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How Can a Museum Work with Entrepreneurs?

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Te Papa is asking how can a museum work with entrepreneurs through their cultural accelerator Mahuki. This is a structured entrepreneurial program run where up to ten teams (or 40 individuals) work on sustainable solutions for challenges facing cultural institutions globally.

Melissa Firth from Te Papa talks about this bold investment, sharing what went right, what was surprising and whether accelerators are something other cultural organisations should be thinking about adding into their business models.

Melissa Firth: I’m going to talk to you today about the journey we’ve been on and the process of setting up Mahuki. I’ll talk about what it is, why we’ve done it and a few reflections on risk and some of the things we did to mitigate those risks, and some of the factors that went into making what we feel is a very successful first programme.

But first up, a bit of the ‘what,’ starting with what an accelerator actually is. Simple translation, ‘A personal thing that causes something to happen more quickly.’ But start-up accelerators, according to Wikipedia, are also translated as, ‘Fixed-term, cohort-based programmes, that include mentorship and educational components and culminate in a public pitch event or demo day.’ That’s very much the model we’ve taken.

So for the entrepreneurs that are coming in, and we had 10 teams of them, they are working across a number of opportunities, from audience experience and very much sort of creative tech opportunities, enterprise software for museums which, as we all know, are very complex businesses and we, you know, aside from the exhibitions themselves we often have retail operations events and programming, sometimes touring, a whole lot of other things going on. And learning innovation which, you know, as learning institutions, that is another area that is experiencing digital transformation worldwide. When they come in, they’re looking at the culture sector as an opportunity and, you know, some of the top line points there are, there are 750,000 museums worldwide, over a billion visitors per annum. In the U.S. alone, the culture sector is 4.3% of the United States’ GDP, which is bigger than the construction sector. That’s kind of mind-boggling. In China, there is a huge cultural renaissance and they’re very interested in technology and how technology applies to culture. And as you know, the sector is ripe for digital transformation, as we’ve been talking about today.

So … sorry, I’m just going to go back one. So in the year one programme, we had 10 teams which we selected through an applications process and we set challenges they had to answer in order to apply. That comprised 37 entrepreneurs in total, four paid interns and eight unpaid, 27 external mentors and investors, 10 dedicated Te Papa mentors as, I guess subject matter experts, talking to the teams, and we also ran events that meant that there was input into those teams from 17 New Zealand museums and galleries, and 15 international museums.

Why are we doing this? Well, ‘why’ goes to the heart of the talk’s topic, which is, you know, Challenging Expectations on the Role of the Museums, and there are a few answers to why. I’m just going to get my notes in order. First up is, ‘Pushing the boundaries of what a museum and gallery can be.’ The first big ‘why’ is, it’s in our DNA. In articulating a new strategic narrative for Te Papa over the last year, we’ve re-embraced the institution we are. Elaine Gurian visited Te Papa last week before coming here to deliver her keynote, and she was a senior consultant to Te Papa for the opening of Te Papa 20 years ago and as they went about developing a new museum; and she observed to the Leadership Team last week, the bravery of Te Papa’s leadership at the time. Actually, she said, “They didn’t know enough to be afraid,” and with that bravery, or perhaps foolhardiness, the team at the time armed with the appropriate tools, which were sort of project management and financial training, and a diversity of expertise, not just museology, they went on to deliver a new and groundbreaking model of bicultural museology that was a participatory way of looking at things. And in Mahuki, Te Papa has again gone out on a limb, but we did that 20 years ago. To reap the rewards of innovation, you also have to be prepared to take risks and, you know, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Second big reason why we took this path is that under Te Papa’s Act, as well as fulfilling our role to collect and understand the past and present and enrich the present, which speaks to collections, research and exhibitions, we also have an opportunity and a mandate to meet the challenges of the future. And the future is emergent. It gets generated, it gets created by people. It involves dialogue and collaboration, and there’s no one possible outcome. There could be many outcomes. We are all looking at ways in which to generate interactions with the public on important notions, in which those publics get to participate in the answer.

Some of you may have seen this before, and I know Andrew McIntyre from MHM is here to talk about this. It’s the Spectrum of Audience Engagement, and MHM developed that, I think, in their work with the Western Australian Museum. It’s been enthusiastically adopted at Te Papa and is an excellent distillation of what we’ve always seen as our mission, not just to deliver and inform, which I guess is that kind of one to many one-way communication models of a museum, but to involve and empower our communities. And this is important also as we are going into a period of exhibition renewal right now. Mahuki has been about empowering the creative sector, businesses and start-up community around us, opening up what we hold and what we know to them, so that they can create better products that are more fit for purpose for our audiences right now and for us and for our sector and, as a result, create a sustainable business for them. It’s an ecosystem of mutual benefit.

Meeting the challenges of the future, we’ve considered other factors too, economic factors. This slide is actually a shot of Julia Kaganskiy from the New Museums NEW Incubator talking at the National Digital Forum in New Zealand last year. And that statistic she’s got up there on her slide is also true in New Zealand. The government’s educational and business focus and funding focus on science, technology, engineering and maths STEM, which is so incredibly important to us meeting, you know, digital challenges in the future, means that students are actually deselecting from Arts and Humanities degrees. Academics in those areas are losing jobs, some schools are stopping Art as core curriculum subjects, and a recent article I read actually was entitled, ‘Bachelor of Bugger All.’ A loss of Arts and Humanities expertise in our communities is a huge concern to our society, and if we can do our part to actually lift economic opportunity for people working in that space, that is going to be a good thing for New Zealand. We prefer the acronym, STEAM, rather than STEM, where the ‘A’ for ‘Arts’ is where the inclusiveness and the diversity comes through and where technology businesses connect to a higher or human purpose.

Mahuki’s goals, I’ll let you read those, but when we were first getting going, we got out there and we did a lot of market research, not just desk research but actually getting up and truly in start-up style out of the building, and going and talking to lots of people in every corner of the innovation ecosystem in New Zealand. And we were met with a lot of quizzical looks when we first started, particularly from government representatives and other people in our sector. Initially, people didn’t get it. We got questions like, “Why?” and more pointed, “What is a museum doing running an incubator?” and my personal favourite, which was left on a Post-It note at our very first community event. They were right. When we started, we didn’t know what our innovation hub was going to be, not exactly, but we did know that to innovate and to create positive change, to try new things, we needed to find a model in which unknown boundaries could be explored to the benefit of our audiences, in which failure could be allowed, and in which for it to work, the benefits had to flow to all actors, because the people we talked to were quite clear about the fact they were not expecting it to be a one-sided relationship where all the benefit flowed to Te Papa. So when we began, that model was uncertain and we had to form it as we went. And the great thing was, as we tested our ideas and started articulating them better to people, the light would go on in their eyes as they started to get what we were trying to do.

Uncertainty is inherent to innovation. You are traversing uncharted waters. There is no map and you have to feel your way, and you have to scan for and mitigate risk. You’ve got to trust your judgement and proceed anyway, even when others think you’re daft or, in the museum sector perhaps, the worst thing of all, wrong.

Something like Mahuki looks a bit weird in the context of the core business of a museum, and it was interesting, I asked one of our Te Reo Maori writers to give me a little proverb or quote that related to innovation before I came over, and he sent me one that goes, [Foreign Dialogue] which means, ‘The shag will not move from its perch where it stands watching.” And that translates as, ‘Do not risk a certain gain for possibly greater but uncertain advantages.’ And I thought, “No, no, no, we can’t have that.” But actual fact, that is a strategy that has worked until now, until today when change is accelerating to the extent that we actually do have to get off that perch and start experimenting. So, you know, a way to do that is to think in terms of strategic horizons from a business and investment strategy perspective, where we have our current businesses and this is what the digital businesses look like at Te Papa. And we do know and understand that Mahuki and the experiments we run in that space are very much in that, both Horizon Two and Horizon Three, and success is not guaranteed. All we can do is set up the conditions such that it makes it most likely they will.

Why go to all this bother when there’s so much risk, reputation risk and financial risk and execution risk? Well, the answer is change. Change happens with us and because of us, but it also happens without us, and if we don’t lead change, it can lead us. Here are just some of the change that’s happening around us, and I’m sure everybody will touch on more of this as the conference proceeds. This is a long and incomplete list, and all of it relates to technology and the possibilities for people that result from that technology. Much of it is relevant for museums.

And because of all of that, complexity is increasing, and most organisations, including museums, simply can’t go it alone any more with finite resources, and the reality is there’s so much complexity and meeting people’s needs for timing is a relevance now that we have to get to grips with collaboration, and partner with others in our communities who have different expertise from us. Collaboration is the only sustainable way to deal with the complexity. Mahuki is one of Te Papa’s methods of doing this and doing so in a way that’s sustainable within our resources and, importantly, is also sustainable for our collaborators.

A third big reason we chose this route is because under Te Papa’s Act, we also have an obligation to support and assist the rest of the New Zealand culture sector, and what does appropriate support look like for often pre-digital institutions with very small budgets in a post-digital world? And when we ourselves are grappling with what it means to be digital, it’s no small task. So by investing in lifting the capability of our business community, 10 teams at a time, who are interested in grasping culture sector challenges and opportunities, over time we will lift the capability of the New Zealand culture sector itself. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long game, but museums are quite good at long games.

Getting a bit more into the ‘what.’ Vision is fine, but “without execution it’s hallucination.” It’s nice quote from Thomas Edison. Even though we were feeling our way, the success, or what we feel is the success of the year one programme didn’t happen by accident. We worked at what was in our control to make the conditions as right as possible. I mentioned we talked to a lot of people, so we really knew our onions as we were developing the model. We considered different models for innovation and, you know, Paul has given you a very good overview of how it works when you have an internal innovation team. Having determined the scope and goals of the programme, we also sought legal opinions on, you know, whether we had the power to do what we wanted to do under our Act, and further commercial and legal advice on how the commercial arrangements with the teams would work. We established an advisory board of people who had run these kind of programmes before and other interested and experienced people in the space. We recruited from outside the culture sector for someone with experience running start-up incubators. Our GM, Tui Te Hau, who’s there on the right. And we built dedicated space for this to happen. It’s a lab, everything’s configurable and movable and we can use that space in different ways. We designed a great programme and we gave it appropriate funding.

In terms of the programme – and I see we’ve invented a new type of entrepreneur there, ‘entrepreneur’ – the middle column there is the main acceleration part of the programme and the teams come in for four months and they have a very intense and structured time as they work through their ideas or opportunities. But we also grow a pipeline and increase the impact of what we’re doing by running outreach events. We do a lot with tertiary institutions, we give them live briefs, we’re sort of, you know, growing the capacity early so that you end up with teams each year who are ready to apply. And we will run a graduate programme afterwards where, once they’re out, we’re still supporting them and hooking them up with opportunity. These are the teams. We included, not only … there were seven spots for teams where they really did need to be growing a sustainable business. We also included a spot for a Maori team, a spot for a student team, and a spot for a social enterprise. And that diversity has been a key part of motivating principle for the incubator.

Early results – we had one fast fail in the process, which was a great result. Nine teams pitched at an incredible showcase just before Christmas last year. They all received initial investor interest and they are now pitching to Angel HQ soon, and Te Papa exercised its equity option in all nine teams. We didn’t have to, it was an option for equity so that we could sort of check them out first. And in terms of deployment, six of the nine finishing teams are trialling or piloting technologies with us, including some of the ones we’ve got up there. Game Lab, for instance, is a company that has a platform called Gamefroot, which is all about applying game-based learning which is being deployed in Te Papa’s new Learning Lab, Hinatore. So we’re in an exciting space and, you know, it’s by no means over yet. We are crafting what year two will look like, we still need to run the graduate programme, we don’t know where they will be in the next year or two, and that’s part of having to stay the course without knowing exactly where we’re going.

So I’ll finish up with a reflection on risk, and on the behavioural psychology aspects of risk, actually. A person’s attitude to risk is often called a risk appetite, but, in fact, risk tolerance or risk attitude is often more appropriate. People tend to feel higher risk aversion when they’re outside of their comfort zone, and when you’re innovating or doing something new or different you’re almost always out of your comfort zone. Or, at least, the business is and those responsible for governing, because risk is often interpreted as something to be avoided rather than something to be worked through with eyes open.

If we think about failure, not as the worst possible outcome but as a first attempt in learning, and if we adopt a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset, both as individuals performing our roles and as organisations, then we begin to solve problems differently and in ways that are more generative and open to opportunity. And we don’t just stick to what we know, we try new things. And an ability to create an engine to try new things is becoming more urgent with all of the change happening around us, and this has been one of Te Papa’s strengths since the beginning.

Melissa Firth asked how can a museum work with entrepreneurs at MuseumNext Australia in February 2017. If you enjoyed this presentation, you might be interested in this article highlighting ten startups disrupting the museum sector.

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