Wing Asian Museum

The Wing Asian Museum, Seattle

I am about to fly out the window with delight! Lend an ear to Alison Fine’s quick 15 minute interview with Nina K. Simon, author of The Participatory Museum, and Rob Stein, chief information officer at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which covers innovations for how arts groups and museums can engage with visitors and donors online.

Example One: The Wing Museum, in Seattle, A COMMUNITY MUSEUM
The Wing Museum is a participatory community based museum, which means that community members create each exhibit, become board members, docents, and volunteers. There is a very strong community network around the museum, which the museum facilitates, and in turn the community nourishes the museum. I love this! This is how nonprofit should be. Woven into the fabric of the community, and led by the community, not just sucked dry for money.

I think Seattle has to be one of the top cities for museum innovation in America. When I was there in 2009, there was an African exhibit on the top floor of the Seattle Art Museum, and they had some ritual instruments from an African tribe. The tribe actually participated in the creation of the exhibit, explaining what the instruments did, and how to arrange them in the exhibit. This is the first time I’ve ever seen this happen, and I hope that this leads to greater curation collaboration between Indian tribes in North America and museums.

Example Two: TOTAL TRANSPARENCY from The Indianapolis Museum! Scary, and Good!

You are not going to believe this. The Indianapolis Museum Put a magnifying glass onto their website which shows how the museum operates! Behold.

Total transparency! Scary and Good!

They show how they achieve their goals, and they are extremely open with it. They not only show how many visitors, but their energy conservation efforts. They even show the total size of the endowment.
Further, it’s not a flat page, but a user can see the trends over time. And they even have a development page. Check it out!

Development Transparency

They’ve only had 56 new memberships so far this year. That’s not so hot. But they’re OPEN about it. That makes me trust them. The reason this makes me tapdance is because so many nonprofits don’t understand the need for transparency, or don’t think they have the resources to do it, when in reality, with the age of nonprofit scandals rising, transparency is going to distinguish the nonprofits who want to engage with their communities versus the ones that want to remain closed, hierarchical, and silent.

Top Tips: Experiments have to extend from online to onsite. They need to be equally friendly and open in person. And be willing to admit your mistakes.

If you want to learn more, Nina Simon’s Got a book
And you can read it free.

Conclusion: This interview makes me happy for several reasons.

1. It shows that Museums can stop lamenting the lack of visitors and the downfall of society and understand that they need to engage the community in new ways. And there’s a whole book you can read about it on how to do it. For free.

2. This method of engaging the community to create exhibits and to show exactly what’s going on, good or bad, makes me feel that we are entering a more “participatory democracy” kind of phase for museums, instead of a top down hierarchical phase that we’ve had in the past. And that’s a good thing.

Why not make it the center of the community, and let it be a useful gathering place, instead of just having the museum be shunted off to the side for special occasions? Doesn’t that sound more sustainable than having a birthday party at a Children’s museum, or an extra arts school tacked on as an afterthought? Engage children in creating exhibits! And engage community members in something they have authority with. Give people a reason to talk about your museum, to gather at your museum, to volunteer and donate there. This will make sustaining the museum itself so much easier.

And if you’re not in an arts organization, can you take these lessons and apply them to your own nonprofit? What transparency could you implement right now on your website? What measures could you take to get the word out about your next open house?