Thursday, October 8, 2009

Change: The Big Scary Thing on Your Museum's Doorstep

As fall begins, it still seems like the time for new projects, just as it did on those first days of school. As a result, I've spent a fair amount of time the last couple weeks talking to both boards and staff about planning, new projects, and organizational change. And, somewhat to my dismay, I've begun to wonder whether the economic climate is leading organizations, to metaphorically speaking, turn out the lights on the front porch and hide from change.

What does it mean when organizations resist change? The results are easy to identify. Your audience begins to drop; you tell me you just can't ever find any new volunteers, because everyone is too busy; you have a shrinking board because no one will volunteer; your exhibits look dated; your objects go uncataloged but you keep taking irrelevant things because you can't say no; your website is a year out-of-date; and your community walks right past your door. In short, you become less and less relevant to your community--and after all, that community is your reason for being. And then, of course, the cycle becomes self-fulfilling. Yes, no one cares about you because you don't show that you care about them.

I've discovered that this resistance to age isn't a generational one. It's certainly not all young people who embrace change; or older people who resist it. In the museum field, there's sometimes a certain conservatism combined with a sense of superiority, that really hinders us from digging down deep and finding out what our communities need and how we can make a difference.

These are critical, difficult times for many of the places where we work. Some may think that hunkering down and doing as little as possible, or doing the same old thing over and over--just because it costs less or is easier-- are the answers. But I wonder whether, after the recession recedes, if those organizations will be left high and dry as their communities look to more meaningful places to spend their time.

No particular answers in this post, but a few examples of hopeful signs from organizations I work with:
  • A local historical society planning for an exhibit that explores the idea of greed in the community's early settlement. Now there's a topic that will resonate with today's visitors.
  • The small staff at a another small museum spending half a day to really talk about their current exhibit and how they can improve the next one--and doing it from a visitor-centered perspective.
  • The surprising comment from a retired board member in an interpretive planning session about new ways to use technology--a way I had never imagined.
I'd love to hear about organizations who are sitting down at budget time, looking at the strategic plan, and saying, "let's try one really great idea," rather than just settling for the day-to-day.
And that, I hope, will keep the goblins from your door.

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