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Innovation Lab: Second of A Four-Part Series

Category: Museum Magazine

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2012 edition of Museum magazine.

When the AAM Board founded the Center for the Future of Museums in 2008, one of their charges to the staff was to “[e]ncourage museum practitioners to exercise their creativity and support risk-taking and innovation.” Such innovation, venturing beyond the bounds of existing practice, is absolutely necessary if museums are to discover how to adapt to a world that is changing so rapidly in so many ways. But while our field has ways of rewarding conformity to well-established standards (e.g., accreditation), we lack mechanisms for supporting and rewarding museums for doing things differently. It is particularly difficult to create an appropriate system of incentives because innovation inevitably entails risk and experimentation, both of which (if done properly) entail failure. Who wants to celebrate failure? Well, we do. We have to, if we are going to ask museums to go out on a limb to try truly radical changes in the way they have worked for decades.

For this reason, in 2011 AAM launched Innovation Lab for Museums, partnering with EmcArts to adapt their successful Innovation Lab program (originally designed principally for the performing arts) to serve the museum field. With funding from MetLife Foundation, we’ve brought six museums into the program so far. The first three museums started the program in January 2012, working with facilitators to consolidate their innovation teams and begin to refine their “half-baked” ideas. This past May, innovation teams from all participating museums attended a five-day Intensive Residential Retreat in Airlie, Va., that served as a “project accelerator,” giving teams time to focus on key decisions about their projects. Participants spent six days working with their facilitators, engaging in exercises to spur their thinking and hearing from inspiring speakers. The retreat encouraged them to critically examine their developing ideas, testing, pruning, reshaping and refining them to the point where they can begin prototyping. In this article, the second in our series of updates on the Innovation Lab for Museum participants, we hear from the team working on the Latino New South project about their “intensive” experience.

-Elizabeth Merritt, founding director, Center for the Future of Museums

The Latino New South Project

By Priscilla Hancock Cooper

“The southeastern United States, home to few immigrants just a generation ago, is now experiencing the nation’s highest percentage growth in Latino newcomers. This is a great change for a region long known for its white and black racial landscape. Scholars suggest that this demographic and cultural shift may be the biggest story in southern history since the Civil Rights movement.”

-Emily Zimmern, President And CEO, Levine Museum Of The New South

Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, N.C., is the lead institution in the Latino New South (LNS) project, a collaboration with the Atlanta History Center and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama that addresses the changing Latino demographic in the deep South. The project brings together three unique history museums in three different southern cities, operating within different internal structures and negotiating varying community realities. Latino New South addresses their common challenge: As the southeastern United States becomes one of the nation’s fastest-growing locations for Latino immigrants, how can museums forge sustainable, meaningful relationships that engage these constituencies in community building?

As the project has evolved, the LNS team finds that it is also developing a model for how history museums can collaborate, using their collective resources to reach common goals. After much thought, some angst, lively discussion and the skilled guidance of consultant John McCann, the team realized that creation of this “learning network” is itself the innovation. While collaborations between institutions have become an increasingly desirable model for building museum capacity, such joint ventures are rare among history museums. The Latino New South project will provide valuable information to the field about how to develop a structure and process that supports effective partnership.

When the Levine Museum launched its five-year LNS initiative, Director Emily Zimmern recognized that Latino immigration is transforming the entire South, not just Charlotte. In order to have “boots on the ground” in several parts of the South to understand this historical and cultural shift, Levine invited the Atlanta History Center and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to join in establishing the LNS “learning network.” Together, these three museums serve more than 400,000 people each year and have a diversity in mission, structure, staffing, and budget that is
representative of the wide range of history museums throughout the country.

“Since I was new to the project, every piece of information was helpful and eye-opening for me. During the [retreat], I learned this work is important and…why museums need to be doing this work. l was convinced and converted to the idea that institutions like ours should be playing a role as catalyst for cultural change.”

-Melina Monita-Pacheco, Coordinator, Latino New South Project, Levine Museum

During Phase I of the Innovation Lab, representatives of the participating institutions communicated via e-mail and conference call as they grappled with shaping and defining the specific innovation that would be the focus of the project. By this May, when all Innovation Lab for Museums participants gathered for Phase II, an intensive retreat in Airlie, Va., the project had developed two parallel and complementary goals: building meaningful relationships with various Latino communities and documenting the process for developing an effective museum “learning network.” When the LNS team arrived at Airlie, it was the first time that all members had met face-to-face.

While at the retreat, the team tackled many difficult questions: Why should museums be involved in integrating immigrants into our communities? Does immigration integration include or exclude Latinos who have lived in the country for several generations? How can members of the innovation team engage their colleagues back at their home institutions so that the project becomes an institutional priority? What is the process for effectively communicating with the Latino community and other stakeholders? How does/should the political reality of tough anti-immigration laws in Georgia and Alabama impact the project in Atlanta and Birmingham? Because of its smaller population and immigration challenges in rural areas, should the Birmingham project be a statewide effort? How do existing community expectations inform project implementation in each city? As a learning network, how does the team communicate, document, evaluate and share these lessons with each other and the museum field?

The Why: The Boom in U.S. Latino Population in the South

The meteoric growth of the Latino populations in the participating museums’ metropolitan areas was the impetus for the Latino New South project, and engaging these growing population segments is the ultimate objective for the institutions.

And for the museums, the need for such engagement is made clear by a 2010 U.S. Census report on the U.S. Latino or Hispanic population, which stated, “The Hispanic population grew in every region between 2000 and 2010, and most significantly in the South….The South experienced growth of 57 percent in its Hispanic population, which was four times the growth of the total population in the South (14 percent).”

The graphs below illustrate the population growth by market, in absolute numbers and percentages.

By the end of their time in Airlie, the LNS team had developed an action plan for Phase III, prototyping and evaluation, in which team members planned listening sessions in their respective cities. These gatherings are intended to engage communities around questions related to perception of the Latino community and its relationship with the museums, and the role our museums can play in building partnerships for Latino integration and participation in community building. Team members from all three cities are attending the two-day sessions. The team will meet a group of scholarly advisors in Charlotte this October to synthesize the information gathered.

Latino New South Participants

The Levine Museum of the New South opened in 1991 to explore the history and culture of the New South; the era since the Civil War. With a full-time staff of 16 and annual budget of $1.6 million, it has garnered national recognition for its groundbreaking exhibitions and active civic engagement and dialogue programs rooted a vision of “using history to build community.”

The 85-year-old Atlanta History Center is the region’s leading general history museum and, with a staff of 62 and annual budget of $6.6 million, the oldest and largest network partner. Incorporating both the Atlanta History Center campus and the Margaret Mitchell House, its mission is to preserve and interpret historical subjects pertaining to Atlanta and to present subjects of interest to Atlanta’s diverse audiences. This venerable institution is in the midst of strategically rethinking its approach to exhibitions and programming in order to more effectively engage Atlanta’s diverse population.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) opened in 1992 as a state-of-the-art museum housing exhibitions that depict the country’s racial struggle (and progress) from post-World War I to the present day in support of its mission to promote civil and human rights worldwide through education. With a staff of 19 and an operating budget of $2.1 million, BCRI interprets historic and contemporary struggles for human rights through the unique lens of the Birmingham experience.

To facilitate communication during the planning phase, the team holds biweekly conference calls that follow the same basic agenda, allowing each site to respond to three questions: What do I need to know since last time we met? What are the cautions or alerts (surprises)? What do we need to know in the meantime until we meet again?

The calls have facilitated discussion about project budgets, logistics, and demographics, as well as planning and design of the listening sessions in each city. The team received updated data about Hispanic communities in each of the three cities from reports developed by a team at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, led by Heather Smith, a geography and urban studies professor.

In addition to analyzing the census data, team members are meeting with key representatives of Latino communities to plan the listening sessions. The project evaluation will include assessment of the processes used by the learning network (the “how”) and a comparative analysis of the results of the listening sessions (the “what”). This evaluation will be used to inform program development at each institution and to report findings to the museum field.

The LNS team has already found Innovation Lab for Museums to be immensely valuable in helping to stimulate and refine ideas. However the prototype works out, the team is confident this experiment will provide a useful example to colleagues in other history museums for creating collaborative partnerships to tackle shared community challenges.

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