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Radical Transformations: The Tuesday Keynote

Nina Simon

Nina Simon

Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (SCMAH) was the Tuesday keynote speaker.  She spoke on the changes that she has instituted at the museum since becoming its director 3 years ago. She began by noting that we have a huge potential to serve our communities which is often grossly unfulfilled. The main problems that she faced when she arrived were no money (the museum had $17,000 in the bank and $30,000 in unpaid bills) and relevance. More people knew that the museum used to be the county jail than knew what happens inside it. Simon said that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste because it gives you a good perspective on what you need to do to change. As Tim O’Reilly said, every time you use web 2.0 software, it gets better. How can our work in museums and libraries get better the more people participate?

Participation means getting people doing things in the museum and co-creating programming with great artists in the community. They created “memory jars” of people’s memories and exhibitions about identity (how do you see me?). Use art to make a difference. Every way you engage with art is valid, even with teens who wanted to do more in the museum.

Social bridging comes from concept of social capital. Some people criticize participation in social media and think it’s all about the selfie generation. Bonding capital refers to people like you; bridging captial refers to people not like you. There was a decline in participation because of decline in bridging opportunities. Will you have an interaction with a stranger in the museum? The SCMAH deliberately does not have a target audience. Always work with diverse collaborators and put people next to others not like them, such as opera people next to hip-hop. Family days were discontinued to prevent segregation of families from other people. Exhibits were designed to give opportunities for strangers to meet each other; for example, there were always two seats placed in front of an exhibit.

You must experiment to take risks and be successful. SCMAH did a festival with fire artists (after consulting with the Fire Department). Prototyping extends into everything they do: get experiments out there and see how people interact.  The results were highly successful, as these data show.

Visits and receipts dataHere is a typical visitor comment.

Visitor commentThe shift to openness has completely changed the museum.
Lessons learned:

  • A Revolution is not an exercise in concentric circles. Change is not just about building out; it’s about actually shifting. People see what we are doing and they care. Are we inviting people to feed their desire to put graffiti on walls or engaging more with the work? Normal growth is a concentric circle model–when you grow, you just get bigger. The mission stays in the same place; you are just building on it.SCMAH had to recenter programming outside of where they were before and re-position what they were doing. So they created “popup museums”–a temporary show created by participants who bring something to share. Here is what one user had to say as a result.CommentThis doesn’t mean there will be everything for you but there will be something. Board members help create this resource for everybody.
  • Invite meaningful action at all levels. Every attendee has a way to make a meaningful contribution. We must design invitations to provide the best way for people to contribute. The museum created a wish list for an upcoming exhibit. Such a list is something that almost anybody can contribute to, i.e. they asked for cardboard boxes, and old CDs. This was a way for people to get rid of stuff and make a contribution. The lesson learned was to Invite people–they want to help you. The trust element is a powerful motivator. People are starting to shift the way the see the museum.
  • Be rigorous. Think about why and how you are doing this work and moving forward in your goals. Take a community-first approach and identify who is the community of interest first, then move to assets and needs, projects, and collaborators. Invite even children to participate in planning.
  • Think platforms, not programs. How can we include everybody as a participant? Think about a bigger platform that everybody can buy into. (See the One Million Giraffes website as an example of a platform that invites a huge participation.) Pop-up museums let lots of people remote from the museum participate.
  • Make space. To be successful as a risk taker, you need somebody to be a space maker. For example, homeless adults and volunteers are maintaining a cemetery and making it a historic site for the city. Use history to create bridges that would not otherwise exist (see The work is about what we can enable other people to do.

What is the important problem the museum is working on? Is it about reaching out to the community? Use the competitive advantage you have by being small. Don’t try to emulate the big museums; the big institution has the burden of being the big institution. Small ones can just figure something out and do it.

Some of the Tweets from the keynote have been gathered here.

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