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Will You Know Innovation When You See It?

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Last week my virtual self gave a brief intro via Skype to Phelan Fretz’s session on Innovation at the NEMA meeting in Burlington, Vermont. Phelan (who is the executive director of the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington) challenged a group of attendees to address the question “Is the Museum Industry innovative?” He invited me to kick of off the session by priming people to think about what we mean by innovation, and now I’m going to share those thoughts with you.

Here’s the Prezi I used for the NEMA attendees, if you want the illustrated version:

I think museums need to focus on innovation by focusing on change that is: relevant, transformative, and significant for the field as a whole.

There are a multitude of ideas that are innovative, but unimportant. (Or, to quote Arte Johnson, “very interesting…but stupid.) Thanks to the internet it is only too easy to find examples of this: a toilet paper hat, so you need never be caught without a nose tissue again. The “cat ears” hair band, hooked up to a brain wave monitor so the ears “prick up” when you pay attention. The labor saving Baby Dust Mop and, for childless households, the Cat Mop variant. (See, I knew you would want to peek at the illustrations.)

Sadly, history is littered with innovations that are successful and important, but didn’t catch on. The Concorde was an engineering marvel, flying transatlantic flights in less than half the time of other airliners. Only 20 were produced, it flew for 27 years, and was discontinued after 9/11. A more tragic example of failed promise, to my mind, was the race to the moon. Technical success? You bet! Triumph of national will? One that shaped my childhood. But  the moon landings were supposed to herald permanent colonies that would be our launch pad deeper into space. Instead there were 6 manned landings, and none since 1972.

The difference between “brand new” and “actually transformative”
Clearly there are things that are cool and new, but not innovative: the 91st Frank Zappa album; the iPhone 5. Innovation launched the arc that led to these new things, but these particular examples are only minor variations on that innovative theme.

Think about scale. Some things are innovative locally, but are not at the state, national or international level. For example, it might be really innovative for your community to uncover its river and make it a centerpiece of urban renewal, but that’s been done in communities across the country (Providence, Hartford, Fall River, etc.)

The difference between innovative and “new”
When I challenged coworkers to name a couple of major innovations off the top of their heads, two that came up were Edison’s light bulb and Henry Ford’s Model T. I thought these were really interesting examples because neither of these guys invented the things that they are paired with in the popular imagination. The first light bulb was produced in 1840, 40 years before Edison’s patent. Edison refined the design and made it practical to produce, & competed successfully against others doing the same thing. There were factory-produced cars by the late 1800’s, and Oldmobile introduced assembly lines for auto production in 1903. Ford’s genius was scaling the process up, making cars affordable to the average working person and marketing the idea of personal car ownership. I would argue that, in these two cases, Ford and Edison were innovative businessmen—their success was in creating competitive systems of production and sale.

I didn’t have time to go into that important but complicated point: that we need to create systems that can support and exploit the potential of innovations. Ford and Edison got this right—they changed the marketplace, from production to marketing to distribution to infrastructure. The Concorde and the space program (arguably) failed because they didn’t create the requisite systems of support. I heard a talk yesterday by Neil Gershenfield from MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, in which he said his teams working on distributed fabrication labs found they had to create a whole new infrastructure to support the adoption of their innovations. The technology was the easy part—the harder challenge is how to create support systems that enable the technology to be mainstreamed into schools, neighborhoods, villages around the world, where it can live up to its promise? (You can watch the archived lecture here—it was part of the Renwick Gallery’s program Nation Building: Craft and Contemporary Culture.)

So, what are the areas in which museums desperately need innovation?
Markets: how do get different people to care about what we do
Relationships: new ways of interacting with people, or entirely new kinds of interaction
Economies: how to monetize our work in new ways
Experience: how to deliver content in new ways

I’ll leave you with the six examples I offered to NEMA attendees as examples of new things recently tried by museums. It’s your turn to decide whether, based on the criteria above, they are truly innovative.

Bring your Baby to the Museum Program: Danforth Museum of Art This program expands the museums audience by creating a time for just moms & babies. No need to feel self-conscious about squeals and burps, and lots of support from other moms.

MOCATVLAMOCA introduced its own YouTube channel, populated by its own original content. Initial subscribers received a free museum membership.

The “O” at the Museum of Old and New Art in New Zealand MONA has banned signage from the building, and instead of exhibit labels, provides interpretation via iPhone touches loaded with a proprietary app.

Fashion and the Field Museum Collection Field Museum of Natural History invited fashion designer Maria Pinto to select objects from the collection to juxtapose with her fashion designs. (Unless you work in a natural history museum, you may not realize the depth of institutional culture shock this might have entailed.)

the First International Cat Video Festival The Walker Art Center ran a crowdsourced video festival & awards competition attracting 10,000 entries and over 10,000 attendees. (The winner of the Golden Kitty Award was Henri II: Paw de Deux.)

The “Let’s Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum” crowdfunding campaign on IndieGogo enable a nonprofit group to buy Tesla’s old lab, which was threatened with development. The group raised over $1,370,511, reaching their original $800k goal in under a week. 
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