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Film: Planning for Museum experiences that matter

Rachel Ann Dennis
Creative Engagement Lead,
Philbrook Museum of Art

So the museum I work at is incredibly beautiful, and historically for many people before a special occasion warrants a visit, the last time they came to Philbrook was during the field trip. And so when that special occasion comes, like, for example, getting engaged, which matters, in order that my museum is a site for those once in a lifetime moments, but we also want to be there for our communities’ day-to-day lives. We aim to be memorable, special, unique, transformative, challenging and exciting on a daily basis. We aim to matter, and that requires planning. So what does that require?

Three years ago, I had the opportunity to reimagine a weekend family studio programme. Early on, I knew I wanted this programme to be a time for families to connect. Every aspect of the programme is planned to serve this outcome. Studio Saturdays does not teach technical art skills like drawing and painting; the focus is on providing the time and space for families to make observations, listen to each other, ask questions, collaborate and take risks, while doing it making art. And something cool happened when we planned for an experience that actually mattered. Families came and then many families starting dropping in multiple Saturdays during the month. Some families came in every single Saturday. When I asked a father and son duo why they came as often as they did, they responded, “Studio Saturdays is a way that my son and I have bonded together. I have gotten more in the doing of the activities because I think he has a better time when I do it. My son likes to see what I do, and I like to get input, and I like to hear what he has to say about what I’ve done. It’s like I’m less of a babysitter and we actually are doing stuff.” And at the moment when he was talking during the interview, his son chimes and goes, “Yes, it’s like we’re a family,” and that matters. And a museum can be a catalyst for those experiences and if we are intentional.

So what does it look like with a group of adults? In July, [unintelligible 00:02:29] came to Philbrook. He paints these incredible watercolours that document the back of scrappers’ trucks. His work is a record of a post-recession economy in California where many people rely on scrapping as a primary source of income. I didn’t want to host another artist talk, so I brainstormed with [unintelligible 00:02:50] and we planned an experience that would generate a deeper understanding of what it means to gather and sell scrap metal. So we got a washing machine off Craigslist, and for two and a half hours, a group of 30 people took it apart, piece by piece. We weighed the pieces to see how much it would be worth, and we had a real conversation about the labour that goes into taking apart a washing machine and the reverse engineering it requires, and if you don’t separate the copper from the aluminium and steel, you won’t get as much money at the scrapyard. And we had a real experience that created a deep connection to the art and the people it is about that matters.

So those are some of the examples of how I plan the programmes I lead, but what about the museum as a whole? Last year at this conference, the new [unintelligible 00:03:38] director of the museum I work at, Scott Stulen spoke, and he challenged people to be brave in the way that they lead. He came back to Philbrook, and for the first time, we have a director who’s saying yes all the time, which is terrifying, and he brought our entire museum together and we defined what matters to our institution, and we started working across departments. In this picture, our exhibitions, facilities, development, communication, guest experience and education teams are all working together to figure out what to call a show this is coming up. We went out into the community and spoke to people, many who had never been to Philbrook, and asked them what they thought each title meant and then we based our decision on what they said. Part of the [claiming to matter] is that you have to ask first, get feedback, and be willing to change. It also helps to work as one entity instead of a [unintelligible 00:04:33] department, but you also have to bond well.

This is a reflection sheet from a student that was part of the field trip programme. The sheet was filled out two weeks after the experience. This special programme’s primary outcome is to create a space for kids to feel confident. Seeing this helps us know we are moving in the right direction, but it took planning, failures and replanning to make it happen.

Finally, planning for museum experiences that matter is how to revolutionise museums. Being good or fun or pretty isn’t enough. We have to be sites of action. We have to foster a community that isn’t afraid to look closely, ask hard questions, have new perspectives, and work together to make incredible things happen. If we are not taking risks, if we are not terrified that the crazy thing we’re about to do might fail, we are not pushing hard enough. Thank you.

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