Archive for July, 2013

In the American Alliance of Museums’ Center for the Future of Museums’ Trendswatch 2013: Back to the Future report, released earlier this year, a trend to watch out for is the “Urban Renaissance” (check out the report here).  After years of people moving out of the cities into the suburbs, “the United States is experiencing a reverse exodus back to the cities.”  To accommodate this change in demographics, museums are rethinking how they use space and how they interact with the surrounding space.

An artist rendering of the new Nature Gardens at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles.  Photo courtesy of NHMLAC Facebook page.

An artist rendering of the new Nature Gardens at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of NHMLAC Facebook page.

One example cited by the Trendswatch 2013 report is the Nature Gardens (formerly North Campus) project at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles County.  The Museum is reclaiming three and a half acres of concrete parking lot space and turning it into a natural, park-like habitat where visitors will have an opportunity to experience local wildlife in the middle of Los Angeles.  Last August, through my work with RK&A, I had the opportunity to be part of the project and see the changes in process, when we went to LA to do some formative testing on the “Nature Lab” exhibit, which opened this June at the Natural History Museum.  According to the Museum’s website, Nature Lab “is a bridge between the Museum’s indoor research and collections, and [its] new outdoor space.”  For two days I talked with Museum visitors about nature and wildlife in Los Angeles, and believe me, people generally weren’t thinking about mountain lions, turtles and other fascinating creatures that are featured in the new exhibit (you can check out the whole report from last summer here and take a look at the new exhibition here).

Titanic Belfast as seen from the far end of the slipways where RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic were built.  The original offices of Harland and Wolff can be seen on the left side of the museum.

Titanic Belfast as seen from the far end of the slipways where RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic were built. The original offices of Harland and Wolff can be seen on the left side of the museum.

In June, when I was vacationing in Ireland I had the opportunity to visit the Titanic Belfast Museum.  The Museum, which opened in March 2012, offers an amazing look at the ship-building industry in Belfast, the construction of the ill-fated ship, as well as her demise and her discovery, all on the site of the ship’s birthplace.  In fact, the slipways where RMS Titanic and her sister ship RMS Olympic were built lie just outside the doors of the Museum.  The tender ship for RMS Olympic and Titanic, SS Nomadic, sits in the marina on the other side of the Museum, the last remaining White Star Line ship.  The original headquarters and drawing offices of Harland and Wolff, the designers of the Olympic-class White Star Line ships, are next door to the museum.  By all means, this site takes advantage of its rich ship-building history (to learn more, check out their website).

However, it wasn’t only the history that caught my attention (although I am sure you can tell the history fascinates me).  The new museum is part of a “waterfront regeneration project” that hopes to turn the former shipbuilding space into a lively area full of apartments, shopping, entertainment, and businesses.

This new quarter of Belfast, aptly named the Titanic Quarter, is different from the park space created by reclaiming concrete in Los Angeles, of course, but I think the idea behind the projects is similar.  In both cases, the museums serve as active community spaces, not only for museum visitors who visit for the exhibitions, but also for local residents who can use the surrounding areas as places to enjoy the outdoors, relax, unwind.  The museums become destinations for more than what the buildings hold.  As suggested in Trendswatch 2013, these types of development projects allow museums to become public spaces where people can socialize, hang out, or have cultural experiences (the Nature Garden in Los Angeles advertises outdoor movies on its Facebook page.  The Titanic Slipways has served as a location for outdoor concerts and events in Belfast).

My sister and I standing on the Titanic slipway, outside Titanic Belfast.

My sister and I standing on the Titanic slipway, outside Titanic Belfast.

I can’t be sure what the future holds for museums. These projects are just two examples of museum projects that have developed great urban spaces as a response to re-urbanization, either independently or with the city.  I am sure you can think of many more.  I find this type of space—where the formality of the traditional museum meets the informality of the outdoors—very exciting.  And I can’t wait to see what museums dream up next.

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Museums and Public ValueThis week we welcome our guest blogger Carol Ann Scott, editor of Museums and Public Value: Creating Sustainable Futures!

Randi Korn & Associates invited me to guest blog on a subject that has important links to intentionality. My passion is the value of museums- how we articulate that value, measure it and create it. So today, I am blogging about the third aspect- the value we create. With that in mind, I want to look at what Mark Moore’s theory of Public Value has to offer museums when we purposefully set out to create value.

Moore’s Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government (1995) may be familiar to many of you. In Moore’s view, publically funded organisations are charged with directing their assets to creating value with a strong focus on social change and improvement. This type of value is about more than visitor satisfaction. It is directed towards adding benefit to the public sphere and producing outcomes that are in the general public interest.

Public Value does not occur of its own accord. It is purposeful, intentional, and requires planning to achieve a particular end result.  It confirms a museum’s ‘agency’- its capacity to direct its resources to make a positive difference. When Public Value is embedded in the organisation as a whole, museums move from creating one-off projects to investing in longer term impact.

I am fascinated that there is a strong relationship between the essence of Public Value and a persistent idea in museums—co-production.  Public Value is fundamentally about co-production. If we are planning to make a difference that will affect the lives of others, then the ‘others’ need to be involved. Moore recognises the public as co-producers in the value that, together, we create.

So, what do Public Value programs in museums look like?

Here are some examples: (a) an exhibition co-curated by a museum and members of the local Afro -Caribbean community to explore the history of the TransAtlantic slave trade and interrogate its living legacy in modern Britain; http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/Docklands/Whats-on/Galleries/LSS/  (b) a youth program aimed at ensuring that a new generation takes forward the lessons of moral responsibility learned from the Holocaust and adopts a commitment to pursue democratic civic engagement, http://www.ushmm.org/education/cpsite/bringlessonshome/index.php?theme=students and (c) a museum education program that is playing its part in Hawaiian language revival http://www.imiloahawaii.org/82/hawaii-s-language-today.

Why should museums adopt a Public Value approach in their planning and programs? Well, perhaps most importantly, we are accountable to the public, policy makers, and funders. All of these groups invest in museums whether through their taxes, their time, or funding provision. An investment seeks a return, and in the not- for- profit sector that return is the value we create. Increasingly, a museum’s value is measured by the contributions we make to benefit the public sphere—a major criterion for measuring museums’ worth as a sector.

The late Stephen Weil challenged museums to look searchingly at their ‘claims to worthiness’. Embedding Public Value into our thinking and planning can result in enhancing the life of citizens-  and that is worthy.

Carol Scott is the editor of Museums and Public Value: creating sustainable futures published by Ashgate in May 2013. More on the three examples cited in this blog can be found in these chapters of the book:

  1. The Public as Co-producers: making the London, Sugar and Slavery gallery, Museum of London Docklands (David Spence, Tom Wareham, Caroline Bressey, June Bam-Hutchison, Annette Day)
  2. Evaluating Public Value: Strategy and Practice (Mary Ellen Munley)
  3. Creating Public Value through Museum Education (Ben Garcia)

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