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How the Museum of Science and History in Memphis Used the Pandemic to Springboard Its Strategic Plan

Category: Mission & Institutional Planning
A worker installing a bright yellow metal sculpture of a dinosaur outside
The Executive Director of the Museum of Science and History in Memphis found the pandemic shutdown to be a blessing in disguise, as it allowed the staff to lean into a rebranding and revitalization, including a new dinosaur sculpture at its entrance.

By the time the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis had already started a radical reshaping of its image, structure, and programming. When I began as Executive Director in January 2020, we were armed with an ambitious five-year strategic plan, including a rebranding, that had been orbiting around the organization but not yet been activated. We may not have appreciated it at the time, but the pandemic hitting pause on our operations gave us the unique opportunity to accelerate this plan.

This summer, we are officially rebranding as the Museum of Science and History at the Pink Palace (MoSH). We decided to change our name from the Pink Palace Museum because we needed every audience segment to immediately grasp what we offer. For residents, the name Pink Palace is a term of endearment, but for most visitors, it does not convey what we are—the largest science and history museum in West Tennessee—nor does it connect our multiple properties.

As with any museum, the list of what we want to accomplish is staggering—and very exciting, too. This is an opportunity for the museum to recreate our identity and engage more fully with the whole community, from students to young professionals and families of all ages. To focus on achievable progress quickly, we focused on three elements of our strategic plan that we could implement quickly during the months of shutdown:

Memphis As Museum

“Memphis As Museum” is our digital transformation of the museum, taking it beyond the walls of our buildings both through a website overhaul and new online programs to get young people involved at home.

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During the pandemic, like many museums, we increased digital engagement. We created “Museum to Go,” a digital learning program launched in response to business closure during the pandemic with home-based activities and content about historical events in our region. We also created digital tours, virtual field trips, and other programming to meet constituent needs during the pandemic. This was not at the forefront of our strategic plan, but the pandemic allowed us to accelerate this initiative and stay relevant to our audience, as it would be our primary means of public communication during a shutdown.

Simultaneously, we kept moving forward with five technology upgrades that were long overdue and necessary to build the foundation for the elements of our plans, including electronic ticketing and web interfacing, a new budgeting system, upgrades of our collections inventory system, a new website (to be released this summer), and IT infrastructure enhancements to expand our engagement.

Common Ground

Even before the pandemic, attendance had been falling off, and we had to take a hard look at what needed to be done to ensure the museum best served its mission. We wanted to create shared spaces to invite participation, foster exploration, and provoke engagement. We realized we had not been doing this well. We had blocked off walkways to our expansive front lawn, making much of our property essentially off-limits to guests. We had placed signage at our entrance that greeted visitors with nearly twenty rules and warnings before they even made it into the building. Creating a more welcoming and distinctive atmosphere was mission-critical for us and a way to reintroduce ourselves to Memphis and visitors to the city.

 

This spring, we tore down an old guard shack and commissioned an amazing piece of art from the Memphis-based national Metal Museum: a twenty-five-foot statue of a mosasaur suspended in air. The sculpture greets visitors when they arrive and contributes to an overall more inviting entrance design, as well as a physical indicator of who we are—part of the museum’s long-term plan to improve our facilities by creating welcoming access points. The sculpture’s installation coincided with the first of many new events, “Fossil Fest,” which gave visitors a chance to sift for fossils and take part in fun and challenging activities in and out of the museum. We are planning a full renovation of the entrance, anchored by the sculpture, announcing to the Memphis community and guests that we are committed to growing and expanding this facility.

Beyond the Walls

In the long term, we want to expand outreach and grow relationships with more communities by bringing the museum to them. Through deep collaboration, we will build lasting ties with broader audiences and reveal the stories of Memphis that would have otherwise stayed hidden.

Some examples of collaborations we have already undertaken, in addition to working with the Metal Museum for the mosasaur sculpture, include teaming up with the University of Memphis for an exhibit on the Memphis Tigers basketball team, and working with the city parks department to bring back our summer camps, which drew four thousand participants last summer. We are working to expand our community and university relationships further as we seek to create in-house designed exhibits which highlight the shaping of our region through the lens of natural science and cultural history.

Updating our programming is driving our engagement. We removed departmental silos through weekly Content Development Team meetings that plan programming six months out. We know that we have the potential to attract different audiences on whatever level they want to engage with us. While our long-term plans involve a new façade, entryway, and renovated permanent exhibits, we will also continue to innovate the way we engage our community through our programming. We are in a position to actually begin adding to our staff again, and hope to connect with professionals who share our vision and are excited to be a part of the changes we are making. We want the Museum of Science and History to be a living, breathing embodiment of Memphis and our region.

We knew we had to make some big changes as part of the five-year plan, but the pandemic expedited the need to make some internal adjustments. We spent a good deal of time envisioning the structure that would help us become a more dynamic living and breathing resource for our city and visitors, and made major changes. We have combined our Collections and Exhibit departments to best utilize the extraordinary resources we have as the heads of the prior departments are retiring. We are transitioning our Education department to Community Engagement, which can help us create more opportunities to fully engage with adults and students. We are searching for a new Development Director that can help us fund our ambitious five-year operating plan in new ways. And we restructured part of our relationship with the city as it relates to part-time and manager staffing.

Ten years from now, organizations that survived the COVID-19 pandemic will look at how they weathered this storm. We are confident that we took advantage of the disruption and pivoted to become stronger, more innovative, and more essential to the community and set the stage for growth.

 

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