Last month IMLS released the IMLS Strategic Plan, 2012 – 2016: Creating a Nation of Learners. Recently I had the opportunity to sit with director Susan Hildreth and discuss how she sees the plan shaping the future of IMLS and the nation’s museums. Here are some nuggets gleaned from that extensive interview.
On changes in IMLS’ focus embodied in the plan
Our performance improvement model is the most significant difference. We have asked projects for a number of years to develop outcome or output measures, but we haven’t looked broadly at all of our investments—our grant projects—to see what’s really working. Now we will look at how the investments we’ve made are working and use that knowledge to shape the framework of projects that we support in the future. The performance improvement model hopefully will make our investments more meaningful and show our funders that we’re really making an impact.
On the effect the plan may have on museums in 20 years
I think the strategic plan will help move museums into a place in their communities and also on the federal landscape where they’re seen as critical elements. We know that, on the ground, museums are the heart of the community. But at the federal level we have to be able to make the case that museums are integral to the educational ecosystem of a community.
On how the educational system in the U.S. might be changing
IMLS continues to support the evolution of education from a static model—one in which we’re presenting information that the student is supposed to be taking in—to an environment where students are becoming more adept at their own creativity, their own questioning, their own learning path, developing critical thinking skills and forming a relationship with the subject matter, their teacher, with student peers.
On how museums of the future might need to be different in order to meet the needs of their communities
Museums and libraries for many years were seen as repositories for information, for content, for objects, for paintings, and as places to go and experience things in a very non-interactive way. Now we’re in a world where it’s much more about your own experience of the information, the object or the art. I think the staff in museums has to be ready and willing to accept the role of facilitator of the individual or visitor experience. In a way, it’s giving something up—you don’t control the experience anymore. You try to make it useful and helpful but also flexible so that the visitor can really get what they want out of the experience not what you want them to have. It’s being willing to really walk in the visitor’s shoes and create experiences that are meaningful to them and allow them the opportunity to develop their own understanding and their own skills.
On potential collaborations between museums and libraries
It would be interesting if a museum and a library worked together to determine a couple of collections where the museum had a lot of visual content and the library had a lot of print content that they can bring that together virtually so people would get it all in one place. It would be really powerful! People just want to know about a subject, they don’t necessarily want to say, “Well, I have to go to this museum or that library.” How great would it be to have a library with a special local collection about an author or an event, and then for the museum down the street to have pictures and all kinds of information about that same subject? Why couldn’t we mash it all up so somebody would just find out all there is to know about that theme? Doing that virtually would only encourage someone to pursue their interest at the library or the museum.
On rethinking museums’ relationship to and investment in their buildings
I think in order for a museum to really be successful and relevant to its community, it’s got to engage with young people who can begin at an early age to understand what an exciting experience museum-going is—how it enriches their life and what they can learn from being in and experiencing a museum. I know it’s very difficult to afford the buses and the insurance to get kids to museums. Are museums anticipating that ultimately they may have to take materials out from within the confines of a building into the community? That goes on already—museums have traveling shows and exhibits. etc., and many museums are already light years in thinking ahead about that, but it’s something that museums as a whole have to face.
I think it is important for museums to look at their physical assets and how they will use those assets in the next 10 to 20 years. Museums and libraries represent a huge investment in built infrastructure in our communities. If the interest in the museum itself was completely lost, that physical structure could either fall into decay or into the hands of, say, a night club or a big events space—something social but non-cultural. On the other hand, museums could take advantage of their physical assets even if they don’t necessarily have as many visitors or enough support for all their exhibits and collections. What could museums do with their physical asset to make it more of a community convening place? In the long run, they might have to give up some of the space they are using now for the collection. I am strongly suggesting that museum staff be very proactive about thinking how can we use our buildings to become part of our community so we don’t end up in a situation where, if they’re membership goes down or if funding falters, they don’t have a Plan B, and find themselves taken over by some other commercial entity.
On how people view digital assets versus real experiences
There may be individuals who say “I want to go to the Museum of Modern Art. I want to see that stuff face-to-face. I want to have that experience.” But I also think that having material from the museum available digitally could really whet someone’s appetite. I would say it’s not “either/or.” It’s like when people say “There are eBooks. Why do you need a library?” You can have eBooks and you can have a library because in a purely one-dimensional virtual world you’re never going to get kind of added value or curation. Ultimately, there’s really nothing like the real thing.