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How can Museums and adapting to change?

In the town of Enterprise, Alabama stands an unusual monument, a statue of a woman holding a pedestal high above her head and in it a Boll Weevil.

The story of this monument goes back over 100 years to a time when Cotton was the sole crop grown in the area. Then in 1915, the Boll Weevil appeared in Alabama with devastating effect.

Soon farms were losing their entire crops to this pest; it’s estimated that the Boll Weevil costs the American cotton industry more than $23 billion.

So why would a town erect a statue to such a pest?

In 1915 only 5,000 bales of cotton were produced in Enterprise compared to 15,000 bales the previous year, the area faced economic devastation.

H.M. Sessions, a man who lived in town and acted as a seed broker to farmers in need, saw the devastation and knew he needed to act.

After visiting North Carolina and Virginia, where he saw Peanuts being grown in the same harsh conditions as cotton, he brought peanut seeds back to Alabama and sold them to a local farmer.

The Peanuts grew well and word of this quickly spread. Within two years farms in the area were producing over 1 million bushels of peanuts that sold for more than $5 million.

By 1919, farms around Enterprise had become the biggest producers of peanuts in the United States.

The Boll Weevil continued to cause devastation across the South into the 1950s, but farms around Enterprise prospered through diversification into potatoes, sugar cane, sorghum and tobacco. 

The town put this prosperity down to the Boll Weevil and erected a monument to the pest.

Faced with challenging times, the people of Enterprise took the opportunity to adapt. The Boll Weevil was the catalyst for diversification that would lead to decades of prosperity.

So today, as we face our own unprecedented challenges, how might we adapt in the face of adversity to secure the future success of our museums. 

Below we map out five principles that can help your museum to come through this period of uncertainty stronger than ever :

1. Think beyond the crisis

It’s easy in such uncertain times to focus on the day to day and not look more than a few weeks ahead. However, doing this makes every obstacle seem larger and every set back feel more significant.

Take the time to think about where you’d like to be in five years or what you’d like to achieve in the next decade. In 2030, the Covid-19 crisis will stand out as a challenging moment, but a moment that you overcame.

Write down your long term goals, so you know where you want to be after Covid-19 and can start to take steps to get there.

2. Remember your purpose

A museums purpose should guide everything that it does; at times of crisis, it is especially important to remember what this is.

For example, Tate states that it exists to increase the public’s enjoyment and understanding of British art from the 16th century to the present day, as well as modern and contemporary art from around the world.’

Like many museums, Tate adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic by shifting towards online activities. In doing so, they continued to fulfil their purpose even when their doors were closed. 

Know your museum’s purpose, and look all avenues to deliver on this.

3. Look to what others are doing

As noted above, H.M. Sessions looked beyond Enterprise, Alabama, for ways to adapt to the crisis that was devastating his community.

He found that others had already discovered new ways of working (in his case by switching to a crop that the Boll Weevil wouldn’t eat).

During times of unprecedented change, it is more important than ever to look at what is working elsewhere, so that you can apply those lessons to your own situation. 

Create time in your diary to read the latest thinking, listen to podcasts and participate in events.

4. There is power in our community

Now is the perfect time to check-in with old colleagues and offer support and encouragement. It is likely that some will need it.

There is great power in the museum community and we all benefit from strengthening these ties and helping each other at times like this.

Log into LinkedIn, check what people are posting on Twitter and drop friends an email. Some will be wrestling with similar challenges to you, and some might even have found some answers.

5. Embrace opportunity

The current crisis has forced change upon all of us, and there has perhaps never been a better time to try new ways of working.

Take this opportunity to experiment and change direction, use this moment to take a leap and put issues that matter on the agenda.

Much has been said of the world not returning to the status quo. But we have to be willing to embrace the opportunity for change.

In Conclusion

In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, there are opportunities to rethink how our museums operate.

Some will continue blindly doing what they have done before, while others will prosper by being willing to adapt.


About the author – Jim Richardson

Jim Richardson is the founder of MuseumNext. He has worked with the museum sector on digital and innovation projects for more than twenty years and now spends his time championing best practice through MuseumNext.

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