Skip to content

Museum as Lightning Rod: Innovation and Invitation—An #AAM2022 Keynote by Jake Barton

Category: Alliance Blog
Jake Barton speaking in front of a screen showing a world map

Jake Barton, Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Local Projects, opened the Innovation focus area of the 2022 AAM Annual Meeting & MuseumExpo with his keynote, “Museum as Lightning Rod: Innovation and Invitation,” followed by a Q&A with Chevy Humphrey, AAM Board Chair and President and CEO of the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago. Watch the full video or read a transcript below.

Note: This presentation includes video and oral histories from the 9/11 Memorial Museum and Greenwood Rising: Black Wall Street History Center that include references to terrorism and racism. If you wish to view the video of the presentation without viewing these sections, please pause at 18:07 and skip to 24:32, and pause at 47:28 and skip to 55:30.


Skip over related stories to continue reading article

Please welcome to the stage Chevy Humphrey, chair of the AAM Board of Directors and president and CEO of the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago.

Chevy Humphrey:

I’m just so glad to see all of you. I know that’s not in my script, but this is so wonderful. Turn around and just turn to the person sitting next to you and just say, “Thank you for being here.” I know. Isn’t this wonderful? I’ll stick to my script now, but I’m just so excited to see all of you and to learn from you, to connect, and just show gratitude and my thanks for all you’ve done to lift our museum industry. So thank you again.

I hope you’re having a fantastic conference so far. How’s it been? It’s been awesome. We’ve already heard from two incredible keynote speakers over the past two days, and I’m so excited for our next guest. But first, I want to give thanks to The Giving Block, to their generous support for this keynote address. Let’s watch this short video that they shared with us.

Pat Duffy:

Hey, everyone. I’m Pat Duffy, co-founder of The Giving Block. Our company has spent the last four years building cryptophilanthropy programs. We’re so proud to sponsor the AAM Expo because we know museums are constantly looking for new ways to raise more dollars.

Today, cryptocurrency is one of the fastest growing donation methods due to its tax efficiency and its rapidly growing user base. There are over 300 million people using crypto today all around the world. With an average donation size of over $10,000, these crypto donors have quickly become some of the most valuable prospects on the planet.

This time last year we were working on cryptophilanthropy programs with 150 nonprofits. Today, we’re building 1,500 of these programs at nonprofits from universities and faith-based organizations to foundations and museums. For museums and other nonprofits in the arts and enrichment community, NFTs have quickly become one of the leading drivers of their crypto donations. Now generating tens of millions of dollars in donations each month and attracting groups like Sotheby’s and Anheuser-Bush to organize blowout NFT fundraisers for their nonprofit partners.

Crypto is a leading driver of fundraising innovation for museums, but it’s not the only driver. You’re here to see a number of incredible speakers. Thanks for coming and enjoy the expo.

Chevy Humphrey:

Thank you again to The Giving Block. Be sure to catch their presentation on cryptocurrency donations in the MuseumExpo Solution Center at 4:45 this afternoon.

There’s a quick housekeeping note. We will once again be using the Slido app to capture your questions during the keynote address. If time allows, I’ll rejoin you all to the pose of a couple of questions so that you can ask those questions through the Slido app, so make sure you’re downloading it. But don’t look at your phones because this presentation’s going to be quite amazing.

This afternoon, I have the pleasure of introducing our keynote speaker, Jake Barton, Principal and Founder of Local Projects. Local Projects is an experience and exhibit design firm that creates groundbreaking experiences in museums, including the National September 11th Memorial and Museum, the London Museum, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

I’ve had the good fortune of working with Jake most recently, and Jake got his start in the theater world first as a set designer at Northwestern, followed by a short stint on Broadway. How cool is that? Realizing that the craziness of Broadway wasn’t for him, he looked for another kind of crazy by pursuing a career in medicine. Wow. Okay. To make some money on the side, he used his drawing skills to get a job as a drafter at an exhibition design firm unknown to him called Ralph Applebaum Associates and quickly rose to become the firm’s youngest project director.

Flying over the Amazon jungle, oh my gosh, we are in for a treat, while researching the American Museum of Natural Histories Biodiversity Exhibition, he realized that he had found a kind of crazy that was just his speed. Over the last 20 years, his firm, Local Projects, helped develop the award-winning 9/11 Museum and Memorial and Story Corps, winning the National Design Award in 2011, and more recently, Planet Word, which we heard Tom Friedman talk about, and the Greenwood Rising Black Wall Street History Center, winning Fast Company‘s Design Studio of the Year for 2021.

He’s also obsessed with ice cream and bicycles. Now we understand the history. That’s a tip for working with him. The focus of Jake’s keynote presentation is museums as a lightning rod for innovation. While there are a myriad of definitions for innovation, the one that most resonates with me appeared in that issue that we just talked about, the Fast Company magazine, where it says, “Innovation is the process through which value is created and delivered to a community of users in the form of a new solution.” It can also describe a new product or service, which is the outcome of the innovation process that delivers value for our community, which we heard in our first keynote speaker for today.

Certainly, in the past few years, we have had to innovate our processes and services to all that was seemingly new and revisit and reassess our missions and founding impulse to achieve greater value and relevancy during a moment of profound change. Let me now welcome Jake on the stage for his advice on the innovation that matters most as we continue to strive for the ideal. Jake Barton.

Jake Barton:

Super thrilled to be here. First of all, thank you to AAM, to Chevy, to Laura, to everyone for having me here. I also wanted to give a special point of gratitude, because I’m going to show a lot of incredible work. But it’s not just the work, obviously, of me. It’s the work of the firm, the amazing people at Local Projects, as well as our incredible clients and collaborators.

Now, we design exhibitions, but we’re one of those firms that call them experiences. Right? What does that mean? Well, it means, one thing I wanted to start with, was a little bit of interactive participation. This is a little bit in theory off topic of innovation. Who would agree with the statement that they like to work with museums because of the prosocial impact that it has on community or on our society? Go ahead and raise your hands. Raise them up. Okay. This is awesome, right?

I think, from our standpoint and my standpoint, what I’d like to share with you today is that I think innovation is key to being able to deliver on that impact. Now, innovation. Chevy gave an incredible overview in terms of it from the beginning. I know from experience. I’ve sat in a lot of innovation keynotes like this, typically offered, well, by other random white guys in suits who are talking about new technologies and things you need to follow up with, and they show you slides like this and they say, “Oh, NFTs are the newest, biggest thing that you need to pay attention to. Or the metaverse. You don’t have a metaverse strategy? Are you guys crazy? The metaverse is going to be so huge. Or VR? VR is the biggest thing.” Of course, as we kind of know, it’s been the next big thing for a decade.

But the reality is, when I think about something, for example, like VR, I always put it against a litmus test. Will it work in museums? Is it good for museums? Their mission specifically is going to advance them as an institution. In this case, VR, at least in my opinion, does not work at all when you’re in front of other people, which means it would never work inside of a museum, right? This is a terrible idea. Who wants to go to a museum and put what you might call a germ-laden embarrassment machine and strap it to your face. It’s terrible, so nobody should do something like this, at least in my opinion.

Now, you’ll have to excuse me for thinking about technology. Our firm, Local Projects, is actually known for its worth with technology. This is work that we did at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Gallery One, signature work that was often and still gets related to as the museum of the future. We were hired by Jane Alexander and her team to essentially reinvent the idea of an orientation experience. In this case, the collections wall shows you thousands of works of art with different connections between them.

You can see connections between artworks based on date, or the artist, the location. As you’re liking individual artworks, you’re actually authoring your own walking tour to the museum. This is part of a strategy to grow audience, because of course Cleveland is not the largest tourist market, but it has a huge, very passionate following, and so allowing existing visitors to basically share with other visitors what they love about the museum was a way to bring in new audiences. And sure enough, by 2014, the museum got half a million visitors, and by 2018, it had, and this is part of a much larger expansion project, 850,000 visitors, and 30% of those were visitors with children. So that was a big mission accomplishment and a great, I think, story in terms of how technology could advance the institutional goals.

Similar to that, we did the so-called pen experience at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, where visitors are invited to collect individual artworks all throughout the museum, and then to use them to author their own designs. As they’re drawing individual line work inside of this immersion room, we’re using artificial intelligence to connect you with wallpapers inside of that collection. It’s this relationship between what you’re making, what you’re creating, what you’re standing in front of, with your own hands, and then what incredible designers have done in the past, making you more curious about the collection and much more engaged with it.

Now, when you look at something like this, particularly for a conference like this, you think to yourself, “This is crazy.” Right? Here’s a room with no artifacts within it, with crazy bacon and eggs wallpaper that people are making. What does this have actually to do with the core aspect of what we might call a museum? Right? This is one of my hometown core museums, the American Museum of Natural History, the Geology Hall from 1887, collections laid out in a rational, organized fashion. But I’m going to argue to you that the history of innovation is this ongoing evolution. We might be right in front of a precipice of new technologies, but that has happened generation after generation, because you can see basically aim and age went from here to here in one generation. Right? You start to see animals in their habitations. You start to see children. This is really what we’re always going for as museum creators, the enraptured moment where they’re looking inside of this artifact. Right?

This amazing quote, “If any non-compulsory educational institution is to prove effective, it must give the knowledge it wishes to impart, a guise of unusual fascination.” I kind of love that because that is of course mandatory a century later. Right? Keynotes just like this have been happening generation upon generation, and in fact, even at institutions like AMNH, every generation has reinvented that spectacular, unusual fascination. This is the Akeley Hall of Mammals, opened to great success and fanfare, protested by educators as being too Coney Island. This is an exhibition titled without the most gender sensitive title. It’s called Can Man Survive?, from 1969. Did anyone see this or hear about this exhibition?

Okay, so this was for the Centennial of the American Museum of Natural History. Multimedia projections on themes like global warming, ecological decline, overpopulation. One curator said that they were trying to compete with a then-spectacular movie, 2001, by Stanley Kubrick.

This of course led to a very, very old lesson that many of you have learned, which is when you make an experience that’s trying to point out to visitor how terrible their behaviors are. Turns out it does not go over very well. Right? Scolding visitors, bad idea, generation after generation. But then you fast forward two generations. This is the hall that Chevy was talking about biodiversity that I helped to design, just the core central rainforest piece. But this is really where my story intertwines, even with that history of exhibition experiences. You start to see that things that are immersive, things that are authentic, things that are kinetic, things that are emotional are these ongoing themes. What’s the one thing that’s static within all these generations is, well, humans are at the center of it. It turns out we like all of these types of experiences.

Now, when you look at new technologies today, yes, there’s augmented reality, there’s these massive immersive experiences, there’s live performances. You start to see those same themes playing out over and over again where you were seeing artificial intelligence in deep fakes to recreate historic figures. We have interactive holographic figures that can share with you stories, authentic stories of the past. We have these massive immersive sensory experience zones that you make your way through.

Sometimes we have innovation on the business model. This is a for-profit museum that exists in Sweden as well as in New York, and then we have the dreaded, and if you want to go a little bit, I wouldn’t be surprised, we have the dreaded selfie museum where people can come in and just pose with themselves and with their families.

Now, what do all these things have in common? Arguably, they are some type of an experience, right? They’re giving more tactility, more immersion, more engagement, more participation. But before I get into the five innovations that I want to talk to you about, the thing I most of all want to impart to you is that none of these will work for you unless they match your mission, unless they match your visitor experience, unless they match the story that you’re trying to tell, and unless they have some conceptual rationale. Because if not, they’re just going to be a gizmo, they’re going to age very poorly, you’re going to rip it out and be really, really cranky is what exactly you should be. So before I get into some innovations or recommendations, I thought it might be helpful to just share a quick tool that we use internally and also with some clients on essentially how to prioritize and plan when you’re thinking about these new innovations and these are all exhibition ideas, but it also could be operational, it could be in terms of staffing an organization, et cetera. What we do is we draw this very simple two-line axis and we put difficulty in the Y axis and then originality in the X axis.

So the lower left is the thing that’s least difficult, but has some originality to it, and by originality, I also mean merit or engagement, et cetera. And we call that now, like those are things you should just do now. They’re pretty easy to pull off. They match in terms of what you’re trying to accomplish, et cetera. Now the opposite quadrant on the upper right, we call the how, meaning like those things are really difficult, but could have massive payoff. So how are we going to get there? And then the lower right quadrant, that’s really where you want to be and we call that the wow quadrant, meaning super original, super interesting, high-impact, but not that difficult to pay off. So again, this is just a little fun fact tool to share with you. But in particular this question about mission and collection and visitor experience, which is really what you should be sorting for.

We started thinking internally and looked at a lot of mission statements, as well as visitor experiences and started thinking about museums as having superpowers. What are the things that you can only do in a museum that you can’t necessarily get all of the different contingencies in other, for lack of a better word, platforms, other movie spaces, virtual spaces, library spaces, et cetera. And we call these superpowers. And we have five that we want to talk about today: authenticity, participation, community, behavior change, and then convening and bringing people together. These are things, especially when you put them all together, that are very, very special and unique to museums. And so we’ve gone ahead and matched them with five innovations. And I’ll just tell five stories about these specific innovations. So the first, embracing emotion. The second is playing for memories. The third is how to listen differently. The fourth is changing, not just hearts and minds, but also hands. And the last is to tell the truth.

So the first authenticity, obviously this connects with collections. This connects with the idea of having a unique point of view or story to tell that’s real. This is one of the biggest offerings for museums in particular. And I think what I want to argue today is that the idea of emotion, sometimes for artifacts, but also for stories and also for media pieces is so incredibly important. And that authenticity of emotion is in particular very, very transformational. I wanted to tell a story about the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Now when we, as Local Projects, originally pitched the 9/11 Museum in partnership with Think Design, a tiny little firm, but we pitched a very different museum experience. We said this event just happened.

You cannot tell literally 10,000 people who ran out of the burning buildings to save their lives anything that they don’t know about 9/11. You can’t have a normal curator just telling you about what happened on 9/11 or what it means. So we essentially pitched this idea of a container of memories and sure enough, it ended up bringing us into the project. On the first day, was still a little bit unclear to us how that decision had been made in such a huge political landmine of a project. And the director, not of the museum, but the foundation above it, he had a little coffee with a select group of the team and said, “First of all, congratulations.” [inaudible] through that and they said, “Second of all, I have some really terrible, bad news for you. This is going to be a treacherous and really difficult process.”

He’s like, “We’ve already withstood years of difficult, if not abusive press cycles. And no matter what we design, a huge amount of people are going to be deeply, deeply unhappy with what we produce.” So of course your heart falls when you hear this. And he said, “But specifically because of that, that’s why the chair of our board, Mayor Bloomberg, told us to not make the easy choice, to not make the political choice, because ultimately that’s not what would make people happy, but to make the right choice and to build a museum for the ages. And that is what we’re going to do to together.”

It was really that vision that we had shared that really brought us to this idea of a very different museum, a museum, again, that was much more of a container of memories that could change and shift as the clarity of what was then a very recent event and the trauma of that event would continue to unfold in time. So when you first go into the museum, you don’t see a huge curatorial panel. You see a list of facts on the left hand side with a map, and then you walk into this global map filled with people’s memories of that day.

Video Speaker 1:

On the day of September 11th, 2001…

Video Speaker 2:

On September 11th…

Video Speaker 3:

September 11th.

Video Speaker 4:

I was in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Video Speaker 5:

Cairo, Egypt.

Video Speaker 6:

[Speaking a non-English language].

Video Speaker 7:

In college at UC Berkeley.

Video Speaker 8:

I was in Times Square.

Video Speaker 9:

[Inaudible], Brazil.

Video Speaker 10:

Miami, Florida.

Video Speaker 8:

We were actually in a meeting when someone barged in and said…

Video Speaker 11:

Oh my god, a plane has just crashed into the World Trade Center.

Video Speaker 12:

I frantically get to a radio.

Video Speaker 1:

When I heard it over the radio…

Jake Barton:

And so having heard those different voices, you make your way through massive collections of different artifacts and different stories focused mostly on that first year after 9/11, but also with some experiences that continue beyond that. And one of the biggest challenges, and particularly we talked about this during the proposal process were the oral histories of the experience inside the building that made up for the fact that I think only like seven photos were taken inside the building on that day. That speaks to life before camera cell phones. And so we talked a lot about these spaces where you could listen and hear those experiences unfold. And these are specific listening chambers that I think are also filled with emotion.

Video Speaker 13:

It started out a really nice day. When I looked out the window, I see this gigantic plane in the center of Manhattan. You would never really see a plane that big and especially that close. It was making like a beeline line for the towers.

Video Speaker 14:

I could see it coming closer and closer. I could see the AA on its tail. I could see inside the tinted windows of the cockpit and then it just bellowed into tower one. It was just swallowed up by the building. The plane was gone and all there was was this red, black smoke.

Video Speaker 15:

Hell broke loose as far as the framing down on top of us. We had to literally take cover. One of the landing wheels from the aircraft that had just struck the building fell burning right in front of us.

Video Speaker 16:

All of a sudden it got very quiet. One of the firemen from rescue one looked up and he said, “We may not live through today.” And we looked at him and we looked at each other and we took the time to shake each other’s hands and wish each other good luck. We’re going to have to walk up 80 flights of stairs with our gear on, but this is what we have to do. We’re going upstairs and we’re going to save somebody.

Video Speaker 17:

We were going up the escalator and borders and there was a fireman, couldn’t have been more than 19 years old with a hose on his shoulder. And I remember looking at him and saying to him, “There’s nothing you can do. Don’t go in there.” And he just said, “Lady, it’s my job. I have to do it.”

Jake Barton:

And so the ability to take these stories and to share these memories in a way that felt as raw and as present and as filled with honor for the people who made their way through it became a core tenet of the experience. And just as important was also honoring the visitor’s own emotional journey. Because of course at the opening, even as we designed for next generation that knew nothing about 9/11, we knew people would go in with their own associations, with their own experiences and would be busy trying to process for themselves what this meant and what this meant to them. And so we actually end the experience with an echo at the beginning, with another world map, except this one is created by the visitors themselves. They’re invited to openly share their own feelings and thoughts and it gets mapped and then projected directly in huge format onto what’s called the Slurry Wall, the concrete that withstood the Hudson for a full year.

And these are just some the shots, I literally just took these with my phone. “My father came home from work that day in a dusty suit. I thank God he came home at all.” “I miss you both every day. Love you dad and Chris.” Or, “We were mere kids when this happened. Now as adults, we understand the impact of this tragic event.” And so this is a good example, again, of two parts of the museum as a lightning rod. It’s both for all the press cycles and all of the trauma that’s being played out in the public, but also for individual experiences and memories of each visitor, which is now concretized by inviting them to add their voice in a trusting way, building this community just like 9/11 built a community in the day.

That idea of participation is key to our work. And in this case, I wanted to talk about a slightly different angle in terms of participation with this idea of playing for memories. And play is so incredibly important to the human experience and certainly to storytelling. And in this case, I wanted to talk about our project Planet Word in Washington, DC. And so I met Ann Friedman many years before she engaged us to design the museum. And she had this incredible, almost like fever vision of making a space around reading, around literacy and around how that’s fundamental to a functioning democracy. But she never took herself super seriously. She always wanted to be super fun, super engaging, super playful. And so we went on a journey with her. In this case, the opening gallery is filled with this word wall. All of this language, this is a little under 1% of the entire English language that’s presented.

And you both learn about it by listening, but you also speak directly to it because this is the world’s first voice recognition museum. Again, a good example of how for us innovation is forwarding the mission. And the mission is to literally bring the voice of the visitor to the front, help them to discover their voice and what they want to speak about, how they can express themselves. Here you learn about the history of the English language and the foundations of it.

In the next gallery you learn about world languages. You go face to face from people around the world, 31 different languages, and they teach you about specific words and why they’re so incredibly important. So you can stand in front of a young girl from Israel and she’ll actually teach you a little snippet of modern Hebrew and what it means.

Video Speaker 1:

Try it, [speaking Hebrew].

Video Speaker 2:

[Speaking a non-English language].

Jake Barton:

And every single visitor, once it’s filled up, has all these different explosions of different languages and words and expressions from around the world happening. And certainly for us, innovation is also sometimes hidden problem-solving. In this case, this triple height gallery wasn’t just this exhibition space that needed to be filled with some type of a blockbuster experience. It’s also the core rental space for the museum, which is key to its business plan.

So we spent a lot of time trying to problem-solve around this. And finally, we came onto this sphere, which is not just a sphere, it’s also a kinetic sculpture. It’s essentially a robot which can actually flatten itself, pull itself all the way up and turn itself into a chandelier, allowing you to clear out all the exhibitions underneath. So lots of ways to hit new tool sets. This is a magical painting experience where you literally dip your brush into vocabulary words and paint with them. Ann had like an offhand comment sometime about creating landscapes. And I was like, “Oh yeah, like painting with words, right?” So here it is. And when you hit surreal, you can turn that airplane into a dragon.

We have a karaoke experience. Who doesn’t want to learn about words and rhymes and rhythms, except by singing some of your favorite pieces. This is actually Paul Simon, “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.”

Video Speaker 3:

All this word play gives the song an unpredictable vibe, exactly like a schoolyard where everybody is up to something.

Jake Barton:

And then the physical, as well as the proverbial heart of the institution is this magical library. We have 50 different books that are embedded from all of these different cultures and points of views and age points but they’re beloved. They spent an enormous amount of time crowdsourcing this incredibly diverse array of beloved books. And you can take any of them down from this reading library, share them with other people, “I read this,” et cetera. But then when you drop them down onto the book onto the table, they actually spill forward with their contents, allowing you to sometimes hear the author’s own voice about why they actually created this book. So immersion is a big part of what we’re going for here. And that’s similar to this project. We actually built this in Beijing during the pandemic, and if that sounds like fun, it totally wasn’t.

It’s called the Dream Cube and we built it for Manchester United. We built a large-scale experience-centered museum, but actually we also built this, which is a product .it’s the first product that Local Project has come up with. And it’s a four-sided projection space, in this case used for a game, a soccer game, that allows you to track this ball in very, very fast speeds. So 240 frames per second if you know the math. It allows you to actually enter into the world of Manchester United; people are renting out these individual cubes by the hour, sort of also like a karaoke space. And we have lots of ideas about how essentially to bring this into the world, whether it’s for soccer experiences, cultural experiences, retail experiences. There’s an interesting format, this is VR that’s actually been imported into the Dream Cube, scavenger hunts.

So it’s a very new idea for us, but it’s essentially a platform that allows you to do everything that VR can do with none of the downside. So again, none of the sensory occlusion; it’s social, it’s engaging, it’s hygienic, it’s easy to jump into. This is a whole other universe that we’re starting to explore. And obviously this does have impact potentially beyond museums, but we’ve had a bunch of experiences that we’ve talked about with museums where they’re like, “We just can’t do the VR thing, but we have these amazing VR assets.” And so we’re very excited to bring this into the community for that as well.

And speaking of community, certainly the ability for museums to convene, to bring people together is so incredibly important, and such a key part of what museums offer that is special and unique to them. Now, here’s two innovations that are much more, again on the operational side, or on the thinking different side about how to engage. Because so many museums now do certainly talk and try and engage with communities in different ways, both in terms of what Michael Bobbitt really brilliantly talked about this morning, in terms of thinking very differently about how to engage audiences.

And in this case two different projects that do it, I think, in very unique ways, the first actually for the New York Times. So the New York Times made a huge investment in its Metro reporting about five years ago, and they had a modest budget in which to promote it. And they flipped that idea on the head. They said, “Instead of running ads that are going to promote themselves all over the place, why don’t we go for relevance? And show by actually placing the articles in the actual communities that they’re about, let’s show relevance first and foremost.”

So we went to five different abandoned street fronts and built these forced-perspective dioramas that embodied these different articles in the community that they were written about. So this is specifically around educational inequality in the Bronx, and there’s also an audio component where you can listen to the article. And then they hosted different editorial meet and greets with the community inside and embedded in the community. This is actually a story about mass incarceration just opposite a juvenile jail in Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

So when you think about that, think about innovation. It’s not just the gizmos, it’s also opportunities. And think about retail and its struggles, maybe even in your community, certainly in mine. That’s an interesting opportunity in terms of listening very, very differently, which the New York Times was able to harness at truly a very, very modest budget and approach.

A second project I wanted to share with you is from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Amazing organization, and in particular had very, very forward looking thoughts from an audience development standpoint. They were looking at the numbers, and they had only about 15% of their visitors were Latina or Latino, even though the city had 32%. And the first thought is, well, obviously it’s just a money question, but their neighbor, the zoo did not have that problem, at basically the same price point. So they had to go on a much deeper journey to try and figure out, well, what is it that we could create that would engage this approach, or engage this population?

And the community engagement team did the most incredible process. The first thing they did, even before they said, “What are we going to make?” It’s more, “What are you interested in hearing about? What would you like us to explore? What would you like us to explore together?” So after a series of different meet and greets and talks and surveys, they came up with what they called the Heart Topics.

And so prior to the pandemic, the team had visited over this whole process, 50 different community sites, as well as online, which I’ll go into in a second. They then hired us and we were all excited. It was amazing, we’re going to get to work for this prestigious institution. And they were like, “No, no, we don’t want you to actually design exhibitions yet, what we want you to design are mood boards that connect with different ideas, that gesture towards what the experience might be.”

Things like a spice market or a crazy lab, or places where you can actually turn into nature. This is not an exhibition at all. This is just a notion, a series of words and a series of photos, but they brought them out into the community for the conversation. Because, of course that’s what was the focus. And then the most horrifying thing happened. They gave everyone there a pair of scissors, and they started cutting these things up. Right? So if you’re a designer, someone who’s whole profession is like, “Oh, I’m going to tell you what’s amazing.” This was crazy. But it was actually crazy amazing, because first of all, it was super fun and an amazing way for them to connect directly with these communities in a spirit of true collaboration and listening.

But furthermore, the ideas themselves were super interesting. Being able to actually have all of these new collaboration partners that were distributed all around the city and inside the communities that we were trying to work with, and ultimately to bring into the museum was critical. And it wasn’t just people who could make it in person. They then did this online survey with different heat maps, allowing them to click on the images on different words that they found fulfilling, leading to this larger set of themes and visions that we were looking to bring forward.

So we’re halfway through the design process, and still moving forward with the project, but from a process standpoint, very, very next-generation in terms of thinking about listening very differently. We’re I think all comfortable with the idea of, well, we’re going to go ahead and focus group this, well, we’ve made this whole thing, do you like it or not? Right. It’s very different to say, “No, here are all the tools that we’ve made for you. And then we’re going to watch and listen and collaborate with you as you’re creating this.”

And that type of behavior change is really interesting, not just from an institutional standpoint, but also from a visitor standpoint. So we’ve started really thinking about how we can make experiences that focus specifically on behavior change. Which is to say, not just changing the hearts and minds, although that’s important, but changing hands. How do we make actual concrete change in visitor behavior after they go through our experience? How do we measure that, and how do we create something that can actually change the way people act?

So this is the first example. This is actually a sustainable fashion center in Amsterdam that we built. A philanthropist started recognizing that after energy, apparel was a huge creator of the climate crisis in terms of shipping and manufacturing and fast fashion, et cetera. So this is a center that has both a visitor experience and a store, and it incubates new businesses around sustainable fashion. It essentially uses the allure of fashion to bring people into the sustainability world.

So visitors make their way through. They get this magical bracelet that’s actually made out of plastic that was dredged, literally out of the canals of Amsterdam. And what are they doing? They’re both learning about the experience, typical museum, but they’re also shopping. And what are they shopping for? They’re shopping for behaviors. So very concrete actions that they can take in order to change the world.

Now this is in the middle of Amsterdam’s busiest shopping district. There’s literally an H&M around the corner, but here you can make a custom t-shirt that gets projection mapped. You can go into the shop. It has small- and large-scale providers, but everywhere you look, there’s these different actions that you can take. Don’t buy anything for 30 days, start washing your clothes only in cold water, make different approaches to your life in different ways. And as you opt into that experience, even upstairs in what’s the sort of classic exhibition space, which also doubles as a conference space, because they’re constantly running these different think tank sprints around new approaches. Visitors are then culminating their experience with a selfie pledge, bringing their own identity into the commitment that they’re making to change their behavior.

So we’re pulling every lever that we can in terms of behavior change. And then, sure enough, the last thing they do is they check out and receive what we call the good fashion action plan, which is a compendium of all the most impactful things that they’ve committed to. And not shockingly, it actually works. Within the first two months, they had 23,000 visitors, huge visitor satisfaction number, but this is the most important stat. 92% of people, two weeks later were like, “Oh yeah, you totally changed the way I do things.”

That’s the brass ring that you want. So when you start thinking about these types of experiences, also in terms of digital reach, co-locators bring the information elsewhere, and the number of fashion action plans that were created, we’ve increasingly started thinking about structures and way to make structures that change individual’s behavior. Now the next thing I’m going to share is actually brand new outside of a few collaborators who are amazing. And I’m going to share with you about them.

No one’s ever actually seen this before, and this is a project looking within to the museum world. So I think it’s particularly gratifying to be able to share it here. And it’s a project called Culture Lead. Pretty simple idea, it’s trying to inspire culture leaders to take concrete action against the climate crisis, benefiting their institution, community and the world. And so giant shout out to Joyce Lee, who chairs the AAM  [Environment and Climate Network], as well as Sarah Sutton and Stephanie Shapiro, who run a not-for-profit called Environment and Culture Partners, as well as a host of other advisors that I’ve been talking to over a number of months.

And what I started recognizing is there’s a ton of individual actors in individual institutions, but there’s no way that at this point we could claim that taking action against climate crisis is part of the social norm for museums. And that’s really the goal of this, is to look to an audience of CEOs and boards and to present to them six very simple, and hopefully clear reasons and rationales on how fighting climate change can save your institution, and not necessarily the climate itself.

So cost savings, staff attraction and retention, new philanthropy, and what’s called ESG investing, which we’ve heard about today. Educational enrichment, huge public relation wins, and universal appeal. And as one advisor told me, “Oh, yeah, and the moral argument, that’s the cherry on top.” Because the reality is, people generally don’t get hired to run a museum under the guises of helping the moral argument, but all these things are under their job description.

So we’ve actually gone ahead and made our website open, There’s a ton of resources in terms of how an individual organization can take action. But really this project is about the why. Why should your institution make that change? Why should it make the commitment? And trying to make that argument specifically so that boards and CEOs can hear their own language, understand their own priorities, and again, take action. What does that action look like? Releasing a public climate plan, laddering up eventually to committing to net zero, all the way up to achieving net zero.

These seem like a big audacious goal, certainly for 2022. But if you look at the plan, if you look at the math, this is not audacious whatsoever. And again, just to bring in a tiny bit of the tough news, if you look at it, and if you think that a board and its CEO is there to steward its museum into the future, maybe 100 years into the future. Well, one-third of America’s museums are on the coast. So yes, we actually do need to deal with this.

This is just me personally. This is definitely not any of the advisors, or even Culture Lead itself, but even in talking to people, I think it’s time to really take seriously the idea that having a climate action plan, this is not even huge commitments, but just having a plan should be part of the AAM accreditation process. There’s a lot of organizations that are already measuring and taking part within what’s called Culture Over Carbon. There’s over 150 already. So this is happening in real time.

What I’m trying to do is share with you the fact that leadership is already there in so many amazing institutions. So Chevy offered this: “We’ve seen that our climate initiatives drive board engagement, philanthropy, and staff retention. We know it’s the future, and so we’re leaning in.” William T. Harris: “Corporate partners who have a lot more resources are looking to collaborate with us to advance sustainable practices and to get the word out.” Pat Hamilton, amazing, from the Science Museum of Minnesota: “We save $300,000 a year, a new climate friendly heat recovery system, money now applied to the museum’s mission instead of paying utility bills.”

And lastly, Linda Roscoe Hartigan: “Becoming ecologically sustainable can offer museums cost savings as well as access to new funding opportunities. Collectively museums can take steps to demonstrate that it is possible and imperative to make a difference.” And so anyone out there, including these folks who want to go ahead and do outreach for us, or receive calls from us and materials about why we think this is incredibly important for your individual institution, definitely reach out to me personally. Or, we also have an amazing endorsement from Lonnie Bunch, the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian: “Museums have an opportunity to lead if they have the courage. We all know this needs to happen and we need to walk the walk.”

I had one of the most scary pre-meetings. I sent Lonnie all my materials. I was so nervous, because of course he’s in the eye of the storm, and the political epicenter of Washington, DC, running the Smithsonian. Opening of the call, he’s like, “You had me at the deck, man. I’m ready to give you the quote and commit, but just give me a list, give me a list of the CEOs you want me to call, to the extent that they’ll take my call, I’m ready to go to work.”

So anyone else here who wants to be involved, definitely write me directly. I would love to hear about your individual institution, and how to send these materials out. And again, start to spread the word as much as possible, that this is the future of museums now. That’s very generous. Thank you. Thank you.

And then the last superpower, which all of us are benefiting from right here is convening. This amazing sense that the power of having so many people in the same physical space, and arguably the same metaphoric space, when you think about a museum. And again, I talked about the 9/11 Memorial Museum as a challenging process. And I wanted to share with you one institution that we had the privilege of working on, that brings together a lot of these innovations all at the same time. And that’s this project that we did in Greenwood, in Tulsa.

And specifically this idea of an innovation, and this may not strike you as world-shaking, but you would be surprised at how effective it is to just tell the truth. Right? Just tell the truth about the story it is that you’re trying to share. Now, before I go into Tulsa, I wanted to share with you a proxy project. This is a project that we actually did in Australia. Australia is a challenging place to make an institution. In this case, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is about the history of Australia, particularly as a site for convicts who made their way to Australia. And so as you walk through this historic building, you wear these earphones and you’re able to hear voices as if the house is almost haunted. In sharing with you-

Video Speaker 1:

My sentence was commuted. I would not hang. Instead, I was handed a living death, exiled to New South Wales. They clamped us in heavy irons and marched us to our ship. We lived in the bowels of the vessel, 300 men crammed together. After 140 long days, we finally arrived in Sydney. Almost every man and woman you’d meet was either a convict or had been a convict.

Jake Barton:

And the important part about this institution is that as you’re happening upon these voices, as they’re changing era by era, you’re also seeing different perspectives.

Video Speaker 2:

From time immemorial, the Wirrayaraay tribe of the Kamilaroi have lived on country in Northern New South Wales. In the 1830s, a gang of convict and ex-convict workers led by a free settler brutally murdered about 28 unarmed women, children, and old men.

Jake Barton:

And so placing all these different narratives in sequence, not necessarily having to editorialize about it, but just having that encounter becomes incredibly powerful, which we then feed back to the visitors in the last moment of the experience.

Pam Hoole:

Learning about my ancestors is important to me, gives me a sense of self, who I am.

Video Speaker 4:

It’s important for [inaudible] people to come out and start telling our stories. It’s a way of walking together now to build a relationship, build up an understanding as people of this country.

Jake Barton:

And I love that. I have to admit, the first time I heard that I broke into tears. Just to hear this idea of, “It’s a way to walk together, to build a relationship, to build an understanding as a people of this country.” So much in America’s about healing, healing. How do we heal the divide, et cetera. This is like, “Hold on. We’re way in advance of healing. We’re just gaining visibility. We’re just gaining an understanding of each other as a people within this country.” Which finally leads me to Greenwood Rising. So Greenwood Rising, incredible commission of a lifetime formed originally by Senator Kevin Matthews under what was called the Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission. I’ll go into that history in a bit, but actually its origins started earlier, when the state did a commission to look into truth-seeking on what was then called the Tulsa Race Riot, and in it had a series of recommendations for reparations, both for survivors, but also in terms of economic development, also in terms of political and storytelling and memorial spaces.

Not shockingly, none of that happened outside of one single memorial space. And so Senator Matthews formed a Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission as a State Senator, amazing visionary. And he was able to bring on, in the reddest of red states, I never had a trip to Tulsa where at least a single person didn’t point out, “Oh, this is the only state in the union where in both of Obama’s election, not one county went for Obama.” That is a red state. But in that state, he built this commission and brought on first the Mayor of Tulsa, then the Lieutenant Governor of the state, and then ultimately the Governor of the state—here’s the Governor on the right, and also my partner in crime in all of these projects, L’Rai Arthur-Mensah, who’s here today, as well as Phil Armstrong, the Director, who’s also here today, and we’re doing a session later to go into this in depth.

The key is that this coalition-building was both across the aisle on a political level and on an economic level, because those things are connected, but also within the community. And we’ll tell more stories about this, but amazing ways in which the community fed back its point of view in terms of how they wanted and needed their story to be told. Senator Matthews set the tone early, saying, “This is a project about moving from tragedy to triumph.” And you heard it directly from the community and these types of comments here, even changing out some of the titles and stories that we told inside of the museum experience and ultimately leading to that name, Greenwood Rising, a space that as L’Rai often says is not there to singularly focus on Black trauma or Black tragedy, but tells a story ultimately of determination and resilience of its oppressed and marginalized Black citizens. So it’s about the power of human spirit generally.

And again, a massive effort in terms of project partners to bring all of this together. But when you walk into the space, it’s all about how the past and present are both intermixed and echo each other, trying again to go for as much, both emotional resonance, but as much relevance today as possible. And that’s for all the different people who go through understanding the truth of what we’re sharing. So the first thing that you hear is Maya Angelou reading her amazing iconic poem, “Still I Rise,” which connects obviously with the name of the institution and seeing pictures both of the past and present people from Greenwood.

Maya Angelou:

You may write me down in history, with your bitter, twisted lies, you may trod me in the very dirt, but still like dust, I’ll rise, bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave. I am the hope and the dream of the slave, and so I rise. I rise.

Jake Barton:

When you literally travel across the train tracks the other side of town, you watch Greenwood being built in see exhibition materials and enter into a recreation barbershop.

Video Speaker 1:

Living in it now, Jerome. This is our promised land. We could buy us a seat to the table. That’s what you think. Walk along now. People are just people.


But left unchecked, those people could be a dangerous mob.

Video Speaker 1:

Let the church say, “Amen.”

Jake Barton:

So even within a project like this, the idea of play, the idea of bringing in people and the human connection into something that is surprising and novel, is a key aspect of opening them up to the fullness of the story that we’re trying to share. But directly behind this is a space that we call the Arc of Oppression. And one thing that it highlights, and actually L’Rai was the initiator of this idea, but it had been based on an idea we had from the 9/11 Memorial Museum, is what we call an emotional exit with a warning that invites visitors to actually make their way out of the core exhibition, which has very, very difficult materials inside of it. Still covering the same story, but in a way that certainly many of our target audiences, including children, are able to make their way through.

And so when you go through the Arc of Oppression, again on the right is the emotional exit, we tell a rewind the tape story to 1619, where we go into three different types of systems of anti-Blackness in America. And we show how those systems evolved all the way up to the massacre itself. And the key aspect then is you understand this is not a few bad apples, this is not just one community, this is the entire structure. Until you get to the massacre space itself, which is filled with literally because there’s no artifacts. The only authentic thing we have to document this event, human memories, in the form of amazing oral histories that were captured a generation and a half ago.

Video Speaker 2:

He was begging, “Please don’t set my house on fire. Please don’t set my house on fire.” Of course, that is exactly what they did.

Jake Barton:

You move through a space which we call Changing Fortunes, about the rise… Actually Greenwood rebuilt itself to twice as large after the massacre space. There’s a space of conversation around exactly those same systems as they occur in contemporary America. And then the last space, which is a commitment space, and in this commitment space, we’ve seeded it with commitments that we brought from the community in advance of the museum being opened. “I commit to recruiting and hiring Black talent.” “I commit to reading at least one book by a BIPOC author for every white author.” “I commit to continuing the work of uncovering and addressing racism in my family tree.” So again, using very, very specific techniques around behavior to have people actually fill in the specific things that they would do to advance the journey towards racial reconciliation. And that of course is named very, very specifically as a journey that all of us are going on.

Lastly, we brought in researchers to look concretely at the impact that empathy and storytelling and this behavior-change aspect have brought forward from us. Amazing researchers from Loyola Marymount, as well as Dartmouth. How does Greenwood Rising change both opinions and behaviors? I love this quote: “The story of survivors was most impactful to me because I imagine what it would’ve been like seeing my dad on his knees in front of my house, begging a stranger not to destroy it. It made me feel the very powerful sense of total helplessness for absolutely no reason.” And when they looked at the data, in terms of the actual behavior change, the researchers were stunned. On every metric, signing the petition, voting differently, supporting reparations, honoring the pledge that you made, every single metric had moved farther down the line for every single visitor. So that is the power [Applause] … Thank you.

And that’s the power, I think, of museums. That is what we have to offer to the public, as Phil and L’Rai and I will share in the session, this is not an easy ride. It is, as you all know, not for the feint of heart. But I promise you, if you’re able to work with these innovations, embrace emotion, play for memories, listen differently, change hearts, minds, and hands, and tell the truth, we will all have the chance to do what I know we’re all here for, which is to make a museum for the ages. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Chevy Humphrey:

I can just say, wow, that was so vulnerable with humility and empathy. It’s overwhelming. And most of the questions that were asked, you’ve answered already, but I think just there’s one final question that I’d like you to dig into a little bit more, and this is something coming from the museums. How can people get involved with Culture Lead?

Jake Barton:

I would love it. I mean, Cultural Lead is just pro bono time that I’ve set aside to basically make impact on climate. It’s a little bit of get-your-own-house-in-order-before-going-out-to-preach. And so getting involved, just email me. The main opportunity I think is to identify CEOs who are either converted and want to help convert other CEOs, or board members. Or vice versa, if you have targets or opportunities or people to go to that would be great. We have no funding as of yet. So that would be amazing. Any offers in terms of how to build, ideally some type of a tracking mechanism. There’s 33,000 museums in America, as we like to say. That’s a big number. That’s a big field to start to make impact on, but I truly believe it’s a huge opportunity for museums. For museums to be the first industry to come out the gate and to not just be carbon neutral in and of our actions, but then to also transfer that in terms of visitors’ behavior and the optics. I think it’s an amazing opportunity.

Chevy Humphrey:

That’s so amazing. Well, we did have one other question that came in. Steve Jobs said, “The customer doesn’t know what they want, so we have to give them what they want.” It seems as though this approach is vastly different because you are engaging and asking the questions and having the community make the decisions. Talk a little bit about that.

Jake Barton:

Yeah. I mean, I think, first and foremost, it depends on the client, it depends on the project. DMNS is literally exceptional in terms of their approach to visitor engagement. But that said, I think that there’s a far more nuanced dance, and Michael Bobbitt talked about it brilliantly this morning, between what the audience wants and what you’re going to deliver to them. I don’t think it’s as easy as just a lot of focus grouping. It does take a level of authorship and expertise. But I think in the absence of the audience itself, you’ll just make things that you think are great. And that’s definitely never what Steve Jobs did. He made things that he knew that people would be amazed by and you can see it in his quotes. He would say all the time, people are like, “What about this?” He’s like, “I can’t sell that.” [Inaudible] “Oh, that I can sell.” He was very, very attuned with his audience. So I think it’s a matter of following through in that way.

Chevy Humphrey:

Well, I wish we had more time to ask you more questions, but if you want to go to Jake’s presentation, it’s going to be in 210B at 3:20. Jake, thank you for this incredible, just inspiring talk. We are so grateful that you joined us and that you imparted your wisdom and your empathy and care to all of our members. So thank you.

Jake Barton:

Believe me, the privilege is totally mine. I really, really appreciate it.

Chevy Humphrey:

Let’s give Jake a round of applause.

Jake Barton:

Thank you very much.


AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

We're Sorry

Your current membership level does not allow you to access this content.

Upgrade Your Membership

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Field Notes!

Packed with stories and insights for museum people, Field Notes is delivered to your inbox every Monday. Once you've completed the form below, confirm your subscription in the email sent to you.

If you are a current AAM member, please sign-up using the email address associated with your account.

Are you a museum professional?

Are you a current AAM member?

Success! Now check your email to confirm your subscription, and please add to your safe sender list.