You don’t run a museum

I don’t run one either.

Which makes this correspondence worth reading, I think.

I got a note from James Chung, who coordinated a session at something called the Museum Institute at the Sagamore. He asked me for my thoughts about museums and marketing, something to go along with a book or two that would be read by participants at the seminars.

I wrote,

Hi James,

My mom, before she passed away, was treasurer of the Museum Store Association, which was very important to her.

We’re members of the Museum of Natural History, used to go frequently to the Liberty Science Center, have been to the Hudson River Museum, the Cropsey Foundation, the Tenement Museum, the Cooper Union, The Guggenheim, The Whitney, etc. [I left out the big museums, which we go to every month or so]

I think in every single case, what keeps museums from being remarkable:

a. the curators think the item on display is the whole thing. As a result, they slack off and do less than they should in creating an overall story

b. they assume that visitors are focused, interested and smart. They are rarely any of the three. As a result, the visit tends to be a glossed over one, not a deep one or a transcendent one

c. science museums in particular almost beg people NOT to think.

I can’t remember the last time a museum visit made my cry, made me sad or made me angry (except at the fact that they don’t try hard enough).

James was nice enough to write back with a summary from one of the people at the seminar:

The book discussion started off with my asking if they were surprised we had selected these books.  The consensus was no, not really, but about a third of the readers clearly hated the books.  Not for what they said so much, but they felt that he was not speaking about museums, his stuff did not apply to museums, or that it was all obvious anyway. 

Well, that got the conversation going because then the people who liked the books acknowledged that overall, he was right.  And that yes, it is obvious stuff, but they (museum professionals) get so wrapped up in museum work that this is exactly the stuff they miss.  I asked if it was a case of missing the forest for the trees and they said yes.  They went around in circles a bit, and then I shared Seth’s comments on museums specifically.  Oh, they had a field day with that. 

They asked how long it had been since he had been to a museum.  But the group that liked his books spoke up pretty quickly, and first acknowledged that he was trying to needle them, but then said – wait, he is part of our audience, and clearly he has thought this.  And if we are not listening to our audiences, then we may not be doing our jobs well at all.  This was bounced around for a while.  At the end I pulled it back towards Godin’s books and asked what, if anything, they got from the books, felt like they could take back to their museums and use, or share with their bosses.  Even a couple of the Godin-haters mentioned things they got from them.  After the book club, back at the cabin we were staying in, there was a lot of talking around the fireplace about branding and stories, so it was clear the books, and the discussion, made them think.

While I’m not thrilled that there are Godin-haters out there, I guess that goes with the territory. The takeaway for me is that in fact the issues of storytelling and remarkability and respect are universal, whether you’re a non-profit or a job-seeker. It’s all people, all the time.