a tab on the homepage between members and shop. And this page really does include many links to social media, and media that is social. There’s even a My Collections feature that allows users to log-in (a great measurement for engagement) and build their own virtual art collections. Curious Corner features fun and educational online games for kids. A person could spend hours on this interact tab of the website (Truth be told, I may have gotten caught up in it a time or two…)
  • Microblogging may be worth fitting on the page: The museum’s twitter stream is shown on the site. Not only that, the Twitter stream shows pictures of the folks/organizations with which the Art Institute is communicating. Like the blog at The Getty, the use of this social media tool puts a voice to the institution and makes it appear more personable, trustworthy, and transparent.
  • A way to learn more: It’s not new to highlight a sign-up for an organization’s e-newsletter on a site, but the simple act asks the visitor for engagement and lets them know that the organization is an evolving entity with more to say!

If the best of the best museums place a high priority on engaging audiences through media and technology, then there may be a lesson here for smaller museums struggling with whether or not to delve into social media. The key may be to start thinking about the internet as a flexible medium through which to connect with visitors.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Digital Connectivity, Nonprofit Marketing, Trends 8 Comments

When Art Museum Directors Talk Trash, Everybody Wins.

Directors at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (Max Anderson) and the New Orleans Museum of Art (John Bullard), after a series of playful trash-talking, have made public bets on who will win the Super Bowl this weekend… and they bet famous works of art.

"Ideal View of Tivoli", 1644, by Claude Lorrain, Which NOMA will loan to the IMA if the Colts win the Super Bowl.

JMW Turner's The Fifth Plague of Egypt, 1800, which the IMA will lend to NOMA if the Saints win the Super Bowl.

The wager: If the Colts win the Super Bowl, the New Orleans Museum of Art will lend Claude Lorrain’s, Ideal View of Tivoli, 1644, to the Indianapolis Museum of Art for three months. If the Saints win, on the other hand, the Indianapolis Museum of Art will lend out Turner’s The Fifth Plague of Egypt, 1800.

 

But it doesn’t matter who wins the Super Bowl this Sunday. Anderson and Bullard are winners in spreading their missions either way– just because they made the wager. Here’s why this bet is a step forward for museums in terms of mission and community engagement (and the reasons are cooler than you think):

 

1) The bet will build community and mix popular cultures.

Makes sense, right? Being a sports fan builds a sense of community; it’s something that a group of fans come together to care about. The art directors’ bet piggy-backs the art museum culture with the sport-watching culture, which is one of passion and identity. And why shouldn’t communities feel the same sense of ownership and connection with their city’s art museum as they feel with their city’s sport teams? Anderson and Bullard are demonstrating pride in their cities by making the wager, and aligning themselves directly with the members of the community- all of whom are also hoping for a win on Sunday. Anderson and Bullard are saying that the museum cares about a win just as much as the rest of Indianapolis and New Orleans do- and they’ll put their money where their mouth is. In turn, the community knows that folks representing the IMA and NOMA will be gasping, cheering, and shouting their lungs out along side them as they are watching the game; it’s a powerful thing. On the first day that the Lorrian is on display at NOMA (or Turner at IMA), a local will stand in front of it and say, “We won the bet!”

 

2) Scientifically speaking, the bet lights up the brains of art-lovers.

… but not in the way that you’re probably thinking. Many museums have missions to educate- and this public wager does just that. Of course, you learn a thing or two about art while looking over the give-and-take that led to the final wager (I certainly didn’t know that the Indianapolis Museum of Art owns a farm). Interestingly, a 2008 study from The University of Chicago finds that spectators’ brains light up when talking about sports, and their language skills are improved. According to the article, “the region of the brain usually associated with planning and controlling actions is activated when players and fans listen to conversations about their sport.” Most obviously, the bet encourages museum-fans to watch their city’s team (if only for hope of gaining a Turner or a Lorrain in their town) and art-lovers are exposed to this benefit. Or at least I will be, as I was neutral about the outcome of the Super Bowl until I realized that I will be in Indiana in the Summertime…

 

3) The bet makes art aficionados biologically happier.

To non-sports fans, the bet may seem silly– but sports fans are less prone to depression than those disinterested in sports. Gambling also increases dopamine levels in the brain, making fans– of the museum and the teams–happier. It’s a welcome change of pace, especially since human beings are hardwired to avoid conflict and we usually think of museums as on the same team. This is not to say that art museums should go betting works of art left and right, but it is to say that the friendly competition is an exciting and healthy change for museum lovers. After all, scientists credit social competition for human beings’ increasing brain-size. So thanks for keeping us happy, Anderson and Bullard– and for expanding our brains.

 

4) The bet has sass- and so do museums.

This wager makes Robert Smithson look silly for saying, “Museums are tombs, and it looks like everything is turning into a museum.” Well, at least the first part looks dumb. Case in point: check out these trash-talking (friendly) tweets. Anderson and Bullard challenge the notion that museums are cold, static, outdated, and lifeless places. These museums have attitude, and they are acting in regard  to current real-life situations. As for the last half of Smithson’s quote, it seems that everything is turning into a museum– or more accurately, museums are turning into places for everything… like friendly community-building wagers.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Digital Connectivity, Trends 5 Comments

55 Low-Resource Ways for Museums to Connect with the Community

photo from artolog on flickr

photo from artolog on flickr

“It’s not about the collections anymore… It’s about community.”

This is what a recent article by the Christian Science Monitor says in regard to museums, and it nicely sums up the discussion in the museum blogging community on the transformation from the static object-based museum of the past, to the dynamic community-based institution of the future.

So how does a museum transform into such an environment? I like Megan Blankenship’s notion that this process may perhaps align more closely with a revolution rather than through slow adaptation. This begs the question of what can be done now to summon community interaction. In an effort to aid museums in this transformation without losing sight of their mission, Nina Simon offers eight ways for museums to connect with community. I think one solution lies in museums positioning themselves as cultural centers and integral aspects of the local/regional community.

Here are 55 relatively low-resource ways for museums to connect with the local community. I present a brainstorm of middle-sized items that come in between (the obvious) smiling to welcome visitors and the (time and resource required) launching of a new outreach program or grant-funded initiative. Several museums already utilize a number of these ideas. I hope to compile an easily accessible  and quick list of little ways for museums to create a connection with the community while respecting their brand and promoting the museum.

I had to stop at 55 as I noticed that this list really is endless. Please feel free to comment with your own thoughts and suggestions!

  1. Tweet

  2. Keep a list of the dates, and send museum members small a gift on their birthday.

  3. Add an “Interview with a Local Expert” section to your newsletter.

  4. Offer a free program to celebrate an audience

  5. Highlight free coffee for members on Sunday mornings.

  6. Start a blog and use it to instigate discussion.

  7. Add a public forum for thoughts and opinions to your website.

  8. Allow visitors to make video responses at the museum– like these videos shot at the Mattress Factory.

  9. Start a science cafe. (if you haven’t noticed, I love these!)

  10. Highlight local experts on site.

  11. Seek opportunities for curators and museum professionals to serve as guest lecturers at local schools and universities.

  12. Ask staff members to take 10 minutes each day to interact with visitors.

  13. Supply staff members with educational items or “did you know” facts to facilitate interaction.

  14. Participate in local parades.

  15. Host a science fair or an art exhibit with the work of local adults or children.

  16. If you can’t host a fair, go to one and give out an award to a qualified participant on behalf of the institution.

  17. Set up craft projects that make a difference or have meaning in the local, national, or global community.

  18. Hold a book drive.

  19. Provide small, branded lab notebooks or sketch pads (just a few sheets of printed paper is all that they’ll need- no fancy binding necessary) for visitors to fill out and take home.

  20. Create a low resource scavenger hunt, and offer a small gift at the information desk (pencil, sticker, etc) to those who complete the hunt.

  21. Celebrate with the community! Give out candy or subject-appropriate treats on Halloween.

  22. Wear “Ask me about Membership” buttons.

  23. Host a camp-in for kids in the community.

  24. Offer free hours of admission when possible, even if it’s just for a specified demographic such as teens, college students, the elderly, etc.

  25. Put your events on community calendars.

  26. Create a calendar of relevant events for adults in the community and post it on your website.

  27. Use this calendar to help create community partnerships with organizations that have a similar mission.

  28. Complement exhibits with interactive and educational craft projects.

  29. Ask for feedback (on blogs, written or electronic surveys, etc).

  30. Ask visitors to write their favorite museum memory and post it to a memory board. Have the board out for public viewing so that participants know that their positive experiences have contributed to the museum in a physical way.

  31. Thank your donors when an exhibit is a success– but don’t forget to publically thank your broader community as well.

  32. Have recommended reading lists available and have the books available at the bookstore, if possible.

  33. Encourage visitors to share their own stories on your blog.

  34. Know the local school curriculum, and explain to teachers how your museum complements that curriculum.

  35. Have a connection with at least one person at every school in the county (but shoot for 3 or 4 surrounding counties).

  36. Create a network of teachers and send them useful ideas of how to offer extra credit by visiting the informal learning environment of the museum. If you can, give the teacher passes to events so these kids get in for free or reduced rates.

  37. Hold large scale, educational special events or celebrations if budget allows.

  38. Coordinate a debate with local industry leaders to take place at the institution.

  39. Hold a training for local scientists/artists to provide skills for communicating with the public in regard to complicated, academic material. The link is to a grant-funded project, but this could be done on a smaller scale.

  40. Know the talents of staff members, and utilize their talents (as oragami specialists, or watercolor artists, or something else exciting, educational and relevant) to create a low-resource program.

  41. Award “shout outs” in your newsletter to highlight the accomplishments of individuals or institutions in the community that have succeeded in an area related to the museum.

  42. Offer a unique class through a community partnership by giving a handful of passes to instructors, who may later offer them as a benefit to paying clients.

  43. Utilize community resources. Need face painters for an upcoming event? Call the local art school and ask for volunteers.

  44. Wouldn’t it have been cool if you your senior prom was in the museum? Teens are a tough demographic for museums. Market this angle. There’s plenty for them to learn at the museum as well… just be sure to keep dancing away from valuables.

  45. Along these lines, tap into teen volunteers in the community.

  46. Start a Flickr photostream.

  47. Ask for papers that visitors write/ have written on objects in the museum and post them to the website if they are appropriate (and help give them some positive google- recognition).

  48. Have a Facebook page.

  49. Create an iTunes iMix for your institution with fun songs related to the museum and exhibits (ex- Walk like an Egyptian).

  50. Compile an iTunes iMix like above, but use songs that are more directly academic or relevant (ex- cultural songs pertaining to the exhibit).

  51. Make videos of interviews with your curators and put them on YouTube.

  52. Arrange a flash mob. Hey, it’s an idea!

  53. Ask your intern to write a series of posts about his/her adventures within the institution with thoughts about events and exhibits. I simply must write in a shout-out to Web Developer (Stan) and Web/Special Events Intern (Evan) of Pacific Science Center here.

  54. Manage a document that lists staff members and the languages they speak. Sort this list by language.

  55. Add a “Focus: Museum Staff Member of the Week” to your newsletter that allows readers to understand job functions and specialties at the Museum. Include interesting facts and allow this to offer a special behind-the-scenes look at the museum.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Community Engagement, Trends 4 Comments

Where are Museum Studies Graduate Programs Going Wrong?

Photo from success.co.il

Photo from success.co.il

Recently, I’ve come across several interesting blog posts about museology/museum studies graduate programs and everything that is going wrong or working against these graduates: they aren’t getting hired, the field is changing, and museum professionals feel like they are working for too little money. You might be thinking that these are problems that many graduates in the country are facing right now, regardless of industry. That’s what I’m thinking, too. But here’s what I find interesting: for one reason or another, significant blame is being placed on the museum studies programs themselves.

And maybe it is a problem with the current programs. After all, this post about the future of museums, by (none other than) the Center for the Future of Museums, even goes so far as to suggest an interesting and alarming solution for current problems facing the museum industry right now: Stop hiring museum studies graduates.

What’s the basis of this disconnect between museum studies programs and museums? How can these graduate programs be changed to improve the attitudes of graduates and help set more realistic expectations? Admittedly, reading up on the field does leave a museum professional (albeit not enrolled in a Museum Studies graduate program) agreeing that some things may need to be changed.

I’ve fallen madly in love with the thought-provoking ideas brought up in this post by New Curator wherein Pete (the author) serves as a strong advocate fighting for the success of recent museum studies graduates. The post contains a lot of great ideas, and triggered dialogue which has spun off into even more great ideas about ways to improve programs. I think the post is most interesting, though, because it offers a peek into the mindset of these none-too-pleased (and apparently none-too-employed) museum studies graduates.

I want join this discussion by throwing a few more ideas into the mix:

  • Perhaps a degree in Museum Studies is something in between a professional and an academic degree, and museum professionals have trouble measuring it against other areas of study

There seems to be some confusion about a master’s degree in museum studies being considered an academic degree or a professional degree– that is, does the degree provide knowledge on academic topics, or is it a degree of the professional development sort? New Curator makes it clear that a master’s degree in museum studies was—and perhaps still is– considered a professional degree by those who chose/choose to enroll in these programs.. and  it appears that in museum environments, professional and academic degree recipients are competing for the same jobs. Pete writes, “I’ve read a few things about the skepticism around academia as work training. My Christ, who let in all these Art History and Archaeology PHDs? They’re practically *running* the place and now there’s the hint that a Museum Studies qualification is unnecessary?” I cannot tell if this means that PhDs are running the museum studies programs or running the museums… but the statement, either way, indicates that PhDs are doing something that is valued by the museums.

Maybe the degree is something strangely in between an academic PhD in Art History and a professional M.B.A/ M.P.A.  Perhaps Pete is onto something when he writes, “The one thing these people [students in museum studies] are being trained in are now possibly not trained? Or not trained enough, as I notice in another comment that museums are made up of too many specialisms.” This could be the problem, in a sense. Museum studies programs may be both too specialized and not specialized enough. These graduates are competing for museum jobs with other program graduates whose degrees are undoubtedly academic/specialized (anthropology, art history, paleontology) and undoubtedly professional (business management, public policy). While academic degrees prepare candidates for curating positions, professional degrees prepare candidates for museum management. Then the question becomes does museology study the management or the content of museums? The degree’s position in the middle of these worlds can be seen as either awkward or as advantageous. Museum studies programs should play this as an advantage. It won’t be easy (there seem to be far more graduates with degrees on ends of the spectrum), but it may be worth it… and it may create a positive change for program graduates.

  • Unemployment is not unique to museum studies graduates right now, and placing graduates in full-time jobs is a difficulty that graduate programs of all varieties are facing

Museum studies graduates seem to be frustrated about their inability to get museum jobs, despite the fact that their education has groomed them to take on valuable roles within these environments. Pete writes, “The bitter taste in the museum student’s mouth was that what they thought was professional development is now considered almost useless to their future compared to the gamble of the job market or the gamble of obtaining a useful contact.” He goes onto say, “Of course, it’s criminal to take their money, hand them a piece of paper and wish them luck with a handshake. Too many graduates from the full taxonomy of museum studies courses are having to compete in the job market lottery. And it is a lottery. The most basic entry-level positions into the museum world are now getting TONS of applicants. This is a sad state of affairs.”

But this is happening everywhere. Some nonprofit organizations have seen a 1600% jump in applicants in this year alone because of the economy.  Financial firms have even spotted increased occurrences of applicants spouting lies on their resume in order to stand out from the still-growing crowd. It’s rough out there right now; it’s rough for all of us.

Moreover, shouldn’t a well qualified and passionate museum studies grad/museum job candidate be excited that more people are looking to spread the missions of museums? Don’t we evolve by integrating new people and new ideas? Though I’m specializing in nonprofit management, I’m always thrilled to learn of corporate leaders making the switch to the nonprofit world!  As museums are more and more becoming places for community engagement, doesn’t the argument that museums should only be hiring those with formal training in museum studies seem unnecessarily polarizing between the academic world and the public sphere? Museums need to be able to relate to the community; they need to employ diversity. The Center for the Future of Museums has a good bit about it in the previously mentioned article.

“You want to have an excellent Museum Studies program? Guarantee jobs.” Yes. If every graduate is guaranteed a job, then that program is producing exceptionally creative industry leaders, and everyone might consider enrolling in this miracle program, perhaps even making all other graduate and professional degrees obsolete. I agree with The Center for the Future of Museums in their most recent post: this kind of thinking is less about museum studies programs specifically, and more about a certain conception of or assumption about the U.S. Education system.

Many people might let out a laugh if someone claimed that it was the duty of the institution to make all business degree recipients into CEOs. While that may be the ultimate goal of someone getting their M.B.A. is it the responsibility of the institution to take them all the way there? No. The candidate must display ambition, creative thinking, and nurture experience. Getting a food handler’s permit gives you the opportunity to handle food– not the right to handle it. Degrees do not entitle you to anything. You have to do some work to get there. I like this post on the topic. And a typical museum studies graduate doesn’t seem so angry.

I am delighted by the creative ideas that have come from this discussion. New Curator has great ideas for recruitment, such as turning museum studies programs into headhunters and establishing a “museum milkround.” Some are even talking about museum workers unionizing.

  • Maybe the answer involves evolving to meet the changing needs of the community.

This argument traces to the basis for the Center for the Future of Museum’s potential solution to stop hiring museum studies grads. The article begins by discussing the need for diversity within museum studies programs. The post goes on to say, “We are entering an age in which people don’t just want to be lectured to by experts, they want to contribute and curate their own content. In this environment, curators may evolve from being lecturers and authors to being moderators of discussions and editors of content. This requires a different set of soft skills, and calls for a different set of training. Is this something that can be provided at the graduate level in an academic environment, or is it best learned (and consciously taught) on the job?

These are great thoughts. From focusing on soft skills, incorporating social media in the professional development of museum studies students, and creating/ maintaining strong partnerships with institutions, these programs should be preparing for the future and living in the now.

  • Consider wages in regard to the nonprofit environment in which you are working.

I’m not sure how closely museum studies graduates study other kinds of nonprofit and community organizations/ institutions, but the notion that museum studies grads are surprised to learn that they might not be paid much shocked me. I don’t buy it. And if it is true that there’s significant surprise here, I think a simple and positive change-of-mentality might be a solution: Don’t work in a museum for the money. Work in a museum for the mission.

Many museums are public or independent nonprofit organizations, and nonprofit organizations are actively trying to deal with the issue of low wages— especially in regard to some of the newest grads– members of Generation Y, a generation that values work/life balance and often values time and mission over money.

On the issue of wages, New Curator writes that museum studies grads’ work is “something just above slavery. Work hard for an indeterminate amount of time and maybe the industry will maybe reward you. The current model for improving museums through new blood is the same as parents controlling children with Santa.” But wasn’t all of the old blood new blood at one point? And if you’re doing something you love, isn’t it a little bit more worth it?

I’m glad to see the ongoing dialogue about the profession, the industry, and the programs. I’m thrilled to have this peek into the concerns of recent grads and potential museum studies students. I have no doubt that these conversations will lead to an improvement. After all, according to Thomas Edison:

Restlessness and discontent are the first necessities of progress.”

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Trends 26 Comments

10 Reasons to Visit a Museum

Photo from commons.wikimedia.org

Sue at the Field Museum in Chicago. Photo from commons.wikimedia.org


Note:
Museums, in this article, include art, history, and specialty museums, science centers, zoos, aquariums, botanic gardens, arboretums, nature centers, historic sites and similar institutions.

 

1.  Museums make you feel good

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Times are tight in this economic climate, and it’s often easy to use a museum admission price as an excuse to stay at home. However, a recent study conducted by Harris Interactive finds that people are happier when they spend money on experiences rather than material purchases.  According to Leaf Van Boven, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at CU-Boulder,  experiences are shown to create more happiness than material goods because they provide positive personal reinterpretations over time. That is, as we revisit the memory of our trip to the museum, we have a tendency to psychologically weed out any negative memories (should there be any). Experiences, such as visiting a museum, can also become a meaningful part of ones identity and contribute to successful social relationships in a manner that material items cannot. So consider foregoing an outing for items that you may not need; going to the museum will make you happier in the long run.

 

2.  Museums make you smarter

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There is no doubt that a primary role of museums is to engage and educate the community.  Museum exhibits inspire interest in an area of study, item, time period, or an idea– but there’s more going on in museums in regard to education than one might think. Schools rely heavily on museums to enhance the their curriculum. The New York Museum Education Act, for example, aims to create a partnership between schools and cultural institutions to prepare students for the 21st century.  Galleries are becoming classrooms, and not just for kids. Even the museums themselves have interesting histories to inspire and educate visitors. It becomes nearly impossible to exit a museum without having gained any information or insight during your visit.

 

3.  Museums provide an effective way of learning

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Museums are examples of informal learning environments, which means they are devoted primarily to informal education — a lifelong process whereby individuals acquire attitudes, values, skills and knowledge from daily experience and the educative influences and resources in his or her environment. Even outside of museums, informal learning plays a pivotal role in how we take in the world around us. In fact, The U.S. Department of Labor estimates 70% or more of work-related learning occurs outside formal training.  A single visit to a museum can expose visitors to in-depth information on a subject, and the nature of the museum environment is one in which you can spend as much or as little time as you like exploring exhibits. The environment allows you to form your own unique experiences and take away information that interests you. Despite the success that museums have already had in educating visitors, there continue to be ongoing discussions among institutions in regard to increasing museums’ ability to connect through informal learning.

 

4.  Museums are community centers

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Museums are a lot more than collections of artifacts; they allow you to meet with neighbors, discuss thoughts and opinions, and become an active part of the community.  There have been yoga classes at MoMA and Rock Band Summer Camps at the Experience Music Project.  Museums are increasingly holding art chats, book signings, professional development classes, and even wine festivals and farmer’s markets. Something is going on everywhere– just pull up the web page of a local museum (or hop on their Facebook page) and see what they have to offer!

 

5.  Museums inspire

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Museums provide inspiration through personal connections with visitors, and not only on-site and through physical community outreach efforts; some even manage to connect through their social networks.  These kinds of personal memories created at museums do not expire. Please check out this lovely video on the personal impact of museums, created by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance & the American Association of Museums.

6.  Museums help bring change and development to communities

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Research has uncovered that creating community involvement is more about location than the activity at hand, and this kind of location-based learning (like the kind utilized in museums) is a trigger for change and development within the community. As museums are functioning more and more like community centers in providing access to current research and new ideas, they’ve become hot-spots for civic engagement. In museums, even (in some cases, especially) children are actively asked to take part in their communities. The promotion of education and the cultivation of conversation that are taking place in museums across the nation shapes and strengthens our neighborhoods.

7.  Museums are a great way to spend time with friends and family

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Museums provide a great excuse to spend time with friends and family in a positive way. Personal connections can be made with museums and also with family members during visits. A day at the museum often translates to a day spent with loved ones as fathers and mothers transform into tour guides, and the environment provides a shared learning experience. Want to take a date to a museum? Here’s how to do it

 

8.  A museum may be your next community partner or business endeavour

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It takes a lot of employees to help run America’s approximately 17,500 museums and it takes countless businesses and community partners to keep them functioning. Museums need everything from printing services, to video surveillance, to dino-glue– and they are inextricably woven into the web of American government and businesses. If you are not a direct business provider for a museum, you can get some great PR and possibly borrow an artifact or two for a big meeting if you are willing to contribute a monetary gift to a museum. Alternatively, you can follow the lead of these entrepreneurs who are creating their own museums. Or, at the very least, business men and entrepreneurs can trace the development of the National Museum of Entrepreneurship in Denver, and perhaps pay them a visit within the next few years.

 

9.  Museums are free… sometimes – but they all need your support to keep their doors open

Several museums nationwide offer free admission during specified hours or days of the week. Visit the website of your favorite museum to see if they feature something like this.  Perhaps more importantly, take a look at museum membership rates. Often, a membership pays itself off in as few as three annual visits to the museum. When a museum does NOT offer free admission, look into your heart. All museums need financial support in order to keep their doors open. If you like a visitor serving organization and you want to keep it around for decades to come (so that you may bring your great-grandchildren), make a donation or fill out that membership card with pride!

10.  There is a museum close to you.

According to the American Association of Museums (now the American Alliance of Museums since the original publication of this post)  museums average approximately 865 million visits per year or 2.3 million visits per day. That’s a lot of museum visits! It doesn’t hurt that there are museums in every state. To find one near you, try the Official Museum Directory. By conducting a search on the Internet, you may find some rather unusual and interesting museums worth checking out. From the Museum of Wooden Nickles in San Antonio, to the Asphault Museum in Rohnert Park, California, there is certainly something for everyone.

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Miscellaneous, Nonprofit Marketing 19 Comments
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