Tell her she’s dreaming (or why my dangerous idea might never be more than fantasy)

Posted on January 4, 2013

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All right. It’s time to get real.

My last post was pretty idealistic. It painted what I’d love to see for the sector in coming years – a confident, collaborative, energised sector. A sector that works together, in order to build something bigger and stronger than any individual institution can. Sounds great, right?! And while there might be some countries where this vision can come true (maybe your country already has this?), for the most part, I suspect its nothing more than a pipe dream in many cases. But why? This post is an attempt to answer the question Lori Phillips asks, when she writes:

I think what you’re describing is an environment of increased charitability and transparency between institutions; an environment in which we brag on one another’s successes more and act like competitive silos less… It’s a win, win, win. So why aren’t we doing more of it?

Why aren’t we doing more of it? Here are some of the reasons I can think of. No doubt there are many more too – let’s work out what they are.

Funding models, incentives, and the zero-sum game
Museums are competitive. They fight each other for funds, for audiences, for kudos. I don’t know if there are any countries in the world where financial resources for museums are effectively unlimited, and if they exist, they certainly aren’t common. Whether the main funding pool for museums in your country is private or public, chances are that there are lots of competitors for a pool that always seems a little smaller than it needs to be – particularly if it has been shrinking. Such limitations on resources creates the impression that museums are playing a zero-sum game. And it’s not just with money either. Access to other things is often limited (or perceived to be) too, such regional or state-wide tourism support (read Robert Connolly’s discussion on this issue here). So even when museums don’t seem to be in direct competition for a single audience, for instance, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t competing.

If there is only limited access to resources, to a pie that will be sliced up between museums within a particular geographic area, there is a great disincentive to being too proactive in your support of another organisation. What if doing so means that they get more of the pie than you do?! Why should we boast of the success of others? No doubt the divergent sizes/priorities between institutions comes into play here too. (As an aside, I think the perception of a zero-sum game around resources is also a reason why internal institutional silos are so often hard to break down.)

Seb Chan’s observations on the US system from his first year in NYC are telling. He writes:

The primary funding model (private philanthropists, foundations and big endowments) isn’t conducive to broad collaboration or ‘national-scale‘ efforts. Instead it entrenches institutional competition and counterproductive secrecy. A lot of wheels get reinvented unnecessarily.

My idealism aside, funding models and limited resources can create very real barriers to sharing, openness, and collaboration. What real incentive does a museum have to share its own resources (including time, knowledge, or staff) with another museum – or the whole sector – unless collaboration is linked to grants and funding or enabled by infrastructure organisations like the Collections Trust? Basically, unless collaboration is incentivised and simplified, there isn’t necessarily a persuasive business case for adopting it as a practice. Why help the ‘competition’?

Intellectual property
So this is an aspect of transparency that I hadn’t really thought about until recently, but it’s a big one and a real barrier to the open sharing that I often hear people wistfully call for. People are protective of their ideas. They don’t want them “stolen” by releasing them too early, as might be required in a truly collaborative setting. This is something that Maxwell Anderson discusses when asked his thoughts on people being transparent with their thought-processes in the question/response section of this talk on museums and internet-based transparency (about 1:14:00). Here, possibly the most vocal advocate for museum transparency hesitates, which says something significant.

There is something scary about sharing ideas – even with friends, sometimes – when you aren’t yet ready to act on them or share them more widely. I know that it’s something I haven’t yet overcome, and I’ve been thinking in public for 20 months. It is much more scary making them available to a competitor. Getting to a place where institutions feel comfortable sharing their ideas when still in conceptual stages, and trusting that doing so won’t lead to exploitation, is still probably a long way off. It may never happen.

Time
I was somewhat surprised at INTERCOM 2012 when I heard more than one museum director mention that the real resource shortage in their museum was not in money, but was instead in “days in the year, and space.” Time and available space are two of the biggest things that prevent museums achieving all that they might want to. And guess what? Collaboration takes time out of the day, and long-term strategies take time (as in, years). And in both cases, that means that working collaboratively is harder to prioritise, particularly when we are talking about sector-level collaboration that could take a number of years to achieve real results for the sector. The short-term time demands quite naturally end up taking precedence over longer-term idealism.

Sometimes it’s personal.
We all know of times when museum directors compete against one another for reasons that have very little to do with their institutions, and everything to do with their own personal histories and temperaments. It’s not glamorous, but it happens. Collaboration, working together and sharing resources occurs for all kinds of reasons. But it is less likely to happen when there are personal clashes between the people who can make the collaboration possible. And as we know, there is a strong link between the personal and the political.

Culture
Most institutions that I know of don’t have an internal culture of collaboration. There are all kinds of reasons for this, but if we can’t even get people collaborating when they are located in the one building, how can we create a cross-sector culture of collaboration?

Ownership of change
One of the emergent questions that came up many times at INTERCOM in November asked what cumulative or collective impact museums can, should, and do have? How can museums work to ensure their collective impact was greater than their institutional impacts? It was a question that seemed to be universally accepted as important, but we didn’t really spend any time looking for answers. I think that one reason for this was because no one person took ownership of this as a problem. We all agreed this was important, but it was seen as a sector-wide problem, rather than being “my” problem.

Daniel Ben-Horin, who ran Techsoup Global’s Contributor’s Summit, has some interesting thoughts on what does make collaboration possible. He writes:

There are a variety of necessary ingredients, of course. There has to be enough complementarily; identical actors compete more than collaborate. There has to be participant ownership coming in. There has to be dynamic facilitation. There has to be proactive documentation to establish a clear record of commitments. There has to be follow-up.

Mainly, though, there has to be a commitment to the need to take action toward impact… and to do so together (because we can’t get there separately).

Complementarily, participant ownership, dynamic facilitation, proactive documentation of commitments, follow-up, and commitment to the need to take action toward impact. Collaboration doesn’t just happen. It takes invested individuals who own the problem and see it through, because they absolutely believe that it needs a bigger solution than what could be achieved in isolation. And without that, all efforts likely come to naught.

These are some of the reasons why I think we don’t collaborate more as a sector, although I am sure there are plenty of others. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Are there additional barriers? Are these insurmountable? Realistically, without incentives to collaborate, without compelling evidence that the current system is actually broken rather than just less-than-ideal (and I’m not sure we have that), it’s unlikely to change. Is that ok?

What do you think? Do limited resources create a zero-sum game for museums? Will collaboration within the sector always remain the ideal, but only rarely the reality? If not, what needs to change?