Organizational Change: Reimagining Exhibition Development - by Lisa Leblanc
The Canadian Museum of History recently undertook a major organizational change to meet visitor needs and expectations, and the demands of an increasingly fast-paced and integrated workplace. Like many large museums, the existing working culture at the CMC reflected an earlier project development model which consisted of divisional silos mandated to deliver specific products. This structure, when coupled with heavy processes, was increasingly hindering our nimbleness to develop new ideas and obstructing successful inter-disciplinary collaboration.
To allow us to deliver a more innovative and integrated visitor experience, we struck a working group of cross-divisional staff to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of the existing Exhibition Development process. The team, led by myself and Bill Moore, worked with a local consultant and interviewed 70 colleagues across the museum, evaluated their 169 improvement recommendations, to propose a new Visitor Experience Development process for the museum. The new approach attempts to create a quicker and more agile process; to clarify team, and team member roles and responsibilities; to manage project scope, and scope creep; to diversify and change the look and feel of our experiences; and to consider the complete visitor experience for each idea or theme.
Key to this new process was an organizational change, implemented this past April, that eliminated divisions structured by product (programs, exhibitions, etc.), and realigned them by function and area of expertise. In this new structure, five operational directors now share planning, development, and operational oversight for most of the Museum’s visitor experience, and are now responsible for considering all projects, priorities, and resource allocation.
Over the next few years we will detail the Visitor Experience Development process proposed by the working group, and apply its principles to the planning and development of projects, on and off-site. Outlined in the article are some of the key principles that informed the new process and organizational structure. Some are conceptual ideas that have yet to be tested; others have begun to be implemented.
Planning Strategically and Providing Direction
The overall planning function will now be shared by all operational directors, working closely with Planning Officers that report to the Director-General. This group oversees the visitor experience across the Museum, to ensure that resources are well-allocated, and that planning calendars are balanced. They are responsible for drafting a Management Intention document that provides project teams with direction regarding project scope, strategic importance, resource allocation, location, and calendar placement. The purpose of the Management Intention document is to act as a contract between management and project teams, to ensure that projects are developed within institutional priorities and parametres.
An interdisciplinary group, led by a Creative Developer, explores ideas or themes through the Imagination Phase. This phase can occur before or after the drafting of Management Intentions: in the first instance, to allow the full exploration and potential of an idea, and to consider the complete visitor experience, early in the process, to better inform planning and priorities; or in the latter, to fully explore the actual development of a project, and to seek out the best method to communicate messages and objectives. The imagination group can include internal staff – curators, learning specialists, web and media specialists, scenographers, collections and conservation specialists; or external, specialized resources or consultants. The purpose is to allow specialists to contribute, early in the process, on an idea’s potential, and to create institutional buy-in for its success. This early phase also allows for divisions across the Museum to plan for future projects together, and to maximize and allocate resources accordingly.
Sharing Visitor Focus
The new Visitor Experience Development process intends to place the visitor is at the centre of all our project planning. Visitor advocacy will no longer be the sole domain of interpretation, visitor studies or programs, but the responsibility of everyone across the Museum. The collaborative and inclusive Imagination Phase provides the Creative Developer with multi-disciplinary input and insight to assist in the preparation of an overall Experience Plan. This plan provides project teams with a road map based on the direction set forth in the Management Intention document. Once completed, an Experience Plan allows the Creative Developer to step back from detailed development and fabrication, and to relinquish visitor advocacy to the other project team members including the Project Manager, Curator, Scenographer, Media, and Learning Specialists. The Creative Developer continues, however, to provide periodic oversight throughout development and fabrication, and is responsible for ensuring that the plan is respected, or modified as required.
Delivering across multiple-platforms
To manage, maximize, and prioritize project scope, the new Visitor Experience Development process privileges planning that considers the potential or possibility of delivery across multiple platforms. This approach intends to eliminate piecemeal project planning and development to privilege broader thinking at the Imagination Phase to ensure that project scope is defined, planned and managed from the outset. The potential to develop multi-platform projects will allow the museum to reduce the duplication of work, to ensure a coherent visitor experience, and to manage project scope. This further allows the Museum to ensure that projects are positioned, developed, and disseminated according to strategic priorities, and that these receive appropriate resource investment and allocation.
We are now working together to implement the new process, and, as we set out to transform our working culture to embrace the potential of our new approach, we ask ourselves a number of questions. Will this change provide the nimbleness and innovation we are seeking? Will teams be able to move away from old processes to embrace the uncertainty of a new one and find potential efficiencies along the way? And perhaps most importantly, will these changes have a significant and positive impact on the visitor? While it may take years to fully complete this transition, and certainly to measure its impact on visitors, we hope to ensure that the agility we seek is not just in this new process, but in having the willingness to try, assess and adjust it as we learn from its implementation.
Lisa Leblanc - Director of Creative Development and Learning, Canadian Museum of History