A Sense of Place

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.

Cycle of Intentional Practice

Welcome to the Intentional Museum Blog, an all-staff endeavor of Randi Korn & Associates.  We intend to share our thoughts and questions twice monthly about compelling ideas we come across in our work and readings.  The platform for our practice and the inspiration for our postings is the Cycle of Intentional Practice.

Cycle of Intentional Practice

This cycle has emerged slowly, evolving over the last 10 to 15 years, as I started to think about all I had learned as an evaluator and researcher while pursuing my passion of studying people’s experiences in informal learning environments.  In our work as planners and evaluators in museums, we have witnessed how difficult it can be to achieve results that reflect a museum’s original intentions.  Likewise, we have witnessed that results surface when organizations focus their energy, decisions, actions, and dollars towards well-articulated ends.  Thus, increasingly, intentionality is becoming a driving force in our work with clients, as we recognize how vital it is as an idea, action, theory, and practice.

Intentionality is not a new concept, as several well-known authors have written about it.  For example, business author Jim Collins notes in Good to Great that the work of a great organization must “attract and channel resources directed solely . . .” to their intentions and “reject resources that drive them away from” their passion and unique value.  Collins’ concept applies to museums, too, as described by museum scholar Stephen Weil in Making Museums Matter.  He wrote, “The only activities in which the museum can legitimately engage are those intended to further its institutional purpose.”  Collins’ and Weil’s concepts embody the essence of intentionality, where all actions are purposeful, deliberate, and focused on achieving the intended impact or results.  With funders requiring evidence that their dollars are being used in the way they intended, intentionality rings of relevance.  Likewise, with fewer dollars available to museums, how museums use those dollars is increasingly important.

The Cycle of Intentional Practice places “impact” in the center of the cycle and assumes museums want to make a positive difference in people’s lives, which is how I define “impact.”  Intentional practice requires that the museum articulates the impact it would like to achieve (by writing an impact statement), align a museum’s practices and resources to support the impact it would like to achieve, measure the ways in which the museum is achieving impact, and reflect on the results to learn from them for the purpose of improvement.  Intentional practice may seem insular, but it acknowledges a museum’s responsibility to its external community through evaluation and other efforts.  The tension between a museum and its public is real and the museum may need to work hard to balance its internal aspirations and resources with its community’s needs.  Balancing potentially conflicting ideals, though challenging, demonstrates that the organization is striving to be true to itself and its audience and community.   I have learned in my 30 or so years of experience that when a museum applies laser focus to the center of the cycle, it creates an opportunity to achieve meaningful, measurable results that an evaluator can detect.

We invite you to share your thoughts—agreements or disagreements—in the spirit of our collective learning, as learning has always been the motivational force behind our work.