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Innovation Lab: nurturing nonconformity and half-baked ideas

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

 “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”—Daniel Burnham

When I previewed CFM’s plans for 2011, I said we would “establish mechanisms to foster innovation and experimentation in museum operations, in order to discover methods and strategies that will help museums thrive in the future.”
True confession: I was making that up. I didn’t know, at the time, how we would actually do it.

But I knew it had to happen! The AAM board assigned CFM “fostering innovation” as one of its mandates because they realized that operating environment of the 21st century will be a very different operating environment than that of the 20th century. Most of AAM’s programs and services (e.g., Accreditation, the Museum Assessment Program) encourage conformity to standards and best practices that evolved in the last 100 years. Not that these are bad operating guidelines—but they may not be the framework that will ensure success in the future.

So how do we recognize, encourage, reward the non-conformists—the museums that say “heck with the standard way of doing things, we think we have a better way”? Especially since, (as with any risk taking) many of these ventures will fail. How do we celebrate risk taking and failure while helping to minimize risks and maximize the chances of success?
One small start: Innovation Lab for Museums.
Innovation Lab was originally developed for performing arts organizations by a nonprofit organization called EmcArts, with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The Duke Foundation doesn’t fund museums, but, over time, EmcArts worked with some museums in California with the support of the Irvine Foundation. Richard Evans, who directs EmcArts’ programs and strategic partnerships, approached AAM about broadening the program, and the funding, to serve more museums. Recognizing this as an opportunity to innovate within AAM (while minimizing risk) I’ve worked with Richard over the past year to ensure the program is suitable for museums of all kinds and to find funding.
We were very happy to announce, last week, that generous support from the MetLife Foundation has enabled AAM and EmcArts to open the first round of Innovation Lab for Museums for proposals.
The Lab is designed for museums that already have what Richard calls “half-baked ideas”—promising dreams they would like to implement, but haven’t quite worked out how. Building on EmcArts’ observation that most institutional culture is fatal to budding innovations, the Lab will take teams of staff out of the museum, to join teams from the other participating museums for an five-day, residential intensive retreat. The program also provides coaching before and after the retreat, input from outside experts selected in consultation with the museums, and $40,000 in implementation support.
Participating museums will benefit in two ways: implementing a specific innovation in their institution, and modifying their organizational culture to be more supportive of innovation in general.
This is a small start—three museums will be accepted in the first round—but my hope is it will grow over time and will have ripple effects far beyond the participating institutions. Successful innovations developed through the Lab may be mainstreamed into other museums, and we will share what we learn about creating innovative cultures with the field, helping counterbalance our field’s emphasis on conformity with a greater tolerance for risk and experimentation.
The deadline for proposals is Oct. 31. You can read more about Innovation Lab for Museums and the nature of innovation in Richard’s guest post for the CFM Blog. You can direct inquiries about the Lab (questions about eligibility, suitable projects, nature of the program) to EmcArt’s national programs manager, Liz Dreyer.
I am psyched to read the applications that come in, and look forward to sharing stories of the awardee’s innovative projects in the coming year!
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  1. Would love to see the AAM encourage nonconformity and innovation by being more open to it during the Accrediation process.

    I believe the current Accreditation process is focused on evaluating the processes of the museum rather than the successes of the museum, as if somehow there is a single process for governing, planning, or programming that insures success and excellence.

  2. I'm thrilled to hear about the funding AAM has received for the first round of Innovation Lab proposals, but I think it's possible and very necessary that risk-taking and innovation sprout from within a museum's commitment to national standards — standards like "The museum is a good steward of its resources held in the public trust" and "The museum is committed to public accountability and is transparent in its mission and its operations"; and "The institution legally, ethically, and effectively manages, documents, cares for, and uses the collections." Standards should be the underlying foundation upon which all museum activities are based. Now, best practices might be a whole other thing. In discussions like this, it's important to distinguish between standards and best practices, I think.

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