Man 1: This podcast is a project of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency committed to building creative communities and inspiring creative minds.
Betsy Loring: When those of us especially in small museums have an “and” in our job title, which we generally do, it’s very hard in your day-to-day practice of just getting the job done to really take that theory and apply it to your actual practice.
Anita Walker: Hello, I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. We are joined today by Betsy Loring. She’s the Director of Exhibits at the EcoTarium in Worcester. Thank you very much for being with us today.
Betsy Loring: Thank you for having me.
Anita Walker: One thing that we’ve noticed at the Mass Cultural Council is the incredible intellectual capital that there is in our field and we are constantly looking for ways that that intelligence can be shared among ourselves. You are part of a peer network that has been very effective, talk a little bit about that.
Betsy Loring: Yeah, we were the lead organization of something called the Environmental Exhibit Collaborative with three other New England museums, ECHO Lake Aquarium in Burlington, Vermont, the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine in Portland and then the Discovery Museums in Acton. So we’re all somewhat similar but we all have different focus in our mission. And we got together in 2004 and built five traveling exhibits together, not each of us building an exhibit and sharing it but we collaboratively built the exhibit because we all have departments of one, we have a department of two, we have a department of 0.75 and by putting all of our people together, we create a very powerful exhibit department. What we discovered in doing that was that there was a side benefit of a ton of peer-to-peer professional development. So when we went for our second round of funding, we created a project that really focused on that professional development because where we can struggle is we’ll know the theory but when those of us especially in small museums have an and in our job title, which we generally do, it’s very hard in your day-to-day practice of just getting the job done to really take that theory and apply it to your actual practice. So we had two day workshops in each others’ museums, we served as each others’ peer evaluators, we had three day staff exchanges where we got very embedded in each others’ work. Our directors have ended up wanting their own staff exchanges, we just created sort of a multiply layered peer-to-peer professional development that has been more powerful than any other professional development any of us has ever participated in.
Anita Walker: There’s got to be something magical just about having the opportunity to get out of your foxhole and go into somebody else’s. I mean the mere opportunity to go to another museum, go to another colleague, part professional development, part group therapy I would imagine.
Betsy Loring: That’s exactly the term that one of the other director said, it was part therapy, part peer pressure. The other part of this collaborative was we had to be doing real work, we had to have a real project and it had to be a real project that we could not do alone because collaboration is like a very large group marriage, collaboration is great except that if you can do your job any way but collaboration, do it the other way. So you need it to be work that you can’t do without the other people, so you all have to have something powerful that you need from one another and that you can give to one another.
Anita Walker: Talk a little bit more about the collaborative exhibit design. So I’m sure some of our listeners, or maybe not but at least me, I’m thinking logistically, how do you do this across state lines?
Betsy Loring: We each, we collaboratively developed the exhibit theme and storyline and settled on the look and feel, within that there were a number of interactives, in some cases, live animals. So we each took the lead on developing a few of those interactives based on our own particular specialty. So ECHO is an aquarium, they took the lead on anything that involved life support on animals. Children’s Museum took the lead on some of the younger focused exhibits. We would all prototype, we had rules about how we would prototype, we go through an extensive process of iterative prototyping. Well you finally get to the point where something’s still not quite right, there’s a usability issue or people are not– your exhibit is not helping people get the message that you’re hoping to get. That’s when we would come together, meet centrally, throw food in the middle of the table, and we’d say, “Okay, here’s the prototype, here’s what’s happened, here’s where I’m stuck. I don’t know how to alter this prototype to take it out and test it again.” And that’s where one, it moved the prototypes along but that’s where the professional development happened because you suddenly had fresh eyes and fresh perspectives with slightly different audiences who could say, “Well how about we try X, Y and Z?” Then we’d all go back off, test our things again and then we got into the process of even bringing prototypes to each others’ facilities to see how things performed in a completely different environment.
Anita Walker: Was this group of professionals, people that you knew already?
Betsy Loring: It did start with personal relationships, very often through the directors, and I’ve heard this in other collaborative projects across America that the personal relationships become the institutional relationships, through those institutional relationships, you develop other personal relationships which becomes sort of a lovely little feedback loop. We ended up finding that we would come to meetings and say, “Hey, Anita, I just saw, when I was traveling in Colorado, I saw this really cool,” whatever, “exhibit, and I know it’s perfect for that problem you were talking about last week.” So we actually ended up instituting in our multi day meetings, cocktail parties, show and tell, we donated the alcohol, no federal money went into buying the wine and sometimes there was no wine. But people just started bringing in stuff that they were excited about to share because they knew it fed the creativity or the work that somebody else in the room did and it really ended up being pretty much everybody’s favorite aspect of the meetings.
Anita Walker: Not the wine.
Betsy Loring: No, not the wine.
Anita Walker: Well, but that was a good part of it.
Betsy Loring: Chocolate, we do run on chocolate.
Anita Walker: You know, what occurs as I listen to you talk about this and it’s very exciting, in fact, I can see by the look on your face how excited you are about this, this is applied learning…
Betsy Loring: Absolutely.
Anita Walker: …this is not going to a conference and getting a lecture and looking at a series of slides, “Here’s how we did this. Here’s a tip for you,” we are actually learning and doing at the same time.
Betsy Loring: Absolutely. And that really I think helps actually with retaining staff is, let’s face it, no nonprofit is going to make anybody wealthy, what we can offer our staff is the opportunity to grow as professionals and we have the same intellectual capacity as our large museum peers, we’ve often even had the same professional theoretical learning. What we don’t often have is the luxury of really taking the time to apply it and we can’t walk down the hall and bounce an idea off of somebody, we get very isolated. And what working with partners allows you to do is to get through those sticky parts, the really tough part to get something that you’re working on to the next level of engagement or learning or the wow factor.
Anita Walker: This is such a great idea, and I can imagine, we probably have some people listening saying, “I want to do that in my museum, but I’m afraid if I go to my boss and I’m afraid if I go to the director, they’ll say, ‘This all sounds great but I just don’t have the time to give you to go to another museum.'”
Betsy Loring: Right. I think you can start really small, the smallest version of this I’ve heard, I actually heard it at Association of Zoos and Aquaria, AZA, and there was the curator of fishes in a particular place, she would send a staff for a day or two, they often just couch surf at another aquarium because…
Anita Walker: Wait, I’m getting a visual, couch surfing at an aquarium. I just had to pause on that for a moment.
Betsy Loring: Well, okay, so yeah.
Betsy Loring: We do have these odd sentences sometimes in museums. And they would go very specifically to be shown how to grow a coral colony so that they could keep the polyps happy and healthy. That’s a really low cost professional development and again, it’s very expensive to bring on staff and to develop them and it’s very expensive to lose them, so any time you can help develop a professional and develop in-house capacity, so now their coral colony stays healthy, they’re not calling in outside experts, they’ve built the expertise in-house, all for the cost of some gas and a little bit of time, maybe they were calling somebody in to cover those hours, that’s pretty cheap professional development and extremely practical. So I’d start with that.
Anita Walker: Give us a few other ideas of where this kind of collaborative learning could take place, do you see potential in cross sector? You talked about three organizations that work with live animals or aquariums that are similar, but what about working with an art museum and a natural history museum and a performing arts?
Betsy Loring: I think absolutely, it can work, I know in Denver, a number of different types of cultural organizations are getting together, around specific things, I think it’s around visitor surveys and evaluation. You just need to be sure that everybody has something to contribute that everybody else values. If that is on the even playing field then I think any collaboration can work.
Anita Walker: It’s the name of the game, it’s how we do more with less.
Betsy Loring: Absolutely.
Anita Walker: But you get more.
Betsy Loring: You really do and that’s one of the things that in the science museum field, we do a lot of prototyping, the reason we do that is because some prototypes fail, so you always have more prototypes than you know you can fit on the floor you expect failure to be in there. And I think that’s sort of part of the process is working with other people, failure is not a bad thing but less failure is a good thing because you have more things go forward and having peers who can help you pass those hurdles to have a higher percentage of things that you know you can take to your guests is always helpful.
Anita Walker: Proof of the scientific theory that one and one can equal three, right?
Betsy Loring: Absolutely.
Anita Walker: Betsy Loring, Director of Exhibits at the EcoTarium in Worcester. Thank you very much for sharing a bit of your creative mind out loud.
Betsy Loring: You’re very welcome. Thank you.
Man 1: For more on this episode and to subscribe, visit creativemindsoutloud.org.
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