Moderator Guy Hermann is a museum master planner with a firm called Museum Insights, and introduced the session as showcasing three examples of museums transforming themselves into audience-driven sites. As he said, "Each transformation was driven by a clear focus on how best to serve the museum's audiences and community, creating vibrant, interesting, and completely different results."
Hermann spoke for Rachel Desgrosseilliers, Executive Director of Museum L-A in Lewiston, Maine, who was not able to attend. At its heart, Museum L-A could be described as a mill museum, but it clearly is much more than that. Their terrific tag line is: The story of work and community in Lewiston-Auburn. They defined the museum based on how it relates to this former mill community. One thing they've focused on is doing lots of reunions. I liked this from their website:
The history of the industrial community captured in the museum will be presented along three parallel lines that continue from the past into the present and future:
- The people who worked in local industries,
- Business and technological innovation and creativity, and
- The economic, civic, and cultural development of Lewiston and Auburn.
Next up was Ellen Rosenthal, President and CEO of Conner Prairie in Fishers, Indiana. Conner Prairie is one of the oldest living history museums in the U.S. For years, docents in historic clothing worked and taught about farm life at Conner Prairie. But it had become a "been there, done that" destination. People came once in 4th grade, came back once as parents, and once as grandparents. This wasn't a sustainable model for the institution, so they have redefined themselves as an interactive history park (showing visitors interacting in their PR materials is one key difference).
One thing she said was, "All strategy is local. As your community changes, you need to evolve with it." When Conner Prairie began, they were out in the country. Now they are surrounded by suburbs with changing demographics. They focused on teaching their educators and docents how to engage in conversation, not "teach." They have a wonderful CD-ROM that's an excellent resource, called Opening Doors to Great Guest Experiences. They have focused on offering repeatable, open-ended kids' activities that appeal to their surrounding demographic. Their goal is daily family engagement and excitement.
Creative programming: Their 1859 Balloon Voyage attraction. They took advantage of a historical event, the first isntance of "air mail" via balloon, and have built an entire experience around it. Smart, exciting, and revenue-producing.
The last presenter was James Kern, Executive Director of Brucemore in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Brucemore is a historic home and Iowa's only National Historic Trust Property. They have redefined themselves from "historic home" to "the community's home." One resource he recommended was the AASLH pamphlet: How Sustainable is Your Historic House Museum? ($5 download)
Creative programming: They created a live theater production from letters from one of the home's owners, called "Dear Sweetheart." They brought in local artists, performers and designers for a brainstorming session and asked, "Tell us what you see." They offer a series of events on site as well.
Partnering: They have partnered with every single arts organization in Cedar Rapids. When the entire town flooded in 2008, they hosted a benefit called "Moving Home" that raised $50,000 for flood relief. They also became flood conservation central, opening their space as a preservation office, as every other arts organization was flooded.
I loved the creative and unique approaches each of these institutions took towards transformation. As both Pico Iyer and Amy Tan said as well, the key is to find what makes you unique and engage with your community in that way.