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Building a Museum for the 21st Century in Real Time

Erin Dragotto, Vice President of Development & Operations for the Museum of Art + Light (MoA+L), shares her expertise on how museums can stay relevant in the modern age. Between societal expectations, digital technology, and sustainability efforts, museums are undergoing an immense period of change, and the right decision-making can shape an organisation’s future.

With more than 20 years of experience working in museums and non-profits, Erin knows that successful museums can never stand still. The MoA+L was conceived as the first museum in the world to showcase immersive experiences, its permanent collection, and emerging artistic expression from inception. Based in Erin’s hometown of Manhattan, Kansas, the MoA+L, as Erin describes, “Gives art and culture to the world, blending the immersive, digital, and traditional.”

In addition to her work at the Museum of Art + Light in Chicago, Erin co-founded The Chicago Teen Museum, the first US museum dedicated to preserving youth culture. Carrying out numerous focus groups, Erin and her team found a desire among young people that they could “create without bias”.

With the Museum of Art + Light set to open in October, Erin explains that the project is nothing short of a labour of love:

“Creating something from nothing is hard work because you’re looking at every aspect, not just the pretty things the visitors see. Of course, we’ll make mistakes, but more than anything, we want to engage. We want to make sure people connect with whatever we collect in a way that matters.”

Starting from scratch

Having a clear goal has been paramount to the museum’s success, and this is the main piece of advice Erin says she wishes to share with others in her field. A clear mission statement makes all the difference:

“Our mission is to bridge 21st-century technology with visual and performing arts to incite emotion, create connections, and develop cultural transformation.

“Sometimes you’re in control, and sometimes you aren’t. You have to look at the long lens, deciding where you want to make the best impact. No matter how focused you are, you’ll get sideswiped or interrupted. You have to be open to that, too. If we’re patient, we will end up where we want to be. Impacting people’s lives through arts and culture is the end game. We have to continuously ask how we’re doing that.”

No museum is an island

Drawing on outside influences and support is necessary when embarking on a new museum project, and to find the correct answers, you need to ask the right questions.

Erin says: “Former museum colleagues, current artists in the field, and people in tangential fields who are doing exciting things can all be inspirational. It always comes back to what your museum stands for. Lean on your reputation, asking what you do well and where you align.

“Who do you need in the room to create an immersive experience? Which digital artists are doing things that fit your museum’s status quo? You do the research, have conversations, and explore. It’s important not to have tunnel vision.”

Building trust as a museum

The world can be an overwhelming place between changing political climates, climate change, social media, and rapidly advancing technology. There’s a lot to contemplate, and people are constantly seeking sources of information and dialogue they can trust.

In response, Erin believes that museums need to ask themselves how to become one such source through the intelligent use of technology, communication and a strong moral conscience.

“Advanced technology can improve engagement, but museums must decide what story they’re telling. If museums are to be trusted sources of information, how do you start that conversation? That, to me, is a responsibility that we’re taking on. This is particularly true for digital artists. We are curating those in the field who want to be a part of our organisation because they need a voice.

“So we ask: who are we welcoming into our fold and why? And what do they want? And how are we benefiting that genre? How are we adding to that conversation?”

Embracing the future, creating traditions

As we progress through this decade, museums are navigating a new position in the world, trying to become part of the community. This is a change that, Erin says, should have happened a long time ago. She notes:

“Museums should always be listening to their audiences and visitors. If they can’t connect to their exhibitions, it’s up to the museum to adapt.

“Traditional museums have struggled with this. I do believe there are a lot of organisations doing it well, but when we started this museum from scratch, visitors were the very first thing that we thought about. Who is our audience? Who is our community? Who around us is going to care?”

Planning and passion

Implementing change in the museum sector requires strategic planning, which Erin encourages all cultural institutions to embrace.

“Strategic planning provides the long view and the steps to get there. Whether you follow them or not, at least you have something on paper to remind you of your goals.

“We’re currently working out basic features like ticketing, software, furniture, and fixtures, and you realise that they all impact the museum experience. How people pay for membership, access their membership, move through the space, and talk about the space online should not be sidebar conversations. They should be very thoughtful conversations.

“Doing an initial analysis aligns the people within your organisation around a clear vision. We have a plan, and even if it might change, we can tether ourselves to something.”

However, alongside passion, Erin says passion is the other key ingredient in 21st-century museum success. She tells other museum professionals:

“If you’re passionate about the field, stay the course. Every day is different, and that’s what’s so exciting. Even when facing challenges, we’re learning every day, and learning is what museums are all about. So cherish it because it’s wonderful.”

Erin Dragotto, VP of Development & Operations for the Museum of Art + Light (MoA+L), completed a master’s in arts education from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2006, and a BA in liberal arts from Pepperdine University, Malibu. Most recently VP of Development for the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, Erin has nearly 20 years of experience working at all levels of both non-profits and museums. Before co-founding Chicago Teen Museum and simultaneously running the Chicago Council on Science & Technology, she was in Educational Outreach at the Adler Planetarium. Erin is well versed in museum and NFP administration, fundraising, exhibition development, and education.

MuseumNext hosts a range of in-person and online summits each year, covering topics such as digital collections, sustainability, social impact, learning and XR. Click here to find out more and book tickets.



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