Overcoming the System Immune Response to Innovation

Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.

Howard Aiken

Great ideas always appear so self-evident in hindsight. But as Aiken’s quote above attests to, we don’t always know a good thing when we see it, and the more original the thinking, the more difficult it is to grasp. For a truly innovative idea to gain traction, a whole host of supportive mechanisms need to be in place around it. When they aren’t there, the idea withers on the vine. Last month, the RSA published a fascinating report, From Design Thinking to Systems Change: How to invest in innovation for social impact, that offers a useful model for overcoming some of these challenges. Rather than discussing the design process in isolation, the authors build a comprehensive picture of the process in its entirety, including the forces that resist change (the ‘system immune response’) and useful counter-strategies. I read it with museum learning programming in mind. It’s one thing to dream up exciting new approaches to audience engagement, but that doesn’t mean they’ll ever see the light of day, so how can we get more of our ideas off the table and in front of audiences?

The report starts with a brief summary of design thinking and how it has been applied to social challenges: ‘solutions are developed, prototyped and tested using iterative, ‘safe-fail’ experiments to gain rapid feedback… it is a method that helps to uncover a problem by using a collaborative and iterative approach, and then reengaging in divergent and convergent thinking to arrive at a solution’. (p.7) The Design Council’s ‘double diamond’ is used to illustrate this – the two diamonds are placed side-by-side and the process is conducted from left to right, like reading text. As the sides of the diamond broaden out, the required thinking is divergent – open, copious, exploratory, and without judgement. As the sides of the diamond narrow back down to a point, the thinking mode shifts to convergence – decisions are made, some ideas are rejected, and a course of action is mapped. The first diamond is to ‘discover and define’ (ie. figure out what the problem is that you want to solve); the second diamond is to ‘develop and deliver’ (ie. generate and test ideas, and move towards a solution). A small note of caution: this is the tidy, diagrammatic version of the process – the reality is less straight-forward. When avenues of exploration turn out to be cul-de-sacs, it’s necessary to loop back to earlier stages in the process, sometimes repeatedly, and try again.

The next step, in the traditional story, is that the solution (be it a product, service or programme) is rolled out, scaled up, and – hey presto! – system change. No such luck I’m afraid. In a wonderful sequence of diagrams, the report presents the idealised step-change process, and then inserts a massive wall between the ideas bit and the successfully-rolled-out bit. This wall can be made up of any of the following: competing incentives; regulatory frameworks; procurement; market readiness; media backlash; and/or cultural norms (insert your own as specific to your context). Judging by the diagram, it is made out of the same material as Wonder Woman’s bracelets, deflecting ideas left, right and centre with a ping and a spark.

This is where systems thinking comes in, defined by Peter Senge as ‘a context for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing relationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots’. (p.11) The creativity and imagination that are brought to bear when solving a specific problem via the design process are also required to influence the systems that will allow new solutions to flourish. Different systems create different barriers, so it is important to know what kind of problem needs to be overcome, and then plan accordingly. The Cynefin Sense-Making Framework, for example, lists four types of problems (considerably fewer than Jay-Z’s 99): simple, complex, complicated and chaotic. Problems can also be thought of as tame or wicked, technical or adaptive; each of which also requires a different response. As you can imagine, it would be easy to get bogged down in all this detail. The authors warn, ‘thinking systematically about problems requires that at a certain point the boundaries of a problem are set. Without boundaries, a systems mindset is at risk of analysis paralysis – where systems maps create overly complicated analyses of problems, which produce so much data it is impossible to act’. (p.16)

The report summarises that the best way to break through the wall is to ‘think like a system, act like an entrepreneur’:

Acting entrepreneurially isn’t just about spotting the best opportunity for change. It is also about maximising the possibility for an innovation to navigate through barriers to change and make an impact at scale. This requires a hacker mentality. Hacking the systems means finding the counterpoints to the barriers to change and creating ways to circumvent them. … The particular action will depend on context, but the entrepreneurial actor is defined more than anything by an attitude that constantly asks, ‘what can I do now to create a better possibility of success further down the line?’ In a fashion similar to the approach taken by market innovators to create demand, socially-oriented innovators should plough every furrow to generate adoption and social impact. (p.18)

Entrepreneurial hacks overcome the barriers AFTER the design process has been conducted, but there is one final, (albeit preliminary) step to consider – the missing first diamond, a shadowy figure that appears before the double diamond (so many diamonds…). This is where problem analysis sits, and the design process is placed in its broader context from the outset. By defining the problem (ie. barrier to system change), determining the problem type, and conducting problem analysis (so many problems….), a stronger, more robust project brief can be written. In a nutshell, to be forewarned is to be forearmed. Consequently, tactics for understanding and circumventing barriers are integrated from the outset, increasingly the likelihood of eventual success. RSA’s approach won’t do the work for you, but it does provide some very helpful navigational tools.

IMAGE SOURCE: http://www.cbr.com/wonder-woman-film-lynda-carter-cameo/


Let’s Get Ethical

To help pass the time while we wait to see if nuclear war is going to break out, I thought it might be worth stopping to ponder on ethics. In their reference guide, Developing an Institutional Code of Ethics, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) makes the following statement – sound advice to museums and world leaders alike:

Operating in an ethical manner is a fundamental part of being a museum. Having a formalised code of ethics demonstrates to the public commitment to accountability, transparency in operations and informed and consistent decision-making. It positions the museum as reputable and trustworthy, which can strengthen relationships with stakeholders and the community.

Trustworthiness – an area where politicians score notoriously low in surveys of public perceptions  – is also highly valued in the UK Museums Association’s (MA) Code of Ethics for Museums (2016):

Museums are public-facing, collections-based institutions that preserve and transmit knowledge, culture and history for past, present and future generations. This places museums in an important position of trust… Museums must make sound ethical judgements in all areas of work in order to maintain this trust.

Having a code of ethics is a relatively new phenomenon in museum practice. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) produced their first Code of Professional Ethics in 1986. In 2001, it was amended and retitled Code of Ethics for Museums, and was further revised in 2004. Its purpose is to, ‘set minimum standards of professional practice and performance for museums and their staff’. Given ICOM’s global reach, it stands to reason that such a document is top level, and it’s left to individual countries and institutions to sort out the fine-print. It covers all the big stuff: preservation, care and research; provenance and due diligence; disposal of objects and deaccessioning collections; as well as dealing in artworks and conflicts of interest.

What does read strangely in the ICOM Code of Ethics is the relationship between museums and the public. Education is mentioned, but the focus is very much on traditional curatorial channels. For example, point four states, ‘museums provide opportunities for the appreciation, understanding and management of the natural and cultural heritage’, and there is further clarification that museums should attract wider audiences and interact with constituent communities. However, the sub-sections focus on: displays; interpretation of exhibitions; showing sensitive materials; removing objects from public display; exhibiting unprovenanced material: and producing publications and reproductions. Where’s the public engagement through programming events and activities for different audiences?… perhaps I hadn’t got to that bit yet… Point Five, ‘museums hold resources that provide opportunities for other public services and benefits’ – surely this would be the place to capture all the collaborative partnership working and community programming? Wrong again – ‘5.1 Identification of Illegally or Illicitly Acquired Objects’ and ‘5.2 Authentication and Valuation’. Scheesh.

Perhaps the lack of museum learning in the ICOM code is because it’s a nascent (or non-existent) practice in many countries. Having been involved in V&A consultation projects, working with partners in the Middle East and China, I’ve realised how much I take for granted regarding museum practice in the UK. For example, how do you establish a schools programme when there is no precedent for taking classes to museums? In many countries, it just wouldn’t occur to teachers to make museum visits, and it requires more than the Field of Dreams maxim, ‘build it and they will come’ to make it happen. It will be interesting to see if future iterations of the ICOM code introduce museum learning as the practice become more commonplace around the world.

The UK and US have well-established cultures of museum learning, and this is reflected in their codes of ethics, produced by the MA and AAM respectively. The MA code, quoted above, has three core principles:

  1. Public engagement & public benefit
  2. Stewardship of collections
  3. Individual and institutional integrity

That ordering caused quite a bit of controversy in the ol’ objects-first-or-people-first reductive tussle (personally I don’t think we are moving away from being collections-centric, I think we’re moving away from being institution-centric and can no longer put our own interests ahead of the public). Similarly, the AAM’s code of ethics (adopted in 1991 and amended in 2000) uses a lovely turn of phrase to express their dual commitment to the public and collections:

…the root value for museums, the tie that connects all of us together despite our diversity, is the commitment to serving people, both present and future generations. This value guided the creation of and remains the most fundamental principle in the ... Museums make their unique contribution to the public by collecting, preserving and interpreting the things of this world.

AAM also offers great advice and guidance for any museum wishing to write its own code of ethics.

Just as the MA and AAM codes go deeper than ICOM’s into their nationally-specific context, a museum’s own code of ethics can go deeper again into the culturally-specific context of the institution. I think there’s also scope for thinking more carefully about the ethics of community engagement through museum learning practice. Both the MA and AAM codes say all the right things about working with the public:


  • The museum ensures that programs are accessible and encourage participation of the widest possible audience consistent with its mission and resources (AAM)
  • The museum ensures that programs respect pluralistic values, traditions and concerns (AAM)
  • Museums and those who work in and with them should actively engage and work in partnership with existing audiences and reach out to new audiences (MA)
  • Museums and those who work in and with them should ensure that everyone has the opportunity for meaningful participation in the work of the museum (MA)







These statements make us feel all warm and fuzzy - they are good values to hold and make clear our good intentions. Keep those words in mind when you read this extract from Bernadette Lynch’s report, Whose Cake is it Anyway? (2011):  

The fault-lines within the museum’s or gallery’s organisational culture were consistently revealed by the process of this study as barriers to proper involvement. Despite best efforts to the contrary, these invisible barriers continue to create and recreate the mechanisms of marginalisation. They include attitudes that, in a number of cases, influenced the following:


  • False consensus and inadvertently using people to ‘rubber-stamp’ organisational plans
  • Policies and practices based on ‘helping-out’ and ‘doing-for’
  • Community partners treated as ‘beneficiaries’ rather than ‘active agents’
  • Project funding leading to non-mainstreaming of participation and pretending things are better than they are
  • Absence of strong, committed leadership and a strategic plan for engagement (p.21)


A museum learning code of ethics could address these challenges and provide clear guidance on how not to fall into these traps. To start, we’d need to be more honest about what we can achieve with the resources available. It’s too easy to promise the moon on a stick - to communities, senior management and funders alike - but is that ethical when expectations then can’t be met? Is it responsible to offer community consultation and involvement if the museum’s leading decision-makers are not involved in the process/conversations? What exit strategies are in place when a long-term community partnership comes to an end? How do we document and share our work with vulnerable groups and underrepresented audiences responsibly? Should we keep trying to be all things to all people?

Scottish Government and the Scottish Community Development Centre (SCDC) have produced National Standards for Community Engagement off the back of the ‘Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, and guidelines like this could provide strong starting points for developing museum learning codes of ethics. I haven’t been able to find the equivalent national standards for England so do please get in touch if you know of it.

The rhetoric around public engagement is positive and optimistic - which you’d expect - but when do the words on the page stop being aspirational and start blindfolding us to what’s actually happening? Just saying it doesn’t make it so - if these are our values and what we stand for in the museum sector, what more can we do about it?
IMAGE: http://www.eightieskids.com/2016/03/10-female-fashion-icons-80s/5/

Blogs and websites and ideas, oh my!

When reading other people’s blogs, I always enjoy following their links to different websites – I’m led to another topic of interest, and links from there lead me to something else again, and so on. I like that a single post can provide a central path of argument with the opportunity to wander off and explore interesting distractions, diversions and rabbit holes. It feels more akin to channel-hopping than article-reading, and results in a wonderfully diverse reading menu. Below are some of my favourite blogs – they are content-rich with plenty of offshoots, and they always show me something new and inspiring.

Art Museum Teaching was exactly the blog I was hoping to find when I started my Churchill Fellowship research. I was looking for information on how museum and gallery educators think about their work and develop their ideas; I wanted insights into our practice – all the stuff that goes on behind the scenes and before the participants arrive. This site does exactly that. Its founding author and editor, Mike Murawski, is the Director of Education & Public Programs at Portland Art Museum in the US. He has assembled a broad range of art museum educators and specialists as contributing editors and actively invites others to contribute too. The site itself is easy to navigate and – due to its collective nature – a diversity of voices and perspectives is shared.

Design Thinking for Museums is edited and run by Dana Mitroff Silvers, who also contributes to Art Museum Teaching. She brings a huge amount of experience to her site, having been Head of Online Services at SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) for over 10 years. Design Thinking for Museums was established in 2012, the fruit of a partnership between SFMOMA and Stanford University’s highly influential d.school (their website is also great for wandering). Design thinking wasn’t a concept I was familiar with before I started working at the V&A. Having always worked in galleries, I was used to talking about – and wrangling with – the creative process instead. Design thinking is a creative approach to problem-solving that can be applied in so many different contexts, including that of devising and developing museum learning programmes. Mitroff Silvers provides a fab mix of theory and practical examples to support museum work – not only with audiences, but with colleagues too.

Createquity describes itself as, “a think tank and online publication investigating the most important issues in the arts and what we, collectively and individually, can do about them.”.  This site is link-tastic and a gift to anyone interested in the relationship between government policy, cultural sector research, and organisational practice at the coalface of public engagement. Although the focus is on the US, they also include plenty of links to relevant UK material, and their reporting is clear and concise. It’s a really great resource for getting into some of the bigger, stickier challenges facing the sector (of which there are plenty to choose from…). For something closer to home, the Cultural Learning Alliance is doing heroic work campaigning against the negative impact on arts education of the Department for Education’s curriculum directives.

The examples above are very work-y and specific to my practice. I also like following sites that are good for cultural rummaging – the online equivalent of going into TK Maxx with no fixed retail objective. Open Culture is an enormous virtual warehouse of articles, images, films, courses and MOOCs, spanning all artforms and featuring loads of lost treasures and hidden gems. The sheer volume can be a bit overwhelming, but it’s ideal for the unexpected discovery. Colossal is for when I need an aesthetic fix – it is filled with beautiful, beautiful things, often impressive in scale and complexity, and created with an incredibly high level of skill. I tend to explore this site with my jaw on the floor. And when I want to read up on creativity more generally, I enjoy Open For Ideas and Can Scorpions Smoke? – two UK-based sites (to counter the otherwise American bias of my online reading) that do a great job of being both informative and entertaining.

When I think about how I found out about stuff as a student – ie. reading books in libraries – and how I find out about stuff now – ie. reading articles online – the difference blows my mind. The ready access to information and ideas, much of which is free and available at the touch of a button, far outstrips anything I could have got my hands on twenty years ago. But with the whole world so close, the next challenge is finding the hours in the day to explore it and unearth the best bits…

IMAGE: http://flavorwire.com/411724/50-things-you-didnt-know-about-the-wizard-of-oz

What’s the Anti-dote to Museum Learning?

As the R&B vocal group, The Persuaders, taught us back in 1971, “it’s a thin line between love and hate”. Only a few years ago, scientists proved them right – the neural circuits that light up when a person looks at a photo of someone they hate are in the same parts of the brain (the putamen and insula) that are also linked with romantic love. To be both drawn towards and repulsed by the same thing is a complicated emotional response. I reckon this love/hate, push/pull lies behind initiatives such as the antiuniversity and unconferences. Their provocative names suggest some sort of polarity or binary opposition, an implicit ‘we are everything that they are not’. There is also a sense of resistance, a challenge to dominant thinking and practice. But if the concept of universities and conferences was being entirely rejected, then surely it would make more sense to use different words to describe them. By making reference to what is being opposed, it shows there’s still some love in there. An effort is made to keep the best and ditch the rest, with the ultimate goal of creating ideal universities and conferences that are all killer, no filler.

Antiuniversity Now! began in 2015 as an idea for a festival, It was set up as “a collaborative experiment to challenge institutionalised education, access to learning and the mechanism of knowledge creation and distribution”. Entirely volunteer-led, the premise is that anyone can pitch an event for the festival, as long as it complies with the ethos of Antiuniversity Now! – “all our activities are firmly rooted in a collective desire to create and sustain safe autonomous spaces for radical learning that follow, nurture and enact anarchist, feminist, anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-homophobic, de-colonial and anti-capitalist values through conversation and direct action.”

In their first year, the organisers had anticipated maybe five events – they ended up with 60. In June 2016, tying in with the Alternative Art Education Summit in London, the second iteration of Antiuniversity Now! had a programme of 120 events across the city. Clearly, there is a huge appetite for this way of working, from organisers and audiences alike. It was inspired by the Antiuniversity of London, established in 1968 in a similar climate of disillusionment and grassroots activism. A fascinating (although condescending) BBC short film on the original Antiuniversity is on YouTube, and there is also an interesting online archive, called – what else? – Antihistory.

Unconferences derive from a similar impulse to break with conventional hierarchies, although they aren’t overtly political. Attendees arrive to no set programme and must make the unconference as they go. Anyone can suggest topics for discussion and debate; these topics are pinned on a board, arranged in a grid of timeslots and break-out rooms, and then the event begins and everyone is free to come and go, attending groups where they feel they can contribute or learn. More sessions might appear over the course of the unconference as discussions spark other topics. There is an expectation that attendees actively engage – no passive watching from the back – and come away buzzing with ideas, having not spent the day staring at dull powerpoints of limited relevance.  If you want to know more about unconferences, check out the Unconference.net website. I also found the article, Welcome to the Unconference (Inc.com) useful to get a sense of how they work in practice.

It was with antiuniversities and unconferences in mind that I went hunting for the unmuseum. I anticipated finding all sorts of online articles, perhaps using the phrase to describe audience-centric, or collaborative agendas in recent museum practice. I found zip. Instead, I discovered two very different versions of the unmuseum: a website for The Museum of Unnatural Mystery, where you can read about topics ranging from dinosaurs and aviation to cryptozoology and UFOs; and a multi-sensory, interactive gallery on the top floor of Cincinnati’s Contemporary Art Center. The latter was created as a space for children to engage with contemporary art, and – unlike in a conventional museum – everything can be touched.

I had more joy when I went looking for the antimuseum. It turns out that being ‘un’ isn’t strong enough – our love of museums runs deep, and so must our hatred. ‘Anti’ seems to do a better job of capturing this strength of feeling. A few examples:

  • The Antimuseo of Contemporary Art in Madrid: “the objective of our research is to make visible the dialectic between institutionality and creation. To challenge conventions and hierarchies. To claim art as a space for possibility and freedom.”
  • The Antimuseum in Moscow, founded in 2016, is an exhibition project by Electromuseum. An open call is put out to artists of all stripes, with the promise of no curatorial control or genre constraints over the resulting exhibitions.
  • The Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky was going to be called the Anti-Museum. It was founded by an Australian called Ken Ham, author of The Lie: Evolution, who took it on himself to rename dinosaurs “missionary lizards” (I think you get the idea). A wonderful review, titled The Anti-Museum, on the National Center for Science Education website, gives a thorough overview of the museum’s founding and exhibits.
  • The Antimuseum is also an anthology, published by Cornerhouse, that addresses the many ways cultural practitioners have tried to break free from the institution.

So what about us? What would a museum unlearning programme look like? What would our work entail as museum antieducators? If we were to lead a radical overhaul of our practice, what would we keep and what would we jettison? Personally, I’d like to stop having to repeatedly justify the value of museum and gallery learning/engagement and just focus on making programmes as accessible, challenging, exciting, unexpected and interesting as possible. I’d like us to surprise each other more too, and move away from our established audience lanes (schools, families, young people, etc) and formats (workshops, tours, talks, etc). I’d take a leaf out of MCA Denver’s book and break away from the exhibition programmes – their learning offer responds to contemporary culture and is more like a sister than a daughter to the concurrent exhibitions. Or perhaps, as unlearning specialists, our role would be to deprogramme audiences – we’d remove all of their expectations and preconceptions about what a museum is and what to think and say about art, and then send them back out into the world reborn as curious, open, questioning individuals, ready to embrace all of life’s grey areas, contradictions and ambiguities.

What would you do?
IMAGE SOURCE http://thesteampunkbuddha.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/alice-in-wonderland-drink-me.html