MuseumNext: Ten Things I Learned About Storytelling and Collaborative Projects

Last November I received a grant to attend a conference I’d had my eye on for a while. A two-day speaker driven event, MuseumNext  is a space where individuals from across the museum world (and I do mean world) gather to share the best examples in museum production and practice. For this particular Museum Next, the focus was “designing the future of museums,” and the talks presented dealt with topics ranging from using augmented and virtual reality, to creating unique experiences for visitor engagement.

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While not all of the talks were useful to me, I did end up with some key takeaways. These lessons ranged from the philosophical or motivational to practical tips for planning big (and small) innovative projects.

1. Feel the fear and do it anyway: Hannah Fox (@hannahfox) from the Derby Silk Mill (@derbysilkmill) in England used the practice of community co-production to develop the main exhibition space at the museum (due to open in 2020). She remarked how important it was when designing new exhibitions, to acknowledge the challenges but not let those issues stop creativity.

2. Create space for empathy: Laura Flusche (@lauraflusche) from the Museum of Design in Atlanta (@modatl) sought to re-center her museum as a place for innovative thinking. She worked to create a vision statement that emphasized the role of design in making the world a better place. As a result she used an iterative process to develop exhibitions that asked audiences to make connections between themselves and society. [See Luba Lukova: Designing Justice]. (Building on the work of LaTanya Autry and #MuseumsAreNotNeutral).

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3. When working with a community, transparency and co-learning is paramount: Nico Wheadon (@nicowheadon) from the Studio Museum in Harlem (@studiomuseum) talked about work that took place beyond the museum’s walls. While the main building was being renovated the staff took the museum out into the world. In developing these programs, it was made clear (much like the Derby Silk Mill above) that it was the community driving the institution rather than the other way around. And as a result, being open and honest in those collaborations was essential.

4. Also from Nico Wheadon: Let go of control.

5. Innovation demands flexibility: When Cuseum (@Cuseum)(Dan Sullivan) and the Perez Art Museum (Christina Vazquez) collaborated on an augmented reality project they realized they couldn’t approach the project the same way they would build a normal exhibition. It became quickly clear that the technology needed to be built and tested at multiple points along the way. In order for the project to be successful, it required a flexible timeline and collaborators that were equally open to a new process.

6. Tell stories with the lowest barrier to entry: In Jia Jia Fei’s talk about the death of the app, Fei emphasized that when determining how to accomplish your goals (in The Jewish Museum’s case, accessibility, engagement and repeat visitation) figure out what the lowest barrier to entry is, and find a way to make that step easy for visitors to break through. In her presentation she used this diagram of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For Fei’s work it begins and ends with wi-fi.

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7. Provide room to fail: In some ways a repeat of some of the earlier points, Tim Powell from The Historic Royal Palaces described his work in a new department that focused on research and development. In figuring out the tools and technologies to use at these historic sites they used an approach that asked questions that were both speculative (What could we do?) and directed (How should we do it?) [Examples: Check out The Lost Palace, and Disruptive Women]. In putting together these complicated projects, Powell states that they needed permission to fail, because there would be hiccups along the way through audience testing and staff testing. It is critical to have that room to admit you were wrong in order to make changes.

8. Also: Historic Sites aren’t a blank canvas. Use what you have! In developing innovative projects Powell emphasized the need to recognize what you have that makes your site unique, and then use that to create space for the visitor to make a connection within that space.

9. Thing big, think weird but also make things as real as possible. One of the final presentations of the conference was with Jake Barton from Local Projects. A firm with a wide variety of successful exhibitions where big idea experiences center engagement. He emphasized in his presentation the need to think big but also weird – that storytelling in museum spaces makes the most impact when you connect with the visitor in unexpected ways. At the same time – and this is how I interpreted the presentation – authenticity is essential. The experience with new technologies can’t just be untouchable. It has to provide a real connection for the visitor to understand the bigger narrative being presented.

10. Also: Invent with a purpose. Barton stated, that when using new tools and technologies make the decision based on real strategic goals. Determine, what are you trying to accomplish, and then go from there.

Overall a really interesting event with talks that looked to all levels of museum practice. What will be interesting to see is how some of these conversations can translate to my work in storytelling and engagement in historic preservation and public history.

Overarching takeaways? Be transparent. Cede (some) control. And use what you have to share your stories.

Make sure to follow some of these smart people above, and check out the links for more information!

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