Reflecting changing context

by Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe, Heritec

One of driving forces behind the development of the project was the need to respond to challenges presented by the economic downturn across Europe.
As a partnership, we perceived that this downtown generated a new movement of innovation and creativity, stimulated from the bottom-up by the maker and open-source technology communities. In response to the European Union 2020 Strategy2 call to focus on education and training to address the some of the challenges facing Europe, The Creative Museum project was created with a focus on developing training and development opportunities for museum staff by connecting to some of these other communities.
The Creative Museum project has always acknowledged the importance of human and social capital as articulated in the 2020 Strategy and in the aims of Erasmus +. It has sought to provide opportunities for museum staff to look beyond their own sector for examples of good practices in developing resilience, in exploring new approaches and in creating valuable and sustainable partnerships.
In a recent report by the Arts Council England entitled Character Matters3, the museum workforce in the UK was identified as being particularly risk adverse; this is probably true across Europe. The Creative Museum project was developed to challenge this idea and to demonstrate the ability of museum staff to be creative in difficult and challenging circumstances. The project has allowed its participating partners to innovate and experiment and take this learning back to their respective institutions. Throughout the project to-date, the diverse range of examples of the creativity and attitudes of museum staff to embrace change and take risks has impressed us.
Experimentation has been a defining part of the project, whether that is through training programmes, through our meetings or through the format of our dissemination events. As a partnership we want to demonstrate, through our own approaches, what we have learnt ourselves and from others. At the dissemination event in Brighton in September 2016, one of the invited speakers, Sejul Malde from Culture24, provided a fantastic summary about ‘Being Experimental’ in our work and in project development as museum practitioners. He said that the key factor in being experimental is a focus on process, not product, and therefore very different to traditional Research & Development (R&D) approaches. He said that in order to be truly experimental in our approach, our work should:
  • “Be question/hunch driven
  • Be simple, quick and cheap
  • Use what you already have
  • Be action orientated
  • Be user focussed
  • Have feedback loops built in
  • Be time bound”

This type of thinking also owes much to the start-up and entrepreneurial culture articulated by Eric Ries in The Lean Start-up4, in which he discusses the importance of the ‘minimum viable product’ — the smallest thing you can develop and ‘take to market’, which could mean the quickest and easiest project you could deliver in your museum — and an iterative development process of ‘build-measure-learn’. Adopting these approaches to innovation for museum professionals is important. Museum staff need to adapt to changing contexts, to participatory processes, new technology and the demands of their audiences to better engage and understand them. Decreases in public funding mean museum professionals must be ever more resourceful in a challenging climate; there is an expectation to maintain and even build on existing activities in order to fulfil the museum’s core mission but with diminished resources available, both in terms of staffing and budget.
>We believe that sharing is also a large part of the learning process. Through our public dissemination events during the project, including varous additional workshops, events and speaking engagements partners have shared their successes and failure.
Being prepared to fail is part of this ‘new’ thinking. Museums are often seen as too big to fail, and pressure on academic and research excellences means that staff think that ‘only the best’ will do. Acknowledging making mistakes, problem-solving and learning from the experiences requires a mind-set not often associated with museum professionals. In the words of Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better”.5

2 Europe 2020 strategy
3 Arts Council England (2016), Character Matters [online]
4 Ries, E. (2011) The Lean Start-up. New York, Penguin
5 Beckett Samuel, Worstward Ho, 1983, John Calder, London