The poet, Robert Browning, is famous for (among other things) these two lines from Andrea del Sarto:
“Ah, but a [hu]man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?”
What about museums? What might we consider a museum’s reach, and what its grasp? One answer may come from the strategic planning exercise.
When we enter into strategic planning for a museum or for any of the similar CB/VSO (collection-based and visitor-service-oriented) organizations, a consideration of the institution’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) is usually considered mandatory. This is because setting reasonable goals for the institution’s future is only possible when these parameters of its current situation are taken into account.
Recently, in the midst of one of these exercises, I heard one participant ask for suggestions of the museum’s current strengths. Another participant was eager to add example after example of their accomplishments and international acclaim. Then someone else said, “These are only examples of the depth of the museum. What about its breadth?” I knew what the questioner was talking about.
And I began thinking that these concepts of depth and breadth of the museum said a lot about the organization and should prove useful in assessing the overall strengths of any museum. In the strategic planning context, we should be interested in the ratio of depth to breadth both now and in the desired future, 3 to 5 years hence
What might be considered part of the depth of the museum? Obvious candidates are its collections (size, quality and diversity), disciplinary research carried out, professional publications, critical acclaim, professional awards, size and excellence of professional staff, international reputation, academic library and archives, presentations at professional conferences, and its ‘prestige.’ Can it be said to be one of the most respected museums? In the long run, rather than ‘depth,’ I would be more inclined to call this important characteristic of a museum its ‘stature.’
What then is meant by the breadth of an organization? Likely components are the number and frequency of public exhibits, public amenities, public information sources, participation in social media, attendance numbers, positive reviews in the media, visitor comments, positive visitor research parameters, word-of-mouth, top-of-mind awareness, general media coverage, radius of visitor catchment area, diversity of programs and audiences, attendance at programs, level of engagement with visitors and community, level and effectiveness of marketing, promotional and PR activity, and educational activity. All of this might be summarized as the ‘buzz’ the museum creates. Can it be considered one of the most ‘cherished’ museums? Again, rather than referring to this museum trait as ‘breadth,’ I’d prefer to think of it as ‘interactivity.’ It’s all about the degree to which the institution is engaged with and connected with its visitors, its potential visitors and its community.
There may be valid ways of quantifying the stature and interactivity characteristics of any museum, but normally an exhaustive listing of strengths under the two headings will suffice to give an adequate qualitative picture.
Qualitative assessments of strengths in stature and interactivity can be easily visualized as two dimensions of organizational achievement; with stature as the vertical axis and interactivity as the horizontal axis, The museum can now be modeled in visual terms, as in the diagram above. This type of modelling allows for rough, qualitative comparisons of where the organization is now, vs. where it wants to be in the future
These two types of museum strengths both contribute to assessing the value offered by the organization. The ’value’ of stature lies in the potential for contributions to the solution of world problems, to the preservation of heritage, and contributions to human self-knowledge (self and environment). Museums of very great stature are high in public awareness. Here then is something that might readily be called a museum’s ‘reach’ – the universal significance and recognition it longs for.
The ’value of interactivity, on the other hand, is that it advances the goals of education and dissemination of knowledge. Moreover, a high level of public engagement is, in most cases, the key to accessing adequate resources. This characteristic, especially with respect to the ability to command the financial resources needed to carry out all programs, might well be identified as the museum’s ‘grasp.’
A museum can have great stature with very little public engagement and still be of great value. But will it be able to access sufficient resources to sustain its operations? Such a museum is a little like an iceberg, with 90% of its resources invisible to public view.
A museum can have great interactivity with the community coupled with very little professional stature and be flush with resources. But is it then much different from a commercial amusement park?
Back to planning for stature and interactivity in scenarios of increasing, stable or decreasing resources. If funding is expected to remain stable, do you want to increase either stature or interactivity at the expense of the other? What if the current resource base appears to be decreasing? Would you then want to put desirable increases in stature on hold to favor interactivity that might generate new funding? Those rare instances where resources are projected to increase mean you have the luxury of deciding exactly what kind of a museum you want to be.
Thinking about museums in this way during the planning process can be useful in achieving a healthy balance between stature and interactivity in an environment of limited resources.
A healthy and balanced museum will have sufficient public engagement, like the extensive, nourishing root system of a great tree, to sustain the majestic crown of leafy branches that reach upward towards the sky. So with museums, as it is with humans, optimistic reach is a good thing to keep in mind, but an effective grasp is essential to realistic survival.