Museum Hack Mythbusters: How We Can Help Your Museum, Big Or Small

We’ve written about how we think small museums are #MiniButMighty, but… well, but! We hear a lot of buts!

Museum Hack, we’d love to have you work with us, but…

Let’s mythbust the top reasons why you might think we can’t help your institution, big or small.

…But “I’m a historic house”

Historic homes come with their own sets of challenges, but historic houses help highlight that history is ultimately about people — not stuff. Let’s look at some work we did at the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site.

As a National Historic Site, Martin Van Buren’s home comes with a lot of restrictions, both governmental (NPS rules) and physical (tight stairwells). Passion-based storytelling and activity design adapts perfectly to these restrictions.

Lindenwald, Home of Martin Van Buren in Kinderhook, New York

Working with rangers and volunteers alike, we helped them rapidly prototype experience-based approaches to spaces to drive home humanistic points in a non-threatening, social way, while still acknowledging the rules set forth by the governing bodies.

Using our 5 Elements of a Hack, the rangers found ways to activate spaces to tell stories they’d never told, and even started to reimagine how they’d design their tours. What was once a standard walk-and-talk experience became transformed into a fully-interactive, semi-gamified, highly-personalized touring experience. And we still drove home points about slavery, populism and the American Civil War.

Heck, we’ve even Hacked a Lighthouse! We helped the St. Simon’s Lighthouse Museumin Georgia with new techniques that docents could use during their guided tours to successfully engage audiences of all ages.

Dustin Growick showing Lighthouse staff how to take selfies.

…But “we don’t have a collection”

No collection? No problem.

It’s easy to forget that so much history happened outdoors. We worked with the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area using some of the same “indoor” techniques to adapt to an outdoor space (aka, we hacked a battlefield).

When you think battlefield programming, you’re probably envisioning historical reenactments. But on HCWHA’s land, reenactments aren’t allowed, so we had to get creative. We thought about the central goal of a reenactment: to get visitors involved and visualizing events in a captivating way.

With these outcomes in mind, we coordinated battle commands with movements. Check it out below:

How can we use the same system both inside and out?

Our rapid-prototyping formula is perfect for sites that are attempting to re-envision their interpretive experience quickly and test results — regardless of size or collection. For HCWHA, a dance was an easy, creative way to fit the rules while breathing new life into programming. And yes, they gave the green light that the methods used were respectful, which brings us to…

…But “we deal with sensitive topics”

Have you heard of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights? It’s the world’s pre-eminent, internationally-renowned museum on human rights. What about the National Civil Rights Museum, where Martin Luther King Jr was shot?

We worked with both.

The key is to creatively problem solve, like we did with HCWHA. When thinking about transforming programming with a collection that deals with difficult topics, it’s important to think about the main takeaway for visitors.

Exhibits at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights | Courtesy of the museum’s media kit

Answer the question:

If your visitors need to learn or understand one thing from their experience at your institution, what would it be?

From there, take that theme and explore how to facilitate learning to create unique programming. In museums discussing difficult topics, we also stress the importance of scaffolding to create a more meaningful and digestible experience, so visitors get the most impact without being overwhelmed.

So what does all this mean? Why do we love small museums?

Small museums get to innovate

We consulted with the Hennepin History Museum to see what was working, what wasn’t, and created a strategic plan for moving forward.

After imparting some tips and tricks about how to engage millennials, the Hennepin History Museum was set to start implementing these practices right away.

Hennepin History Museum ready for Museum Hack!

Small museums are able to be creative and experiment with practices and programming. They are often more in touch with their communities and can be changemakers as the museum field changes from a collection focus to a visitor-centered one.

As museum methodology moves to discussing the communal role of cultural institutions, and the part that social justice plays in the museum mission, now more than ever, small museums need to keep experimenting and showcasing successful findings.

So what are the best practices for small museums? We’ve narrowed it down to our top three:

  • Gamify The Space — Disassociate ‘fun’ with ‘not learning.’ Games are a medium to facilitate learning, and put ideas into a new context to help audiences make real connections. Simplifying information to fit it into a new format doesn’t always mean dumbing down. Think about what the outcomes should be.
  • Take More Risks — It’s easier to experiment for small museums, even though the idea can be quite daunting. The power of smaller museums is the flexibility to experiment with programming, exhibitions, etc. to draw in and engage new visitors. Essentially, experiments in small museums can be real game changers for what’s possible in a space.
  • No Failure, Only Feedback — Even with programming “failures” there is always a lesson to help with improvement in the future. The experimentation from small museums is invaluable to the field to see what works on a small scale to make meaningful programming for local communities.

What is your institution working on? How are you #MiniButMighty in your community?

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Originally published at museumhack.com on July 24, 2017