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Museum Alignment

Over the last five weeks I have met with three different “museums” (a science center, a history museum and an aquarium) and with each I had the same thought, “where is the alignment ?“.

With the science center had a conference call about the mission of the institution being about STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) education for under represented communities, we discussed how the science center might go about that mission. Then had a phone call with each of the people on the conference call individually. The first phone call, the board member started talking about Rural Studio and building housing as a form of STEAM. On the second phone call with a different board member we discussed inquiry based programs for earth science. On the third phone call with the Director we discussed community outreach and engineering. Had gone from a conference call with three people (four including me) all talking about STEAM programming, but how each member of the conference call planned to implement STEAM in a yet to be built science center was very different, an Rural Studio approach of in-the-field community outreach, a more typical science center program based experience and didactic engineering based exhibits. There is not a right or a wrong, each of the participants vision could support a mission of STEAM education, but a choice needs to be made; “which vision?”.

After the conference call and the three follow up discussions, then had a meeting with a potential project architect, same people as the conference call now at a group in-person meeting, in general terms they all described the mission and function of yet to be built science center in similar terms to the architect. “We want a fun atmosphere for learning for the neighborhood kids”, “there should be spaces for group activities”, “we also want school group visits and spaces for school groups”, I watched the architects nod in understanding to realize that the general “mission” of the institution was shared, but the “how to implement” was not and the description given to the architect would not support the details of any of the three individual visions. I see this often, the architect will go away will react to what they have heard and the science center will be given a shell of a facility that will not support any vision. Not until the science center is built and someone is discussing “where do we store the tools for this weekends habitat for humanity project”, will it become apparent that neither the building, nor the culture, nor the mission is sufficiently specific to describe the “how to implement mission”.

1. Mission to be Challenge based. Often Mission statements are written in broad terms “The Science Center will promote STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) education for under represented communities”. The mission is not specific enough for a shared vision (alignment), instead, “The science center will be a living outdoor park for the (Name of community) eight to twelve year olds to learn about sustainability through outdoor activities, community outreach and exhibits. The (name of science center) will create a (Name of community) net zero trash by 2020.” This is now measurable and actionable.

At a different museum meeting I met with museum staff individually. Each staff referred to the vision of the Executive Director and after meeting with four staff (exhibits, programming, education, operations) I was more confused than before the meetings. Each staff person was using the same words, but how they planned to implement the vision of the Executive Director was different. My last meeting was with the Executive Director, I was now further confused, what he was describing was different than what any of the previous staff had been describing. For this second museum I never met with all of the staff simultaneously and got the feeling that they did not meet often as a group. I came away from the meetings, very unclear of what the results would be given the very different views on the same topic.

2. Like this or like that. When I am teaching I look for “the nod of understanding”, are the students understanding what I am saying? I often ask the students to repeat back to me their understanding of a concept to check for understanding. For the second museum, I felt that a thesis needed to be built, does the exhibit look like this or like this ? Does someone use the exhibit like this or like this ? and with each example there are drawings and descriptions to react and iterate. Same with an intended museum visitor (persona) is this the visitor that we are looking for or like this. And no “our audience is everyone from 2 to 102” is not an answer. Is it an eight year old that hates history ? or a 24 year old that is studying sociology ? The two are very different and creating an exhibition would be different for either as a primary audience.

At a third museum I met with the Executive Director and the senior staff (operations, evaluation and collections) we had a very good two hour meeting. I came away with a good understanding of the vision, then I had a meeting with a senior staff member that could not make the group meeting. From her I had a very different vision of the institution, enough so I started to question if we were discussing the same exhibition. I was confused, went to speak to floor staff and a volunteer, both had a vision similar to the meeting I had just left, then I spoke to another floor staff an employee and she had a vision similar to the group meeting. Then realized the difference was the volunteers are supervised by the staff member of the second meeting and the employees are supervised by one of the senior staff in the group meeting. I went out and spoke to a third staff an employee and asked her about her vision but also her discussions with operations staff and volunteers the answer “oh we don’t talk to them”. The operations staff supervised by one staff member, the volunteers supervised by one staff member and the employees supervised by another staff were not speaking to each other. It didn’t seem that there was any ill will it was just that each was its own silo answering up to their supervision and the supervisors vision.

3. Shared materials. In the third example of the operations, volunteers and employees it was clear there were no shared resources, each department was creating their own materials and the materials were not shared between the departments. One vision, one set of materials and one training. Also realized that the staff training was handled by the supervisor of each department. This had a very interesting side effect, when I asked the employee about how should I go through the museum ? The answer was “it doesn’t mater you can start anywhere” was very different to the answer to the same question to the volunteer “oh there is a codex that you can follow that lists the content of each gallery”. It played out the same when asking “where is the bathroom?” The first person an employee said “there is only one bathroom it is to your left”, same question to operations employee “there are two bathrooms, when one is being cleaned we open the second”, the first staff didn’t know there was a second bathroom to be used when the first is being cleaned.

It is much easier for for-profit businesses, customer service is to increase profits, if the customer is happy with the product or service they will buy more. In not for profit businesses the motivations are not so simple, at each of the three museums that I met with over the last five weeks, the general vision was in place within the institution but their was a lack of alignment as “how to implement mission”. This becomes essential for mission based organizations, mission is your profit, if the mission is not clear you can’t be “profitable” (emotionally connecting with visitors and changing visitor behavior). I believe that change is vital to visitor behavior or their is no reason for the interaction, to implement change their needs to be alignment top to bottom of the institutional vision.

Have you found methods to align institutional vision ?  Please share in the commnets section below.

About Mark Walhimer

Mark is Managing Partner of Museum Planning, LLC, a museum planning and exhibition project management firm of interactive educational environments for Science Centers, Children's Museums and Natural History Museums. You can reach Mark at mark@walhimer.com.

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