Back in 1999, just four years after making my first website for the New England Aquarium, but having already had an email account since 1986 and having been an active participant in online communities for just as long, I was deeply inspired by what the Internet could be in reading The Cluetrain Manifesto. It was a clarion call to engagement and ended up inspiring much of how I would think about the online experience over the next decade. There’s been an update in the years since and I had the good fortune to meet Rick Levine in Boulder, CO sometime in the mid-2000s, but the original manifesto still lingered in the back of my mind.
Some years later, around 2012, I decided to do a museum version, to capture the discussion of that moment. While waiting for a haircut, I jotted down a number of similar theses, modeled after the original Cluetrain, and then enlisted Seb Chan and Ed Rodley to further edit and collaborate. We had visions of diving into detail for each idea and we would author the whole thing anonymously, simply to remove our personalities from the mix and to have the ideas considered on their own. It turns out that wasn’t the smartest of ideas since there was a substantial amount of furor and criticism (you know, from dozens of people) over the anonymity such that the signal got lost in the noise.
Nonetheless, the ideas were interesting. And, it’s interesting to see how we’ve evolved and how the field has evolved since we originally published these in 2012. Doubly interesting, is the extra little bit of arrogance and cheekiness. So, in the interest in preserving just a little bit of the past, here’s the text of the original MuseTrain Manifesto.
Museums are the products of previous generations. In the European tradition they have been the arbiters of our cultural heritage, they are the shrines to the objects and values that we as societies hold dear. They are our collective memories. And yet, as they qualify the past and inspire for the future, our audiences and the world around us is rapidly evolving. Their values have shifted, they engage differently, and their needs have changed.
While the soul of the museum hasn’t changed, the way that museums and their staff need to engage absolutely has.
A handful of us, around the world, with experience both inside and outside of museums, wanted to express our thinking in simple, practical terms.
A collection of ideas that are easy to understand and offer direction.
This cycle of change is a constant, and our hope is that these statements offer a way to mindfully, meaningfully engage with that change, rather than just speculate about whether its beneficial or detrimental to the status quo .
What defines us and what should define us?
- Museums have collections, sometimes of objects, sometimes of ideas.
- Museums innately share those collections with the world.
- Collecting and displaying are separate activities although they absolutely rely on each other.
- Understand how your museum got here. It doesn’t need to stay ‘here’.
- Your museum likely has a building which has a history. Don’t fight it, feel it.
- Museums have personalities. These evolve and change over time.
- Unite around the organization’s stories. Specialize in how to present part of that story.
- Make it easy to share your collection and the stories behind it.
- Give birth and help your collection and stories through adolescence, but let them leave the nest through your visitors.
- Interact with as many different people in as many ways as you can. Your message is the same, the medium changes.
- Don’t just shout at visitors. Ask them to respond. Listen.
- Make visitors part of the experience. Ask them to participate in your ideas and stories.
- Museums are building relationships with people. And objects. And ideas.
- This relationship isn’t a one-time first date, it’s a lifelong experience. Treat it as such.
- Remember who they are, just like you would a friend.
- Aim to be a place of delight and wonderment.
- The museum experience is something that you help shape but you cannot control completely. It is in the minds of your visitors.
- The museum experience isn’t onsite, offsite, or online. It is all of these things together.
- Just as the world eventually embraced print, and radio, and television, so the world has also embraced digital.
- The tool of digital is new(ish), what it does is not.
- All of this new stuff is just one more form of communication with people.
- Create frameworks that let visitors do more with your collections and ideas than you can imagine.
- Every time you create a destination (a website, an app, a publication, an exhibition), build it on top of a service and use it as an example of what’s possible.
- Services should be aimed at incredibly broad audiences, destinations can be aimed at narrow audiences.
- Your content needs to have a permeability across devices and platforms. Digital is a red herring.
- If you’re doing digital think about how people use experiences not just what they do.
- No single digital thing is going to make it all work. It’s a collection of experiences and what you offer and what you enable your visitors to see, do, and experience.
Who are we and what do we have to say that’s worth hearing?
- The “institutional voice” is a fallacy. Your organization is a collection of individual voices.
- Individual voices should be heard and recognizable as such.
- Different voices talk to different audiences in different ways.
- Your voices should have strong, distinctive, memorable personalities. Each voice isn’t going to perfect for everyone.
- Stop talking to the same people that you’ve talked to for the last twenty years.
- Voices come in many forms throughout the museum experience. Visitors will find the form that is best for them, assuming that you’ve given them choices.
- Your voices should talk in harmony, expressing different parts of the whole.
- The integration of two different forms of communication is stronger than two separate communications.
- Visitors will often talk back when asked, but even more so if they know that it’s desired and appreciated. Just saying ‘thanks’ isn’t a form of appreciation.
- Treat the participation of visitors as part of your collection. They are part of the visitor experience for you and others.
- Trust your visitors in the same way that you ask them to trust us.
Why visit us?
- Be a nexus, a gathering place, a home to your collections, ideas, and stories.
- Also go to where the conversations about those things are taking place.
- We are physical, emotional, and digital places. These things, working together and in balance, make great museums.
- Visitors are making the choice to come to you. Reward that decision.
- Visitors may enjoy being intellectually challenged, but they deserve to be physically comfortable.
- Let visitors take away a little part of you.
- Museums are a collective conscious to visitors. The experience with content doesn’t end at the edge of the building.
- Your experience is a fundamental part of your brand. Make it special again and again.
- Objects, content, ideas, and stories should always be presented contextually aware. Nothing lives in isolation and all are part of the museum’s experience.
- Revel in authenticity. It’s one of the things that sets a museum apart.
How can we be relevant going forward?
- Steal inspiration from other fields. Better still, partner with them too.
- The real world is already trying what you’re just thinking about. Learn from what they’re doing.
- If someone else has done what you’re doing better, draw that into your experience.
- Have an idea, a vision of what might be. Don’t just talk about it, find some way to do it.
- Take more chances. At worst, you’ll have to try again.
- Reading or watching someone else do it at their museum doesn’t help your museum learn from experience.
- How it happens at your museum will always be unique because you, your museum, and your visitors are different than them, their museum, and their visitors.
- Stop settling for “best practices.” They are “acceptable practices” at best.
- Your visitors don’t care what some other museum has done, what you’ve learned, what you’ve published. They care about what you’re doing for them right now, for them.
- When you start to forget about your visitors, they start to forget about you.
- Measure your efforts. Assume that you will need to iterate. Do more of what works, less of what doesn’t.
- Don’t endlessly create experiments, prototypes, and pilot programs. They become excuses to not do the real thing.
- Do or do not. There is no try.
- Experiment with purpose, not randomly.
- It isn’t just saying “yes” to the right things, it’s saying “no” to everything else.
- It’s better to do fewer things with a high level of quality than to keep delaying too many things until it’s perfect.
- Create iteratively, these aren’t finish lines, just landmarks along the way.
- By measuring things, visitors can tell you indirectly what they like.
- Visitors rarely can imagine what they don’t know they need. Demonstrate the future to them.
- If your answers don’t fit your questions, change your plan. Do it early, do it often. Do it better next time.
- Ask visitors to come back by engaging with them.
- Lead visitors by showing them a path, not by telling them what to do.
- Visitors can do difficult things you just need to give them a reason and eliminate the stupid parts. Simplify experiences as much as possible; reduce friction.
- Not everything needs to be tested before meeting a visitor, but you need to be measuring it after it meets the visitor.
- Thinking of your visitors as annual visitors is small and short-sighted. Measure the relationship and interactions in decades or, better yet, a lifetime.
- Understand that measuring some change and influence will take decades. Accept it and be aware of it.
Who will help us?
- Diversify your funding sources.
- Don’t be afraid to try new revenue models. Some will work. some won’t, it won’t be the same for everyone.
- People will pay for great experiences. It’s one of the best ways visitors will tell you that you’re succeeding.
- Earning money is not a bad thing. The better your organization demonstrates relevance and value, the easier it is to earn money.
- Similar things congregate. This includes donors. money, programs, participants, and ideas.
- People, whether they’re visitors spending dollars or donors giving dollars, love to spend on and give to causes and experiences that demonstrate value clearly and quickly.
- Your museum doesn’t have to be for everyone. But if it isn’t don’t expect “everyone” to help pay for it.
- Your museum is definitely for someone. Agree who that is.
- The quality of food and experience in your cafe is more memorable than your exhibitions and collections, especially if it is bad.
- If you want people to stay for awhile, make it comfortable to do so. Rest areas, seating, meeting places, zen gardens, noisy places, activity courts, and food courts are all comfortable alternatives.
- Integrate those things into your experience, not as an afterthought. They should be a regular drumbeat, available every couple of turns.
- Museums are businesses, even if they’re non-profits. Learn how a business works.
- Your strategic plan covers the whole organization and draws upon the physical, emotional, and digital parts collectively.
How can we learn to succeed?
- Marketing/Curatorial/Education/etc is not your enemy. They’re trying to tell the rest of the world about your organization’s relavancy. Help them help you. You are all working for the same organization.
- It’s great to have an internal process — it provides some structure. Stop relying on it as a crutch to not think critically.
- Question more things, but don’t be an ass about it.
- It’s great to be right. Learn at a young age that you’re frequently not right.
- Nobody cares about the great things you did in the past, they care about the great things that you’re doing now — especially your visitors.
- Everyone in senior management was once part of junior staff. They got to where they are by listening, learning, and doing.
- People rarely get promoted and find great new opportunities for just doing more of the same.
- Young people aren’t full of good ideas about museums. But neither are old people.
- Periods of innovation and change are not something new. The changing bits may be, but not the idea.
What does “success” look like?
- Success in the museum world is not a zero sum game. Different departments and even different organizations have the opportunity to augment each other.
- Learn about the other disciplines in the field. Talk to them in their terms, and teach them yours.
- Understand the the difference between authoritarian and authorative. The former is suicide, the latter is relevance.
- Museums demonstrate authority through engagement.
- Without visitors, why bother?
- Change happens. Get in front by trying things out and lead. Or, do what you’ve always done and lose relevancy.
- Experiment. It keeps you humble, and in front of visitors where you belong.
- There is no promised land where somebody has figured out how all these disruptive technologies “fit.” Waiting gains you nothing.