I've been working with the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center on the re-interpretation of the Stowe House for a little over a year. As you can imagine, that is many, many conversations among many, many people about how to create a historic house experience that really embodies the Stowe Center's social justice mission, in addition to caring for the house and collections. This week, we brought a team of 20 (yes 20!) together to do some serious thinking as we're now at the decision-making stage. Designer, evaluator, development people, architect, curator, director, educator, front-end staff, community members, scholars, playwright. We were all around the table.
Director of Education and Visitor Services and I realized that everyone (including us) had fears about the project. We decided to surface them first thing. Using just a flip chart, I wrote down the fears that the group shared. None of them would really surprise anyone who's been through a big project: not enough money; losing the audience we have; not gaining new audiences; not doing enough training; not having the new experience be "magical;" not getting everyone on board; have the experience be not diverse enough; too much technology; not enough technology; can we find a clear theme and make it real?
It was a pretty big list. But I flipped over the page and we didn't talk any more about them until the very end of the day. After a great, inspiring day, full of new ideas, connections, and more, we flipped the page back and went through the fears. Some fears had gone away--but there were definitely still some fears left. The good news though, is that I think most people in the room felt the fears were now manageable. We'd made progress on the day, but knew that there was much work to do. By surfacing and sharing fears, we turned them from the big monster under the bed to something we can work on together.
But what about failure? Many of the Stowe Center team's fears were about failure. At the New England Museum Association's Young and Emerging Professionals meet-up last week, Rainey Tisdale and I shared some creativity information (Rainey's awesome speed networking creativity dance-off will have to wait for another post). I took on running the Failure Olympics. Divided into Failure Nations, each group had to create a Failure flag (my favorites: the crumpled paper and the lonely stick with no flag); share their own stories of fails and lessons learned; and then nominate someone to compete in the Failure Olympics by sharing their stories in front of the whole group. The winner: a complex tale of ants, ant farms, exhibit openings and a shy young professional who learned that asking for help is better than having a pile of dead ants.
What do both these conversations have in common? Exactly that. They were conversations. In each setting, we tried to create an atmosphere of trust--and fun--so that fears and failures were easily shared, rather than hidden under our desk. It takes zero dollars to do this--it just takes a willingness to listen and to talk.
Dear readers, what's your best/worst failure story?
Top: the Failure Olympics, center: Stowe House meeting, bottom: failure flag creation.