Honestly, this report confused me a bit.
I picked it up because I thought it would be about economic impact and the creative sector. It wasn't.
Then, the first half (the findings), had me prepared to write a review all about, essentially, the death of the chamber of commerce (and implications for communities and even museums, if you bear with me).
But then the second half (case studies) focused on two museum-type organizations that were doing great community work, really serving as creative hubs and putting the findings into practice.
I'm not sure I can totally reconcile the two, as my responses are so different. But here goes.
Note: this report focuses on Creative Hubs in the United Kingdom.
Part 1: The Findings
Fundamentally, how do communities support creativity, individual entrepreneurship, and thinking? How do they provide infrastructure, resources, nuts-and-bolts advice, and places for what the authors called "structured serendipity" and "curating happenstance" (two phrases I love, by the way; I sometimes see those ideas coming from museum-goers in my research as well).
This report focused on "creative hubs" as relatively new, loose organizations that address those needs, as places that bring together "diverse talents, disciplines, and skills to intensify innovation … places that provide a space for work, participation, and consumption" (p. 7). They are physical places and/or networks, but essentially small communities that incubate small businesses, help grow creative industries, and make places better.
In the UK, three emerging factors contributed to the development of hubs:
As I read these findings, however, I kept thinking about chambers of commerce. In a way, these creative hubs are becoming a nimble, flexible, relevant 21st-century chamber of commerce. Let me explain (and I'll bring in a museum hook).
When I worked within museums, I found the local chamber of commerce to be only somewhat useful. In the 11+ years I've been an audience researcher, I have found them completely irrelevant. Local chambers have failed me … and I suspect a lot of others. They feel creaky and stuck in the 80s, to be honest. Yet the creative hubs described in this report are very appealing to me.
So if I were to create the 21st-century chamber of commerce, it would actually look a lot like these creative hubs. Dynamic co-working spaces with innovative programs to stimulate the mind, creativity, and innovation. Maker spaces and pots of tea. Meaningful social programming that helps me, and others, tackle community issues. Practical services that help me deal with the nuts-and-bolts of running my practice, so I can focus on the things that matter. I don't want to go to a "mixer" to network, but I do want to be in a mutually supportive environment. And I suspect there is a growing need for that environment that goes right back to those labor market and industry shifts the UK, and the US, is experiencing.
I also think museums can be a vital part of new creative hubs in the US. The intellectual stimulation, the creative and technical inspiration, are all things that museums can excel at. Additionally, my data and research keeps reinforcing that community engagement and museums are deeply intertwined, so these creative hubs can be beneficial to museums. And museums can better support their community. And museums can actually be these creative hubs.
Which brings me to the case studies.
Part 2: The Case Studies
After I read the findings part of this report, I was tempted to just barely scan the case studies and set the report aside.
That didn't happen.
The first main case study was for the Site Gallery in Sheffield. And to be honest, the programming is what I would expect of any community-focused art museum, from classes to exhibits to lectures to teen programs (such as those that Mary Ellen Munley has studied in her excellent Room to Rise).
What was most interesting, however, was seeing its programming discussed by non-museum researchers, using language that clearly values the types of outcomes and impacts that I hear from museum-goers in my work. The ability of museums (in this case, art) to connect. Transform. Relax. Escape. Create. A potent reminder that these are important outcomes that we need to try to measure, even when it's hard. And that these outcomes matter.
For the Site Gallery, it meant deep integration with their community: Sheffield. Nimble, savvy thinking, and responding to needs … in ways only they could. The story was similar for Birmingham Open Media. Interestingly, however, the third case study, FuseBox in Brighton, was more of the new chamber of commerce model that the first part of the report had me envisioning.
Read or skip? This is actually hard to answer. Reading the findings, I would have said a "skip, I've got this covered for you." But I did an about-face when two of the three main case studies described organizations that look a lot like art museums (and, to be honest, there is no reason a science center or history museum couldn't do likewise).
So if your community is crying out for a creative hub, and you want to deeply integrate your museum in your community … read this. It could give you the inspiration to pursue this for your community, in ways that your community needs and that further your missions.
If all of this sounds nice, but nothing else. Then skip. It isn't for you and your museum.
Full citation: "Creative Hubs: Understanding the New Economy." Research report published by the British Council and City University of London. Released 2016.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
Why I picked it up: Paying for news. What on earth does that have to do with museums? And membership? Bear with me. Since museum members often purchase membership for the benefits … the product … it is a lot like purchasing a subscription. If the content isn't there, they won't join or renew. I suspect there may be takeaways for museum membership programs. So I dug into the American Press Institute's report.
Note: I did not focus on where they go to find news (especially the digital vs. print argument), but instead on why people do (or do not) commit to a subscription.
What you need to know: News subscribers are paying for (and renewing for) quality content. Poor content = low retention rates. Thus, if your museum membership program has low retention rates, the problem is likely your content, not your membership program. (Or, if a children's museum, they really did age out … but children's museums should still be seeing renewals while children are young.)
The Nitty Gritty: First, take these numbers with a grain of salt, as I think they skew rather high (for why, see below for my rambling note on data source/methodology). That being said …
The researchers divided their sample into three rough categories:
While rates of museum membership and visitation are nothing like this, I think we can draw conclusions if we think of members as "subscribers," casual visitors as "news seekers," and non-visitors as "bumpers." For this purpose, however, we should also mentally think of that potential fourth category, perhaps the "disengaged," which would likely be a third-to-half of a sample and include individuals who just never think about museums at all. (Sorry to discourage you, but better to be realistic.)
First, the subscribers. What motivates them? Primarily, a belief that the news is important to be an informed, better citizen. These words, as well as their cousin "knowledgeable," come up a fair amount in my research when I ask museum-goers why they visit museums. So a parallel is there (even if more people find the news more useful to this outcome than museums).
Additionally, a fair number of news subscribers want to support quality journalism … particularly younger adults as a third of subscribers under 50 cited this (versus only a quarter of those 50 or older).
When it comes to what news organizations they support, there are three reasons (in descending order):
Essentially confirming the last point, they found that the majority of subscribers felt that the news was a good value, and that "the value people put on the news they pay for is a reflection of attitude, not other attributes." I agree, and I suspect museum members do too … dropping membership when it is no longer producing that same value for them or their families.
And then there is sharing the news. This was interesting.
Younger adults subscribers are more likely to feel that being informed gives them something to discuss with family and friends, both in real life and on social media. To be honest, aside from the in-museum experience, we don't spend a whole lot of time focusing on this in museums. How do museum visitors talk about their visits with others in their daily lives?
For this study, however, the research shed more light on social media patterns. News subscribers (of all ages) are more likely to share news content. This makes sense on a few levels:
They went on to say:
"So contrary to discounting social media as part of a subscription strategy, the opposite may be true. Engaging with one’s most loyal consumers on social media, the data suggests, is an important way of expanding one’s audience by having loyal users share and endorse a publisher’s content. In effect, publications should work hard to empower their subscribers on social media to become their ambassadors and marketers."
I suspect the above is true for museum members (which suggests prioritizing content-driven social media in shareable ways is a good priority to have … but you probably already knew that).
Now, the non-subscribers. Bottom line, the news isn't as important to them. Some seek out free sources (and don't feel a need to pay because they can find enough for free to suit their needs). Others don't seek it out at all (and I think this is a bigger percentage of the population than the research suggests, see my rambling note on data source/methodology for why).
To some degree, age also matters, with non-subscribers 18 - 34 twice as likely as those 65 and older to say they are not interested in the news (I wouldn't have categorized these as "bumpers," but as the "disengaged").
But those "bumpers …." what does interest them? My read of the data is that content that is about them. They are far less interested in national or international news, but compared with news seekers they are more interested in news about their hobbies, lifestyle, and interests. A representation of narrower, more personal interests that I see in my research as well, especially in terms of more extrinsic learning motivations and lower levels of engagement with the world among those who don't visit museums at all (or only very rarely). Reaching them, when it comes to the news, seems to be primarily by word-of-mouth, and I bet it is no different when it comes to museums and those with limited intrinsic motivations to learn.
Implications: The report makes the case for specialization and expertise. That providing great content is key to engaging the audience … and making them subscribers. This brings a few thoughts to mind:
Read or skip? Skip. I covered what you need.
A rambling note on data source/methodology: API partnered with the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. A very reputable source for research and top-notch methodology.
That being said, there are two things to keep in mind.
Full citation: American Press Institute. "Paying for News: Why people subscribe and what it says about the future of journalism." Published May 2, 2017.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
Big question for museums: What happens when some of the key values we hold dear … community, empathy, understanding … are considered old-fashioned relics among the broader population?
Why I picked it up: I like David Brooks. I don't agree with him on everything (especially politics), but I understand why he has those viewpoints because he is rational. This book, however, isn't political at all, but instead an assessment of society shifts that are rather insightful. I didn't approach this book as a "museum" book, but I did wonder if he had any takeaways that matter to museums
So … does he have takeaways for museums? Short answer, yes. Though you have to hunt for them.
Overall premise of book: Brooks begins by talking about "resume virtues," such as skills for careers and external success, versus "eulogy virtues," which are about character and relationships. In our society, he suggests we are overly focused on the resume virtues, and that it has been at the expense of the eulogy virtues. The results has been a "slip into self-satisfied moral mediocrity."
The shift has taken place largely in post-WWII America, with a mindset that has gone from "nobody's better than me, but I'm no better than anyone else" to "I'm pretty special."
How? He blames the Greatest Generation, which gave us rampant consumerism, a new ethos of the self, and the self-esteem movement. Now, he acknowledges that these are not all bad things (the self-esteem movement helped many people, for example), but it has played out in ways that has swung the pendulum too far towards narcissism, a desire for fame, and individualism at the expense of common good. This also leads to entrenched opinions and attitudes and an inability to acknowledge when we are wrong (does this sound familiar in today's society?).
We need to rebalance. To gain humility. An old-fashioned concept that is his recurring theme.
But what does that mean to him? Brooks takes issue with the idea that individuals should find themselves, follow their passions, set personal goals, and figure out how to get there. That is the life map of the individually autonomous. Reality requires something different. Instead, he suggests that we allow our life and experience to guide us to work to solve problems and needs. It is a shifting of personal mission from furthering oneself to finding a vocation. A vocation isn't chosen, like a career, but answering a call. Stumbling upon a need and being uniquely capable of serving it.
My museum take: When Brooks talks about finding a vocation, and serving it, lights were going off in my head for museums. I don't use these words when I advise museum boards and staffs, but the message is the same. Museums should not be striving to fulfill institutional goals because they simply can. Their work has to mean something to audiences. Otherwise it is going to spin wheels, not drive impact. How do museums find their vocation by applying their strengths to fulfill needs that real people have in real life?
But Brooks's message also resonated personally, in my own career. I never set out to be the museum-audience-data researcher/source/guru. I answered a calling that I saw when I was a museum director myself. And here is where I think the true message of the book lies. Serving a calling doesn't mean doing something that, individually, we hate. It means taking what we enjoy, want to do, and are good at, and matching it and growing it to meet society's needs. It's something I, in retrospect, did. And it is something that I will strive to inculcate in my own children.
So what is the role of museums in helping develop individual interests in a way that is balanced by our ability to develop cognitive empathy, understanding, and the broadening of minds? How do we help the individual reconcile their own desires with the common good? Is that a role that, as a field, museums should play? I'd argue yes, as museums already play a formative role for avid museum-goers.
In the book, Brooks underscores the need for this reconciliation of individual desires and common good when he examines Google ngrams (which measure word usage over time across media and publication dates). Since the beginning of the 20th century, words like "community," "character," "gratitude," and "kindness" have dropped dramatically.
What struck me was that these words, which apparently are old-school since their usage has dropped so precipitously, are that they are ideas that we talk about in our work a lot. Especially community. But character, gratitude, and kindness are similar to empathy and understanding, two other words we are increasingly using to describe our work. In a world that focuses so much on the self, do these forces of humility, of intrinsic kindness, that we embrace make us a relic to those who are more extrinsically motivated in their lives?
When we talk about community and understanding, does it basically make most people check out? If so, how do we work towards it without articulating it? To drive change that isn't asked for but we believe is right as it leads to humility, kindness, and a better society? What would that look like? Why would people care about it? How can we do it more effectively?
And how depressing is it that we, as a society, don't talk about kindness anymore?
Read or skip? It depends. If you want a book that is hugely applicable for museums, skip. I think I pulled that out for you. But if you want a well-written, deeply thoughtful (and non-political) book about values, morality, and American society, yes, read it. I enjoyed it. (BTW, the bulk of the book is a series of mini-biographies of individuals who exemplified different eulogy virtues. 300+ pages of pontificating on values would have been unreadable. The biographies made it human.)
Full citation: Brooks, David. The Road to Character. New York: Random House, 2015.