INTRODUCTION: IN THE BUSINESS OF SOFT POWER
The concept of museums as one of the primary sources of soft power has been championed by the Canadian museum consultants, Gail Dexter Lord, and Ngaire Blankenberg in their ground- breaking Cities, Museums and Soft Power (AAM Press, 2015). It is crucial in understanding the impact of museums as one of the most trusted civil society institutions in a world where credibility appears to be a scarce commodity.
Termed as ‘networked civil society institutions with soft power’ that can ‘amplify civic discourse, accelerate cultural change, and contribute to cultural intelligence among the great diversity of city dwellers, visitors, policy makers’, museums find potential in the concept of soft power as it may help re-position them as key actors in creative economies; taking leading role in urban regeneration, community building, place branding, the development of tourism, and creating value, however defined.
It is said that the concept of soft power has been increasingly employed by museums to explore their growing visibility, reach and impact beyond their home sites (Natalia Grincheva, 2018). Nevertheless, little research has been done so far in measuring the soft power impact of museums, which can be described as a sum of its various crossover effects, including those of working closely with creative industries in developing products and services with high added value.
Regardless of this increase, hurdles remain before museums can reach the full potential of their soft power. For instance, the Belgian museum situation is a point in case. As was reported by Sergio Servellón, member of the NEMO Executive Board, when he pointed out that since museums in Belgium are not seen as part of the creative industries, they are missing out on significant tax benefits. A factor that indeed makes a targeted collective effort in working towards single European market with aligned definitions and regulations a significant and necessary goal for the museum community. NEMO, as the European museum sector umbrella organisation, necessarily will continue to play the leading role in this.
To that point, the NEMO working group Museums and Creative Industries had the opportunity to present its latest report (2018), which showcased new case studies featuring innovative practices from across Europe. These were collected in an open-call survey among the NEMO member institutions. Along with the case studies, a critical analysis as to why museums’ role in the context of creative industries across continental Europe has, in general, only been vaguely recognised until now, as highlighted in the report, served as a basis for a conversation about terminology and defining museums as part of a larger family of creative economies.
Regarding the economic challenges faced by museums and creative industries, Chris Bailey (Museum consultant and lecturer, Northern Ireland) previously pointed out that the creative economy paradigm is a relatively recent concept and that in the two decades since it has been introduced, the main policy concern is still looking for hard output, even while there is much more museums actually do in creating social value and wellbeing in general.
It has been rightly mentioned that there is a risk of spending too much time and energy on aligning the ever-changing definitions in an attempt to accommodate the museums role within the larger creative economies field. But the practical museum life proves it necessary.
It remains to be seen what practical steps towards a more united stance as regards positioning museums within the Europe’s creative economies NEMO will be required to take.
INNOVATION LEADERSHIP IN MUSEUMS
Nowadays, everybody talks about innovation. To face the challenges of the 21st century, to ride the wave of current trends and be ahead of the curve, everyone needs to be quick, agile, flexible and innovative. The same is true for museums. And yet, some museums are struggling to tap their true innovation potential. Some seem to be stuck in an innovation paradox that hinders their development. So, what is the innovation paradox in museums and how to overcome it?
In recent years, NEMO’s Working Group on Museums and Creative Industries (NEMO, 2018) has carried out a critically important work on mapping good practices of museums and creative industries working together to bring added value to both sides, as well as to society as a whole. While there are inspiring examples, the overall conclusion is clear – this kind of collaboration between museums and counterparts in creative industries, or enterprises in general, is rather rare and non-systematic.
The quantitative survey on museum cooperation (NEMO, 2017) prepared by the NEMO Working Group reveals the types of cooperation with creative professionals practiced in museums. While 82% of respondents have engaged creatives in developing exhibitions and expositions, 63% have offered their premises for filming and 57% have worked with creative professionals to prepare theatre plays and concerts. Only about 43% have cooperated on production of souvenirs, 36% to elaborate on digital application and games, and less than a quarter of the museums have jointly developed design products or fashion products.
While there is no available information on innovation practices in museums, the experience shows that only few museums are engaged in contemporary innovation practices, including applying design thinking practices, organising cross-disciplinary hackathons for ideation and product/service development, or developing multi-layered clusters around museums which would include different players from other industries.
This is where we get to the innovation paradox. The World Bank report The Innovation Paradox (Cirera, Maloney, 2017) points out that “despite the vast potential returns to innovation, (...) developing countries do far less innovation, measured along a variety of dimensions, than advanced countries.” This phenomenon is called innovation paradox by the authors.
A similar paradox is true for many museums. While museums have a lot to potentially gain from innovation practices in terms of reaching and engaging new audiences, developing outstanding visitor experiences, finding new ways to preserve, restore, research and exhibit their valuable collections as well as strengthening their economic efficiency, there is lack of overall investment into innovation in the museum sphere. This is not to say that museums lack good ideas or that their exhibitions and visitor programmes are necessarily outdated, but often times, good programming is supported neither by a cluster of supporting services and activities, nor by a strong communication and promotion effort, nor an overall high-quality visitor experience that expands over the entire customer journey.
Amabile et al (Amabile, 1996) characterised categories for assessing work environments for creativity. The authors concluded that encouragement of creativity, workplace autonomy and freedom, sufficient resources and challenging work are all stimulating to workplace creativity, while workload pressure and organisational impediments are obstacles to creativity. (Amabile, 1996)
While there is limited data on the full nature of those organisational impediments, research suggests internal strife, conservatism, and rigid and formal management structures within organisations all have their roles to play in limiting peoples’ creativity and innovation.
The NEMO Working Group survey also showed the state of play in strategic planning in museums. Only around half of the respondents have formulated written operational/development strategies. Out of all museums, only 13% had a strategy for more than 5 years, 43% for 3-4 years. These results confirm the overall picture – many museums work from exhibition to exhibition without a long-term plan. Moreover, there are a number of examples, in which the declared values of a museum actually hinder their innovation potential. For example, museums may declare that their guiding values are professionalism, conservatism or trustworthiness. They state that everything the museum presents carries a quality mark that it has been tested and can be trusted.
Being professional and trustworthy is fine, as long as there are measures in place to leave room for experimenting, testing, taking risks, and failing. This is where many museums feel uneasy. In a business world, innovative companies are agile and follow Lean Startup principles introduced by Eric Ries (Sacco, 2011). Guided by these principles, being successful no longer meant approaching the market with a ready-made product in which the company had invested large sums of money over long period of time. Instead, agile and flexible companies prepared minimum viable products (MVPs), launched them to users, collected as much as data as possible on customer experience and constantly developed their products or services on the go. The same principle is true for design thinking methodologies, where ideas are prototyped, tested with potential audiences and changed or refined based on received feedback. In museums, this may lead to value conflict. On one hand, innovative organisations are supposed to introduce half-ready products or beta-versions, test, fail, refine, resubmit, and change further or pivot if necessary (endless circle). On the other hand, museums are expected (or at least they assume that this is expected from them) to provide proven, tested, and correct information and to be places that don’t make mistakes; that can be always trusted.
As the experience of successful (and truly innovative) museums show, being agile and design process oriented doesn’t necessarily have to contradict the museums’ scientific, educational and informational role and obligations. According to Professor Pier Luigi Sacco, museums are moving from phase 1.0 (museums as temples of knowledge) through phase 2.0 (museums as entertainment machines) into phase 3.0 (museums as participative platforms). The keywords for museum 3.0 are cross-disciplinary collaborations, clustering, direct engagement of audiences, innovation hubs and social cohesion gateways, etc. Key processes in museums 3.0 cannot be carried out in fully controlled environments, there needs to be room for risk-taking. Innovative museums need to embrace risks and learn how to deal with failures.
Innovative museum leadership tackles organisational impediments that hinder creativity by removing those obstacles and allowing people to turn their workplace into an innovative playground of new ideas. There is a vast pool of (free) resources available to encourage out-of-the-box thinking and facilitate spill-overs within a museum organisation and with outside stakeholders. These tools include design thinking methods, business modelling frameworks, creativity tools to allow people to experiment and test new ideas (e.g. Lego Serious Play), audience and stakeholder engagement methods to introduce open innovation, and cross- disciplinary hackathons or team labs to bring together experts from museums, IT, business, design, etc. The key is to look at the innovation potential of entire museum, including its core business/operational model, rather than only focusing on innovative tools within an exhibition.
Innovative museum leadership is neither about buying into solutions from service providers nor preparing outstanding expositions with lots of digital gadgets. It is about creating an environment within museum that helps people to unleash their creativity that facilitates creation and the development of new ideas and reduces anxiety of being always right and never making mistakes. Only in a working environment like this can museums be truly innovative, exciting places to work and to visit.
Selected essays from working group Museums and Creative industries input to NEMO 26th Annual conference Museums out of the box! The crossover impact of museums. See full report here.