Where Business Meets Museums – Programme Development

Last week, I looked at the parallels between business management and museum practices, and how museums can learn from business in relation to audiences and visitor experience. Following the same train of thought, I’d like to look at what business management can teach us about product development, which for me serves as a useful metaphor for the development of learning programmes. I know this sounds as appetising as the world’s driest cream crackers, but hang in there, I think the potential is incredibly rich – more like a huge Black Forest cherry torte.

Product research and development is fundamental for businesses to keep ahead of the competition, to anticipate future markets, and to give us things we didn’t even know we needed. I experience this first-hand every time I leave IKEA, having spent far more than I intended to. Can we do the same with our learning programmes? Do audiences come into our museums assuming they only want to pop into the cafe, and then come out two hours later, their heads buzzing with ideas and inspiration after participating in amazing workshops, discussions and activities? I want museum education to be just as systematic and disciplined in its investment in programme development as businesses are in product development. I also want to find the museum learning equivalent of the Dyson hand-dryer, or the Apple iPhone, or the IKEA 365+ breadknife (which changed my life!) What does a radical new approach to museum learning look like? And how does this new approach better serve audience needs?

Kaywin Feldman, Director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, gave an inspiring talk in London last October which included many examples of business management practice being applied to museums. She spoke about silo mentality, referencing Gillian Tett’s book, The Silo Effect: The Perils of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers. She challenged us to ‘question our dominant logic’, and quoted Peter Drucker, who was a highly influential and well-respected business thinker from the 1940s until his death in 2005. (My favourite Drucker quote is, “the greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence itself, but to act with yesterday’s logic”.) Feldman’s lecture was packed with ideas for tackling change management and preparing an organisation for its future challenges. The idea that had the biggest impact on me was ‘Transformation A & B’ – a way of thinking about promoting innovation within the core offer (A) while separately developing smaller and more experimental approaches (B), with the aim that one day (B) could become (A).

The ‘Transformation A & B’ model was outlined in a Harvard Business Review article (Dec 2012), titled Two Routes to Resilience. Its authors, Clark Gilbert, Matthew Eyring and Richard N Foster, wrote about companies that need to transform themselves “in response to market shifts, ground-breaking technologies, or disruptive start-ups”, but I don’t consider this to be very different from museums having to transform themselves in response to fluctuating funding streams, rising audience expectations, and the impact of new technologies (such as smartphones, with their digital cameras and Pokemon Go apps).

The A/B strategy is particularly exciting in relation to learning programme planning and development. We have our ‘tried and tested’ offers for our core audiences – they like the programme, we like the programme, but is it enough to keep cranking out the same thing until the audience numbers start shrinking? We also have the equivalent of a research lab in our on-going project working, which is often short-term, targeted, experimental and with fewer, if any, known outcomes. The externally-funded projects often give us space to try out new ideas and work with different audiences. This is a bit oversimplified, but what if we mapped Transformation A to the core programme and Transformation B to the targeted projects? If we recognise that each have their own rhythms and both require innovation to stay relevant, we can work in parallel to ensure the whole learning offer is serving its purpose.

Alternatively, we could think of Transformation A as everything we do now with our learning programmes, and Transformation B as radically new – perhaps working across different teams? Deliberately ‘questioning our dominant logic’ and going against our assumptions? Testing prototypes and failing often? Side-stepping KPIs and other established measures of success? We could create a truly open-ended, process-driven, creative and playful approach to programme development that flies beneath the radar, breaks the rules, and cracks open a whole new way of working with audiences. If you know of any museums working in this way, please get in touch.

LACMALab is a great example of a ‘Transition B’ project. LACMA is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; it has an ‘Art + Technology Lab’, now in its third year, which is itself a reboot of a similar project that LACMA ran from 1967-71. LACMALab, however, was “the museum’s research and development unit, instituted to test experimental approaches for presenting art and engaging audiences of all ages”. I’ve struggled to find information about it on the current LACMA website, but it must have run from at least 1999-2006. I was made aware of the programme when LACMALab’s then Director, Robert L Sain, spoke at an engage conference in 2004. I remember being very inspired by his session. To read his presentation summary now (still on the engage website), it’s interesting to see how Transformation B experiments can move towards core practice:

LACMALab is a new animal in the museum world. As an experimental programme in the context of a large encyclopedic museum, LACMALab is in the business of investigating new models for presenting art and engaging audience through artists’ commissions. Over the past 5 years, over 30 artists and designers, from the internationally noted to art students, have created participatory installations for audiences of all ages, serving over 300,000 visitors. Perhaps the most challenging and seductive aspect of the ‘charge to the artist’ is to create new work that equally engages both a child and an adult. This ‘age-free’ approach is not chronological, not linear, and not about imparting information ‘at’ the visitor. The goal is to provide a new kind of social intersection space where visitors determine their own meanings, and hopefully, have transformative experiences that may apply to other areas of life. LACMALab is about ‘lighting the fire’ and about motivation, which is the foundation for life-long learning. This presentation showed examples of the artists’ projects and examine seven different strategies for engagement in the gallery.


Header image: By William J. Morton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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