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

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.

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.

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?

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

  1. Hi Susie, thanks for another interesting and provocative post!
    From my museum director’s perspective, I agree with your analysis of the reasons why we tend not to collaborate. Competition and potential loss of IP advantage are real issues. But competition is not a bad thing of itself; it often fosters innovation in both what we do and how we do it. In the Australian context competition is increasing, partly as a result of other competitive factors, eg between cities competing for tourist visitors. Again, not of itself a bad thing. How we overcome that to get collaboration is, as you point out, the key thing. I’m a supporter of the incentivised collaboration model, whereby funding bodies give priority to collaboration as a basis for funding, in effect forcing us to work together. I think both government and philanthropic funding bodies should do this more. I also think we do actually get better solutions/outcomes when we collaborate. It works against the sometimes strong institutional “we know best” attitude. So, lets accept the reality of competition and acknowledge the benefits there, but also look to our funders to “incentivise” collaboration. Maybe we get the best of both worlds?

    1. Frank, hi! Thanks so much for your comment.

      You are absolutely right. Competition is often healthy, and can absolutely drive innovation and stronger individual performance. Collaboration, on the other hand, is often useful for sustainability. So in some ways, what we are looking to produce is an environment where museums can compete and collaborate at the same time, and where doing so is incentivised by funding organisations. Innovation on one hand, sustainability on the other.

      How do we achieve this? You mentioned looking to funders. Are there any specific actions we could or should take?

      1. Susie, I agree with Regan and let’s argue for more carrots. Tell the funders to give an edge to collaborative proposals. We only got the Atlas of Living Australia (a collaboration between museums, herbaria and universities) funded because we collaborated. This was not entirely our doing as our Federal Government made it clear that collabortive proposals for funding had a greater chance of success. It’s my perception that Australia and the EU do this better than the USA does. I also think our own museum associations could do more to award (reward) collaborative projects; let’s celebrate our successful collaborations!

  2. It’s probably salutary to consider our culture of collaboration in museums within a broader social and economic context – compared to this general ‘baseline’ level of collaboration out there, it could be argued we are actually doing quite well!

    When I’ve met people at conferences who have experience in the more dog-eat-dog corporate world, they have remarked at how open and willing to share they find people in museums / heritage / interpretation. The issues you mention about zero-sum games and IP would affect us far less than they do many other ‘industries’ (the fact that I can’t find a better word off the top of my head in itself says something about the alignment of our culture).

    I agree with Frank – collaboration is probably only going to really work when there is some kind of economic or resource-based carrot attached to it. Also when we can argue that we can get more bang for our buck when we collaborate – which we often can as those wheels then aren’t being endlessly reinvented.

    1. Regan, absolutely. Despite the somewhat critical tone in my post, I actually think our sector does much of this well. Many, if not most, people are absolutely willing to talk to their experiences, and I think sessions like Epic Fail at MW2012 show that it isn’t only the good things that people will discuss. Having said that, I do often hear people calling for greater collaboration within the sector (or even their own institutions), without necessarily trying to dissect why it doesn’t happen. So this post was more an attempt to do that.

  3. SC – Sorry this is so long, I just HAVE to get this off my chest. Some interesting and provocative insights the past few days … ‘Threats from within’ – I prefer to think of it as ‘opportunities to re-examine how we do business’.

    That said, all the recent toing-and-froing in blogs (you, Nina Simon, Ed Rodley, etc) boil down to one thing: fear. Fear of losing [management/curatorial] control, fear of losing funding, fear of doing the wrong thing, fear of failing and looking like an idiot, fear you will fail (or you will not fail) and I will look like an idiot, on and on and on. As an industry what we haven’t come to grips with (and as a council owned museum I see this everyday) we haven’t learned to cope with risk and overcome fear. We are loath to confront it and slow to accept it. We claim to be champions of the creative and innovative yet, as a whole, stick to the status norm. Sometimes I just want to shake people and say: “let go, it will be ok. The earth will continue to rotate. If we fail, we try again, fail better next time.”

    As for competition, I agree with Frank, competition is a good thing. Again, we (the industry) don’t know how to cope with it. We fear it and just don’t go about it the right way. What really sticks in my craw, as a museum director and arts manager, is the insular way we look at ourselves. Like cultural institutions are above this; art and heritage are sacred above the messy fray of business and we should be loved and supported simply because we are [here]. Time to move past that. Competition for time, attention and money is cutthroat. However, I don’t feel we are in competition with other museums – in or out of my region. I love other museums near by; that would build critical mass of opportunity for our visitors to ‘make a day of it’ and museum crawl. And a golden opportunity to share resources and develop joint marketing campaigns. Gasp! I know, perish the thought.

    Other museums are not my competition … sitting home in your underwear with 900 cable channels, prepping for VELS tests and trying to be Master Chef on a bubble-n-squeak budget these are my competition not sharing my sacred program information. The public thinking (for right or wrong) that TV, movies, adventure parks, the mall and the internet are better value and more complete entertainment/educational experiences – that kind of misguided thinking is our competition. We are ultimately in competition with those products (and lets face it, we are a product) who realize it is all about customer service and total ‘what’s in it for me’ experiences. Far too many museums just do not get that. I know these are heretical words and I am tarnishing my reputation as I type.

    What needs to change you ask? Stop focusing on what we don’t have – like money will solve all your institutional troubles, be open minded to opportunity -no matter how far fetched and focus on the total experience – in your museum and out. Everywhere you turn there are wonderful, exciting and captivating objects and experiences. I have no fear in collaborating with them. The local footy club want to partner with me? Yes, please. Forgive my long reply and thanks for allowing me to vent. Have a good weekend …

    1. Padraic, vent away 🙂 I saw your response on Nina’s last post, and wondered how you were doing, so it’s great that you’ve popped in here too.

      Your comment reminds me of something I read recently, which is that everyone has competition. The trick is in correctly identifying who/what the competition is. And I guess that brings up an interesting point – that museums do compete internally; that within the sector individual institutions will be competitive (and often benchmark themselves directly against one or two other institutions). But also that the sector as a whole is competing for attention etc far beyond the GLAM sector. Again, a reason for growing a collaborative environment, whilst allowing for internal competition. And maybe both elements (internal competition, and cross-sector collaboration) are critical to a strong sector?

  4. This discussion reminds me of the saying, “there is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” Museums, working together, could build something greater than that which exists today if they did not focus so much on competition. I wholeheartedly agree with you when you say in your previous post, “We all win when we work together to build a strong sector.”

    Your analysis of the incentives (or lack thereof) for museums to collaborate or to be transparent illustrates a sector that is playing by rules that are rapidly going out of style. Protectiveness over one’s ideas is one example that can be informed by the evolution of copyright protection. When a person or an organization is too protective over their ideas, it can stifle the creativity of others. This is a great loss to everyone and led to the creation and use of the Creative Commons license. Similarly, museums (and other cultural heritage institutions) that share too little are stalling the progress of the sector as a whole.

    I disagree with your assessment that the trusting environment required for real transparency and collaboration is “probably a long way off” or “may never happen.” While creating this culture will be a challenge, it starts with you, me, and everyone else who believes that such a culture would foster great things.

    As the wise bumper sticker says, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

    1. Meredith, I am so excited that you think that creating this culture is your responsibility, and mine too. I agree. One reason I included Daniel Ben-Horin’s quote was to emphasise how important ownership and responsibility of change/collaboration was to making it happen. The more of us who do take it on and own it, the more likely it is to happen.

  5. Seems that part of the answer to all of this is found in ICOM’s very definition of a museum that notes they are “. . . institutions in the service of society and of its development.” Such a recognition, and acting upon same, seems to cut through a bit of the problem. If I focus on the public service aspect, I at least know what my next steps are meant to be. Fact is, in response to the post of mine Suse noted above, I heard from a good number of my small museum colleagues about their interest and agreement to greater collaboration and that they were looking for leadership on same.

    According to the AAM website, 1/3 of all museums in the U.S. do not charge admission. I have to think that at least 50% of the remainder, fall into the small museum category and charge 7.00 or less admission for adults. This would seem to suggest that for the vast number of institutions, there is not a lot of competition for actual dollars. The dollar competition seemingly is among the small number of large institutions that charge 15.00 or more for adult admissions and run the 50,000 or more per year through their doors.

    I am curious if there has ever really been a culture of cooperation among large museums or between large and small museums in the US.

    I am just now finishing an article on public service and community engagement so I might have this a bit heavy on the brain. I am optimistic that developing such a culture of cooperation is in the cards.

    In response to the initial question, I don’t really see your proposals as dangerous or fantasy. Rather, they are very practical responses to a “crisis” of some degree that cultural heritage institutions face. At the risk of sounding too terribly partisan, perhaps developments in US politics over the past couple of months have demonstrated that the era of polarization has peaked and that opportunities for collaboration are at hand. That has certainly been the response I have received over the past several months on several fronts. We would be foolish not to at least make the most of these opportunities as they present themselves.

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