Thursday, December 07, 2017

Guest Post by Jasper Visser: Storytelling for Social Cohesion at Story House Belvédère

I first read about Story House Belvédère on Jasper Visser’s excellent blog, The Museum of the Future. This small, startup cultural project in Rotterdam works directly and intimately with community members to share their stories. It is a platform for social bridging and cultural exchange. Jasper enhanced his original post to share with you here. I hope you’ll be as charmed and inspired by Story House Belvédère as I am.

Story House Belvédère in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, is a magical place. On a beautiful location in a former jazz-era night club, a committed team works on storytelling activities to bring different communities in the city together, and contribute to a happier, more engaged city. They do so by making the stories of individuals and communities visible, and encouraging new encounters. In its short existence (it opened in 2013), the place has made a name for itself as a successful community-driven, innovative cultural initiative.

I visited Story House Belvédère as part of the new Intangible Cultural Heritage and Museum Projects I am involved in. I had heard a lot about Belvédère before my visit, so my expectations were high. The place surpassed them. I spoke with some of the people working there, especially founder Linda Malherbe.

What makes Story House Belvédère so special?

It is rooted in its diverse neighborhood and the people who live there.

Story House Belvédère is in Katendrecht, in southern Rotterdam. Katendrecht is a part of town that for over 125 years has been a home for migrants and newcomers to the city. The neighborhood is a mix of people and communities by design and has a rich social history. Currently, the neighborhood is being gentrified and its development, which tells a wider story about the city, is ongoing. The team found the current home of Belvédère almost by chance when they were looking for a temporary working space. But the location proved perfect. According to Linda, the project could not have been imagined and developed anywhere else in the city. A diversity of people and stories is the reason it exists.

It started as a community project rooted in relationship-building.

Before there was a house, the team behind Belvédère organised a community-focused social photography exhibition outdoors on one of the quais in the south of Rotterdam. It was an exhibition of group portraits of the many communities in the area. City officials doubted the idea of an exhibition in the public space in a part of town they considered dangerous. They said, "you will get shot at, and in two weeks everything will be destroyed." But they were wrong. The exhibition was up for a year and a half. When it ended, the portrayed communities took their portraits home, starting relationships with Belvédère which in some cases still persist.

After the photography show, the team was encouraged to continue their work. They focused on one of the key events in Rotterdam history: the bombing of the city at the beginning of the Second World War. Inspired by Story Corps, they toured the neighborhood with a mobile recording studio and captured memories of the bombing. They created storytelling events and shows, which prompted other communities to start telling their own stories. As Linda says, “Every story inspires a new story.”

The success of the storytelling events encouraged the team to look for a permanent location. They found it in the old jazz club/boxing gym/neighborhood museum Belvédère, a building which dates back to 1894. Together with the communities they had worked with before, they are now renovating the building. In 2018 it will officially reopen. But currently you can visit when the door is unlocked - which is almost daily. After the formal reopening, they still expect to evolve. As Linda says, the process will never be finished, as people will always continue to add and make changes to the building to reflect new stories and ideas.

The community values of the team permeate the space and their projects.

Already you can feel Story House Belvédère is a special place. You feel it the moment you step into their warm and welcoming space. It feels like a living room, where everybody can be a friend. Even the coffee cups and the cookies are in style. The magic, of course, goes beyond aesthetics and is deeply embedded in the organization.

A small team is the driving force behind all projects. It is a committed, dynamic group of freelancers who care about the mission and magic of the place. The place they created is warm and welcoming, and yet it is their energy and enthusiasm that stuck with me most after my visit. I asked Linda to describe what defines the team, and received over a dozen characteristics:
  • A shared love for people 
  • They are good listeners 
  • Positively curious, and always asking new questions 
  • Actively looking for (a diversity of) people 
  • Etc. etc.
The approach the team takes to connect with communities and then connecting communities is straightforward. In projects, they build a profound relationship with one specific community, such as the Chinese, Bulgarians, or football hooligans. This relationship is based on a genuine interest and includes a long-term commitment to stay involved with each other. When I visited, a community member had made our delicious Bulgarian lunch. Such profound ties make it possible that when a new project focuses on another community, the team can personally invite people from other communities to join. In that way, they build bridges between communities. Everything starts with listening and being curious about the other, and then inviting people, as guests, to take part.

This approach permeates all activities of Story House Belvédère. If you rent the place for a private event such as a wedding, some spots at the event are reserved for people from other communities. So, if you’re interested in joining a Syrian wedding or Jewish Bar Mitzvah, you can. The reason this works is because of the personal ties between the team and the communities. The aim of Linda and her team is to create relationships with people that are everlasting.


Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Introducing #museumfitness, a Side Project where Art & Athletics Mix

When I have a day to myself, there are two things I like to do most in this world:
  1. work.
  2. work out.
To celebrate the confluence between these passions, some buddies and I have started an instagram account called @museumfitness. We are posting short museum-based exercise videos each week. I invite you to follow the account, send in your own videos (tagged #museumfitness), and sweat along with us at your institution.

While it's a silly project, #museumfitness is also a small attempt to break down unproductive divisions between "art people" and "sports people." Pop culture often tells us that intellect and sports don't mix. Some of my museum friends seem viscerally uncomfortable with athletics. Some of my fitness friends would never set foot in a museum. I believe that smarts and sports DO mix... and at least for me, they enhance each other.

I've been a nerd my whole life, and a jock since high school. When I was 14, I joined the water polo team. I spent every morning and evening in the pool. I loved it--the hard work, the yelling coach, sweat in my eyes and chlorine in my hair. I felt like part of something challenging and communal.

After high school, I stopped playing high-level sports but kept building my passion for social sweat. I boxed. Played ultimate frisbee. Climbed rocks. Played beach volleyball. Right now, when I'm not at work, I'm training for obstacle course races with a local team.

For me, sports are a way to push myself and to connect with people who are different from me--both skills that enhance my work as well.

I love challenges. Challenges at work can be messy and interpersonal. Challenges in athletics are simpler. Cleaner. How far can I run? How hard can I push myself? I can dig deep when I want to, and if I decide to quit, I'm not letting someone else down. When I challenge myself in sports, I train myself to be tougher in a low-stakes environment. That helps me confront challenges at work--which often come with emotional or political stakes--more confidently.

I love building social bridges. My museum focuses on it, and I really believe that building bridges across differences can build a better world. I get to practice bridging in my personal life through sports. My fitness friends come from all walks of life. They are more diverse than my colleagues economically and politically. Despite our differences, we trust each other and support each other. We work together to achieve impossible, trivial heights.

For no obvious reason, we have quite a few #museumfitness fanatics at the MAH. I love working with people who know how to push themselves beyond their comfort zones. I love working with people who aren't afraid to shoot for a big goal. I love working with people who are ready to dive in and support each other so we can reach that goal. I learned a lot of these lessons playing sports. I have no doubt you could acquire these skills in other ways. But I learned them--and keep learning them--through fitness.

If YOU are a closet member of the #museumfitness tribe, join us in bridging these divides. Take a five-minute pushup break in the office. Run up the stairs. Invite your colleagues to sweat along with you. Invite your gym-mates into your museum. And shoot a video for instagram. We'd love to have you as part of our team.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Reimagining Museums with Latin America Leading the Way

Earlier this month, I went to a conference that renewed my faith in conferences. I first sensed the difference at the front door. There wasn't one. Instead, I walked into a lush garden in the middle of the city. Courageous speakers from dozens of countries described bold, participatory projects. Birds flew through the proceedings. The sounds of Spanish and English comingled as 800 delegates argued, danced, and envisioned el museo reimaginado.

El Museo Reimaginado is a collaborative effort of museum professionals in North and South America to explore museums' potential as community catalysts. While I've been to conferences with this focus in many countries, El Museo Reimaginado is different. The Latin American delegates in Medellin reimagined change on a level beyond what I've experienced in other places. They were more committed. They were doing the work. They were coming together to celebrate and push forward. And the conference itself resonated with joy, participation, and community. It was an incredible event and I felt honored to be part of it.

Here are some of the things that made El Museo Reimaginado so special:

It seems that Latin American museums are more vigorously pursuing community-based work than institutions elsewhere in the world. I'm generalizing grossly here, but for the most part, I find European museums to be conservative. I find North American museums to be risk-averse. The Latin Americans I met in Medellin seemed way ahead of the rest of us. The delegates appeared collectively convinced of the value and power of community-based work. Everyone seemed to agree on two basic concepts: that museums should embrace community co-creation AND that museums can play significant roles in city-making. There were curators co-creating with prostitutes. Young guns making radical museum radio talk shows. Pioneers of communitario museums. Designers creating space for nationwide reconciliation and transformation. We met in Medellin--a city where cultural institutions were instrumental in turning crime and fear into hope and beauty. The examples were all around us, not just in the voices of speakers but in the physical sites where we met. It was refreshing and powerful to talk shop with shared community values as a starting point.

The host venue was a living, breathing example of how museums can serve as community catalysts. Parque Explora opened ten years ago as a community development project. It offers a science center, aquarium, botanical garden, and lots of open plaza space in a marginalized neighborhood. Parque Explora's staff are deeply committed to co-creative, ambitious, community building work (read a bit about their community work here). It was amazing to see the diversity of visitors eagerly using the site from morning until night. Families playing, vendors hawking, students kissing, old ladies kibitzing. Even the conference itself was a model of social bridging. Big signs, public talkback walls, and open spaces made the conference porous to the community. One evening, there was a free outdoor concert of the Medellin Symphony as part of the conference. Every seat was taken--with conference delegates and neighborhood families sitting side by side.

The conference delegates were geographically diverse and eager to connect. What a treat to learn together with people from so many different countries and contexts! The entire conference was simultaneously translated into English and Spanish. On most panels, it was common to have speakers from several countries. Each room was a diverse mix of voices, perspectives, and language. I heard fresh ideas, stories, and challenges in each room. I was continually hungry to learn more.

The conference was joyful and full of energy. The sessions were smartly structured with different lengths and formats, ranging from panels to workshops to participatory performances to an intense "courtroom" in which co-creation was put on trial. But the energy flowed far beyond the sessions. The outdoor setting lent itself easily to side conversations, wandering from table to table, or breaking into conga lines (yes, it happened). It wasn't uncommon for a group to break into song, or for people to stand in spontaneous applause halfway through a presentation. Many delegates brought gifts. Instead of sponsors and trade shows, individuals handed each other trinkets and tshirts and catalogs. The closing event was a wild dance party. I lost my voice singing along to songs I don't know in a language I barely speak. The whole experience was exhilarating and deeply human. I felt like I made new friends in aggregate, a whole community of people who I look forward to seeing again.

Muchas gracias to the organizers: Fundacion TyPA, AAM, and Parque Explora. I can't wait to go again--and I hope many of you will join me--at the next El Museo Reimaginado in 2019.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Learning to Love the Re-Org: How We Executed a Staff Restructuring

My original "kitchen table" brainstorm.
The Packard Foundation asked me to write a blog post about our 2016 staff restructuring (which they supported with a capacity-building grant). Here's that post, lightly edited for your enjoyment. You can read the original post on the Packard Foundation's Organizational Effectiveness site.

I sat at my kitchen table with a brown paper bag, timer by my side. I sliced the bag open and folded it into 12 rectangles, each about the size of an index card. I set the timer for five minutes and started working. In the first rectangle, I sketched out one version of how our organization could be structured. When the timer dinged, I reset it for five minutes, moved to the next rectangle and did it again. After an hour, I had 12 different versions of our staff structure, each in its own little box. Some were impractical. Some were poetic. But among them lay the seeds of our museum’s future.

By the time we applied for a Organizational Effectiveness grant from the Packard Foundation in early 2016, it already felt late. Our nonprofit museum had outgrown our grass roots. In five years, what was seven staff members when I arrived became 10, then 15, then 20 – and is now 27. When we had seven people, we barely needed an organizational chart. We were a scrappy band of creative folks trying to turn around a struggling organization. As we succeeded, we grew. But I resisted structure. I was wary of too much process. And so we stayed egalitarian and collaborative. It got chaotic. Almost everyone reported to me, and that caused frustration and bottlenecks all around. I was knee-deep in a capital expansion (Abbott Square) that would dramatically change our services, and I had less and less time for everyone. I knew that our smart, talented, wonderful staff could do more. I knew the capital expansion would mean new roles and functions. Our team deserved a new structure that sustained and empowered them.

I was scared. I had never heard anyone at any organization say, “that re-org sure was great!” They always seemed to bring even more confusion, frustration and pain than whatever had preceded them. I didn’t know whether or how we could do it well. I was also suspicious of consultants (the Packard Foundation funds capacity building largely by paying for consultants). Running a small, unorthodox nonprofit, I’d had bad experiences with consultants who didn’t seem to give us their full attention. They wanted to fit us into their boxes instead of helping us excel in ours.

My fears about consultants were allayed when I realized we had a consultant whom we trusted and really knew us, Keri Crask. Keri was like a hidden Jedi consultant. She was a retired HR executive  and a treasured museum volunteer. She had volunteered to run management trainings for staff as we had started to grow, and she had become a trusted confidant to me and to some of my colleagues. At the time, she wasn’t consulting. But we realized that she could help us execute a reorganization, and she realized she wasn’t quite ready for full retirement. And so, with the blessing of our Board, Keri and I worked together on a plan.

Over the next six months, with Packard Foundation support, we worked out a plan for a reorganization with two lead staff members, Stacey Marie Garcia and Lis DuBois. I brought creative vision in the form of folded up pieces of paper with wild ideas on them. Keri brought structure and expert knowledge about how to coordinate the change. Stacey and Lis brought openness and honesty with regard to how their roles would change as they evolved into new director-level roles. And we all brought courage – lots of it.

I spent some time alone at my kitchen table at the beginning of the process, but quickly, planning the reorg became a team sport. At Keri’s urging, we first mapped out a new structure for the organization, one that could scale if we grew (which we did, almost immediately). We defined “buckets of work,” putting them in departmental groupings, noting the intersections. We shaped those buckets into jobs. We kept our eye on our core values and how to bake them into the departments, jobs, and interfaces among them. It was a full six weeks of work before we started talking about names of existing employees and tentatively slotting them into roles on the new chart.

When we started this project, I expected about 30% of the museum’s jobs to change a little bit, and about 20% to change a lot. As it turned out, everyone’s job changed. Some people changed managers. Some people changed responsibilities. Some people changed jobs. Everyone changed titles. Executing these changes was the most coordinated, interlocking, emotionally-intense activities of my career. Stacey, Lis, and I held conversation after conversation, one-on-one and in groups and just us, each dependent on another, urged and cheered and supported forward by Keri.

Was the re-org perfect? Of course not. It was a challenging process, and the challenges continue to surface from time to time with our staff. But it was better than I could have expected and ultimately made our organization stronger. In Keri, we had an expert guide who had rafted that whitewater before. She kept us going to the finish line, and she helped us grow as leaders and as an organization along the way.

What have you learned from the re-orgs you've been part of? What were the bright spots? What were the surprises?

Thursday, October 12, 2017

What's Your Vision?

It's 8am in the classroom; 5am in my body. I'm sitting at my assigned seat, next to a man who sells trailers in in Indiana, a woman who runs a Chamber of Commerce in Pennsylvania, and a guy who provides liability insurance to doctors across the US. A cheerful curly-haired deli owner stands in front of 30 of us and shares a quote he loves: "Artists live in the present and write detailed histories of the future." Something tells me this is not the business visioning workshop I anticipated.

Last week, I attended a workshop on Creating a Vision of Greatness at ZingTrain, the training arm of Zingerman's Deli, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Zingerman's is a deli that has pioneered some innovative ways of doing business. One of those is the use of visioning (also called future-casting).

You can write a vision for yourself, your organization, your project, or your team. At the training, we saw examples of small visions--like a restaurant barback who had a vision for a better way to make juice--and big ones--like the 10-year vision for the 700-person Zingerman's community of businesses. We learned how to write visions, how to use them, and how to share them with others.

For me, writing a vision was empowering, exciting, and useful. It was even more useful to learn how participatory writing visions can be. In the Zingerman's model, visioning is for everyone at all levels of the organization. It's for anyone who wants to go somewhere in their day, their year, their life. Writing a vision can empower you, clarify your thinking, and help you change the world.

So here are a few notes on how to write a vision. If you want to know more, I recommend you check out the related ZingTrain articles on visioning, or even take their two-day course.

WHAT IS A VISION?

A vision is not a solution to a problem. A vision is a detailed history of the future. It's a story written from the vantage point of a few months or years from now. It's a story of what happened after you launched that program, gave that speech, conquered that challenge. What does the world look like in that future? What's different about your life, your work? That's the story a vision tells.

HOW DO YOU WRITE IT?

A vision is a story. Write it that way. Write your vision with as many specifics as possible, in narrative form. This is a detailed history from the future. Imagine you're seeing an old friend after a few years, telling them about all the amazing stuff you've done since you last met. Use evocative language, engage the senses, engage your emotions. Make it a positive vision. Put in everything you want to see happen--even if it seems impossible. Don't focus on how you got there. Write about where you arrived.

If you have trouble writing a vision, here are some tips:
  • Before you start writing your vision, write a list of things you are proud of, in any part of your life. The goal here is to write down as many as possible. You'll warm up your hand and get yourself in a positive frame of mind. 
  • Use the "hot pen" or automatic writing technique. Start writing, and don't stop--for ten minutes, thirty minutes, whatever you need. If you get stuck, write nonsense words. Don't take your pen off the paper until the time is up. When you break through stuckness, you might be surprised what you find on the other side. 
  • If you get stuck thinking about the steps to achieve a certain part of the vision, write your way out of it. Imagine you already figured it out. Write something like "It took awhile to raise the money, but once we did, we had even more than we needed." 
  • If you're focused on big picture goals, cast your vision far enough in the future that you're on the other side of all the obstacles you face today. The trainers suggested writing a vision 5-10 years out, and they encouraged us to go for ten if we could. 
  • Dial up the "want." Put in everything you want to see happen. If you want a hot tub in the staff break room, put it in. Don't put in the stuff you're supposed to want. Put in what you really want! No one else is going to guess what you want, and this is your vision. This is your dream. Put it all in. --share it. Get feedback on what parts feel alive and compelling, and which parts seem cloudy or forced. If it's a vision for a group, involve others in the group in the redrafting of the vision. They will make it better, and you will all feel greater ownership over the final version.

A SIMPLE WAY TO TRY IT

This week, we experimented with visioning at my museum in an all-staff meeting. We took 30 minutes for the exercise. Here's what we did:
  • We reconnected about a year-long (already-established) goal to improve our work experience individually and collectively. 
  • I briefly explained what visioning is and why it might be valuable for us. 
  • We took ten minutes to do personal, "hot pen" writing of a vision for spring of 2018. The prompt was to write a detailed story about a day in spring 2018 when we are working even better as a team (whatever that means to you). We all wrote for ten minutes straight. 
  • We paired up, shared our visions with a colleague, and wrote down things we heard that excited us. 
  • We shared those energizing elements with the whole group. These included ideas like "musical chairs job shadowing," "foot massage conference-call room," and "more meetings in public settings." 
  • A small group volunteered to take this work forward to establish a shared vision we can then use to guide us to more collaboration in the coming months.
I'm not sure yet if visioning will become a go-to tool for me or for the MAH. But I'm going to keep trying it. And I hope you will try it too.

In fact, I have a vision for one month from now. It's a Thursday morning, I'm scanning emails, and I'm delighted to get a note from you. After reading this post, one morning, you woke up early, grabbed an old journal, and started writing. You wrote a vision for that big dream of yours coming true. You wrote yourself into a position of agency and leadership. You wrote yourself overcoming obstacles to reach your goal. You wrote a future that is more beautiful because of your efforts. And you shared it with someone. You enlisted them in helping make your vision real. You wrote to me to tell me you tried it. It was uncomfortable, a little weird, but empowering too. I'm looking at my screen, smiling with appreciation for you.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Where Do You Learn Best? My Personal Learning Journey from Conferences to Trainings

The Museum 2.0 blog started because of a conference. In 2006, I attended a big conference for the first time (ASTC). I went alone, sent with a blessing from my boss at the International Spy Museum. I dutifully went to sessions all day, every day. I saw speakers who dazzled me and filled my notebook with their words. But I was shy, painfully shy. I talked with almost no one at the whole event. All those hallway conversations people say are so valuable? I had none.

Instead, I went home and started this blog. Then, I started emailing posts to those speakers who I'd admired. I was offering them a clumsy gift--ideas they had inspired in me. Writing the blog helped me connect with them, but more importantly, it gave me the confidence to show up at conferences with something to say and a reason to connect.

Fast forward a couple years and I was a conference junkie. I reveled in big events like ASTC and AAM. I loved flipping through conference programs weeks in advance, inking stars by sessions I wanted to attend. I loved the options and the energy. And I had rules for myself: always pick a backup session in case the first one is lousy. Attend at least one session that you know nothing about. Have the courage to meet people who fascinate you. Find ways to bump into them again and again. Learn from them. Give them something of value. Become their friends and invite them to be your mentors.

As Museum 2.0 became well-known, I started building a tribe of people I loved to see at these events, and even better, new interesting people kept presenting themselves to me. I hardly needed the social courage I'd worked so hard to cultivate. Conferences became an essential way for me to connect with friends, do business, and learn. I hosted sessions during the day and expanding dinner parties at night. I started to see generous mentors everywhere. I had good questions to ask them, and they had valuable advice to share.

Fast forward a few more years, and now, conferences were ALL about connecting with people. My tribe felt full and fully satisfying. Conferences took me around the world. But with the exception of a few unorthodox retreats, the events themselves became sidelines to the social connections. I'd give a couple talks, sell some books, but otherwise, I hardly glanced at the program booklet. I spent all my time meeting treasured colleagues in hallways, coffeeshops, and late-night karaoke crawls. We found ways to hack the formats to spend more time with each other. I learned from my friends, but I felt increasingly antagonistic to the pomp and bureaucracy of the conference itself. I wasn't getting value from it. It was just a vehicle to get me in the same city and room with people I loved.

Two years ago, I stopped going to conferences at all unless I was being paid to speak or required to attend. When I did go, I found good people, but also, tiresome trappings: big rooms, bad lighting, deadening panel discussions, an endless stream of honorifics squeezing the clock. I stopped feeling inspired and energized by them. I found ways to make the trips meaningful--usually by staying with treasured colleagues and all of us agreeing to play hooky and do some real work together. I felt frustrated that I couldn't just go with them on a trip to learn together. The tax we had to pay to do so was to attend a conference. It felt like an steep tariff on our growth.

So what to do? I still love to learn, and I love to learn with others. I didn't know where or how else to do it. I started reading books voraciously, which is great, but solitary. I dabbled in webinars--they were mostly terrible. Then about six months ago, I stumbled into a professional training environment. And I fell in love.

The first training I went to was on Public Narrative, led by master facilitator Sarah El-Raheb. Public Narrative is an activist storytelling technique for rallying others to your cause. I experienced a 2-day training with a group of fellow grantees sponsored by the Irvine Foundation. It was incredible. It was intense, extremely well-facilitated, and meaty. There was a workbook full of useful content. The process was distinct and well-documented. It was like learning another language. I was fully engaged, I worked hard, and I got outcomes from it that I suspect I'll use for many years. The other people in the workshop--there were about 40 of us--were definitely part of the process and the experience. But for me, it was an intense personal learning experience, couched in an energizing social environment. When I went out for dinner with colleagues after a full day of training, I enjoyed our time together. But I didn't need them to make it a worthwhile trip. I felt wrung out and full from the training itself.

I felt the same way about the training I just experienced this week. I went to Ann Arbor for a training on Visioning led by the co-founder of Zingerman's Deli, Ari Weiszberg, and master trainer Elnian Gilbert. There were 30 of us in the room, from a mix of small and mid-sized businesses around the US. There were trailer salesmen and insurers and cheesemakers. The people were interesting--many came from contexts completely foreign to me--but the value was in the training itself. Again, the content was rich, deep, and focused (I'll write more about it next week). We did hard work throughout the two days, drafting long-term visions for our respective organizations. I learned a lot, and I know I'll keep building on what I learned. Ari shared his vision that we would become converts to the Zingerman's visioning methodology. It's easy to imagine this might happen to me.

Outside the training room, I had a great time with my friend Nick, who came from New York to join in on the learning. We biked and ate and wandered and worked. Doing the training together added real value to the experience. But again, it felt like the training was rich and valuable no matter what. It wasn't like a conference, riding on the fumes of friendship.

What do I take from these experiences? Right now, I'm enamored of training. These training experiences are leading me to more breakthroughs than I've experienced in other learning formats. The content is highly targeted, the facilitation strong. I'm excited about pursuing other opportunities to learn, in groups, from experts with relevant content and methodologies. I'm going to one more training in 2017--this time, on my own--and I'm hopeful it will be the best one yet.

But my ardor doesn't mean trainings are "better" than conferences. It's possible, if not likely, that I'm going through a phase in my professional learning and growth. At one point I loved conferences. I can imagine the day when I might feel that way again. I'm curious about the range of professional learning and growth experiences out there. I wonder how diverse the options are, and how I could identify the right opportunities for the right times in my life. I'm delighted to explore a new way I can learn and grow. I can't wait to discover others.

What kind of professional learning is most meaningful to you right now, and why?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Platform Power: Scaling Impact

Last month, I sat in the back of a meeting room at the MAH and watched something extraordinary happen. Our county board of supervisors had brought their official meeting to the museum. They were off-site for the first time in years, holding a special study session sparked by an exhibition about foster youth, Lost Childhoods. The supervisors toured the exhibition with some of the 100+ local partners who helped create it. Then, for an hour, former foster youth who helped design the exhibition shared their stories with supervisors. They spoke powerfully and painfully about their experiences. They shared their hopes. They urged the politicians to fix a broken system. It felt like something opened up, right in that room, between the flag and the tissues and the microphones. It felt like change was breaking through.

This was not an event orchestrated by the MAH. It happened because two of our Lost Childhood partners urged it into being. They negotiated with the County. They set the table. They made something real and meaningful happen.

They did it because the exhibition belonged to them. They helped conceive it, plan it, and build it. The Lost Childhoods exhibition is a platform for 100+ partners to share their stories, artwork, ideas, projects, volunteer opportunities, and events.

Nine years ago, I wrote a post called The Future of Authority: Platform Power. In it, I argued that museums could give up control of the visitor experience while still maintaining (a new kind of) power. Museums could make the platforms for those experiences. There is power IN the platform--power to shape the way people participate. This argument became one of the foundations of The Participatory Museum.

Nine years later, I still believe this. Now that I run a museum, I experience the variety of ways we can create platforms that empower community members to do certain things, in certain ways, that amplify the institution. The power IN the platform is real. But I've also become reenergized about the power OF the platform for those community members who participate. I value platforms for their power to scale impact.

Traditionally, museums and cultural organizations offer programs. Staff produce them for, and sometimes with, visitors. Each program has a fixed cost, and expanding that program means expanding that cost. If it takes a staff member 5 hours to run a screen-printing workshop, it takes her ten hours to run it twice. Even a smash hit program is hard to scale up in this model.

At the MAH, we've tried wherever possible to break out of unidirectional program models. We believe that we can most effectively empower and bridge community members (our strategic goal) if we invite them to share their skills with each other. This is the participatory platform model. Instead of staff running workshops, our staff connect with local printmaking collectives. We ask them what their goals are for outreach and community connection. And then we support and empower them to lead workshops and festivals and projects on our site. Instead of "doing the thing" directly, our staff make space for community members to do the thing--and to do so beautifully, proudly, with and for diverse audiences.

Does this work scale better than programs? It's not always obvious from the start whether it will. This work is relationship-heavy, and those relationships take time to build. When we created an exhibition with 100 community members impacted by the foster care system, it took almost a year to recruit, convene, open up, explore, and create the products and the trust to build those products well. But that investment in building a platform paid off.

When you build relationships in a platform, you build participants' power. Platforms can accommodate lots of partners and support them taking the projects in new directions. Since opening in July, exhibition partners haven't just planned a County supervisors' meeting. They've led over 50 exhibition-related community events at and beyond the MAH. They've created powerful learning experiences, diverse audiences, and new program formats. Our staff could never produce all this activity on our own. We put our energy into empowering partners, which ignited their passion and ability to extend the exhibition to new people and places.

Whereas a program is a closed system, a platform is an open one. In a platform model, more is not more staff time and cost. More is more use of the platform, more participants empowered to use it to full potential.

As our organization grows, we are looking for more ways to adopt a platform mindset. Now that we've opened Abbott Square, we have a goal to offer free cultural programming almost every day of the week. This means a huge shift for the MAH (previously we offered 2 monthly festivals plus a few scattered events). How will we increase our event offerings so aggressively? We're not planning to do it by adding a lot of staff to programming the space. We're planning to do it by building new platforms. We are learning from our "monthly festival" platform and building a lightweight, more flexible version. We want to make it easier for community groups to plug in, offering their own workshops and festivals and events, with our support. If we can create the right platform for daily events, it serves our community, by giving them the support, space, and frequent events they desire. It advances our theory of change, by empowering locals and bridging their diverse communities. And it puts the MAH at the center of the web of activity, as a valued partner and platform provider.

Building platforms is not the same as building programs. It flexes new muscles, requires different skill sets. But to me, the benefit is clear. In a platform model, our community takes us further than we could ever go on our own.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Guest Post by Seema Rao: How Museums Can Resist Racism and Oppression

This guest post was written by Seema Rao, a 2017 MuseumCamper and brilliant GLAM visitor advocate. Seema wrote it (original post here) in response to her experience last week at MuseumCamp... followed by the painful news about racism-fueled rallies and mob violence in Charlottesville, VA. 

Like Seema, I've been looking for ways to increase active resistance of racism, hate, and bigotry--both as an individual and as the leader of a museum. Seema and I have started an open google doc to assemble ideas for specific things museums and museum professionals can do to resist oppression. Please check it out, add to it, and join us in taking action.

I had the extreme pleasure of being part of this year’s MuseumCamp hosted by Nina Simon at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. For those who are unaware of this program, it’s sort of a hybrid museum conference, personal growth program, and summer camp smushed into three days. Intense would be a useful descriptor. Useful, impactful, and thought-provoking also work.

Monday morning, after such wonderful experiences with people from around the world in the cossetted kooky culture of Santa Cruz, I had hoped to create a blog post from my MuseumCamp notes. Instead, my heart feels exhausted. I wanted to share some of the hope a community of change-makers felt. Instead, my brain is misfiring. I wanted to pass on useful advice to colleagues who couldn’t be in Santa Cruz. Instead, my soul needs rest.

Why? Well, because for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In this case, for all the changemakers aimed at an inclusive society, there are those who want exclusion. There are those who fear more people at the table will mean less space for them. There are those who only feel full when others are starving.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. You can choose your opposite reaction or not. If you don’t react to negativity, you are still acting. Your lack of action is still a reaction. So, when you see evil, when you see people actively fighting inclusion, and you decide it might be too political to act, you are being political in your inaction.

Today, everyone in America woke up in a country where people spouted hate publicly and proudly. Today in America, we saw the emblems of enemies past parading in the streets of one of the nation’s best college. Today in America, we remembered that our own worst enemies are our own neighbors.

What does this have to do with museums? Museums are the best of our nation, even literally, holding our national heritage for eternity. Museums are ideas. They are hope. When the best of our nation doesn’t do anything, they are choosing—and they are making the wrong choice. There is a simple binary: chosen action (1) or choosing inaction (0).

How can museums react? Here are a few ideas to get started... please add yours to our open google doc.

  • Staff can be allowed time to share their feelings together 
  • Staff can raise money for organizations that support inclusion 
  • Staff can reach out to colleagues in Charlottesville with unencumbered, unquestioning support 
  • Museums can host conversations for visitors 
  • Museums can share their stories of colonialism and inclusion as a model for growth 
  •  Museums can model inclusion in their programming 
  • Museums can work together in regions to create safe spaces for inclusion

So what is your museums doing? Let’s grow this list until every museum has something they can check off. After all, action is so much more fun.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Seven Emotional Stages of Opening a Major Project

1. Plan. Meet with stakeholders, staff, partners. Dream. Sketch. Pick dates as if you had any control over the concrete. Schedule. Sell. Prepare.

2. Fight. Get exhausted. Get pissed. Scrap about nothing for no reason except that everyone is on edge and scrambling to get it done on time. Or not on time. As fast as possible, without stomping on too many toes.

3. Flight. Get scared. Consider leaving the country. What if they don't like it? What if it doesn't work? Wouldn't it be better to skip town and not confront potential disaster?

4. Big Night. Not quite right. The doors are open, everyone's smiling, attaboys flying. You could enjoy it if you could find your calm, find your deodorant, stop finding fault with the little things that aren't done yet. But you can't. Sleep. Yet.

5. Punch. Hit the list. Tick it off. Watch the to-dos dwindle into trivialities. See the end in sight. Start to see the greatness growing.

6. Release. Take a break. Take a weekend. Let your guard down. Sit in the sun of what you've done. Feel the hole intensity vacated. Sit with it.

7. Bask. Trade the fake smile for a real one. Say thank you. Take the hugs and hold them in your heart.


p.s. Abbott Square's soft opening is underway, and it's fabulous. I couldn't be prouder. Come on down.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Announcing The Art of Relevance Audiobook! Get Yours for Free Today.

Last year, when I released The Art of Relevance, people asked if there was an audiobook version in the works. It honestly hadn't crossed my mind. Since then, I've learned how many people read books with their ears instead of their eyes. I knew if I wanted to make the book relevant and accessible, I should get on it.

So I am thrilled to announce that The Art of Relevance audiobook is now available for YOU to listen to on AudibleAmazon, and iTunes. I narrated it, with the help of engineer Jason Hatfield and the folks at Indigital Studios in Santa Cruz, CA. The great Jon Moscone lent his voice to his preface, too.

If you have never listened to an audiobook and want to try it out, you can sign up for a free trial membership with Audible and get a copy of The Art of Relevance for free. Go to the page for the book and hit the "Free with 30 Day Trial Membership" orange button to the right. You can also listen to a five-minute sample from the introduction to get a sense of what it sounds like.

And if you prefer your media in audio-visual form, here are two videos from recent talks about the book:
  • 12-minute talk about The Art of Relevance for a broad audience at TedXPaloAlto 
  • 30-minute talk plus Q&A, with a slant towards science centers at ECSITE in Portugal
Finally, I'll be sharing stories of relevance live and in-person this fall at the following events: