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Door. Photo by Grant Hutchinson

by • 8 Jun, 2012 • BuildingsComments (1)3270

“How the heck do you leave a building?”

At last week’s Ecsite conference Steven Snyder of the Franklin Institute posed a rather interesting dilemma: If the Franklin Institute wants to achieve its mission of inspiring a passion for learning about technology and science, they need to leave their building. Yet, at the same time they’ve just invested millions in a redevelopment, are seen as a building by their audience and get in most of their revenue because of the building. “How the heck,” to use Steven’s words, in such a case, “do you leave a building?”

In other words: Can outside become your primary side, even if you’ve had a roof over your head for the last n years?

Leaving a building, like leaving anything stable and safe, is all about opening up.

Once there are no more walls to hide behind, you’re really vulnerable and naked. That is incredibly scary and – to most of us – immediately blocks out the potential positive side effects of being in such a position: the need to work together, the renewed curiosity, the increase in serendipity…

A great example of an institution that has managed to leave their building and revived because of it, I think, is the Museum Rotterdam. I’ve written about their The City as Muse project before. The project searches for inspirational developments and initiatives among the people of Rotterdam and tries to connect this with the museum. At the moment they’re working with care givers, doing pop up events around town and (still) involving an audience otherwise alien to the institution.

Museum Rotterdam shows at least five things an institution needs to leave a building.

  1. Time.
  2. Staff who feel comfortable being outside.
  3. Cooperation with uncommon partners.
  4. Openness to new ideas and approaches.
  5. Resources and room for small scale experiments.

Or, in plain English, if you want to leave your building you need to hire curious and streetwise people willing to start unproven experiments together with complete strangers for years, while you maintain and supply them. The Good Thing is one such a curious individual can get a long way on a limited budget.

In the discussion that followed Steven’s question I noticed it’s tempting to think about solutions that make first contact with the audience outside of the walls of your institution, but focus on continuing this relation within the actual building. I see pop-up museums (that seem to pop up everywhere nowadays) as such a phenomena. They’re like movie trailers for an institution; fancy advertising space in – often – not-so-fancy neighbourhoods.

Welcome exceptions to this concept might be those spaces that actually dare to be a fancy advertising space, a destination to go to even when you’ve been to the institution. For instance, &Foam, the concept store of Foam in Amsterdam, is a place I go to regardless of the actual gallery. They are two distinct experiences, which brings me to the sixth point:

6.  An end to thinking about your building as a destination.

I specifically don’t want to address branding in this post, although this is exactly what Foam, as well as many other institutions (most radically, the Guggenheim) do. Branding is a tricky subject about which a lot of people have very strong opinions, and in my opinion has nothing to do with leaving your building. A brand won’t help you leave your building, but leaving your building might help you build a brand.

You don’t need a brand. What you do need to leave a building is confidence in your self. Such confidence does not come from a logo. Instead a strong corporate identity, a compelling mission and – even – the security of a great home base (building) might give you the confidence to go outside. I’m thinking about, for instance, the production park of the Royal Opera House in Thurrock. I’m pretty sure they could not have started such a daring project had they been insecure about the value of their work. Which brings me to the last poin for this post:

7.  Somewhere strong to start from and return to (for instance, your building or mission).

I do think that if you want to leave your building, not everybody should go, and certainly not everybody at once. Remember point 1: time. For an organisation such as the Franklin Institute, firmly rooted in a building, it should not be about ‘leaving’ the building, but about expanding the scope of the institution to include the outside, slowly but surely.

And finally, there’s technology. If you’ve been following this blog or seen me speak you know I’m a big advocate of organisations leaving the safety of their buildings. Usually, the projects that get organisations to do so are technology inspired. Think about the great AR projects from the Netherlands of the last years, UAR and ARtours, or last year’s xwashier.

Digital media and technology such as mobile can help an organisation give its stories, collection and mission a wider reach more easily. Technology, however, will not help you leave your building. Technology helps organisations that have been playing outside to come up with new and innovative projects. All institutions behind the projects above had been focused on the outside before developing their mobile apps.

The technology, just like the brand, is an enabler and it might even be an encouragement, but it’s not a precondition.

“How the heck do you leave a building?” Through the front door, a smart person would say.  For an organisation like the Franklin Institute I very well see it’s not as easy as that. Probably it starts with one person or a small team leaving through the front door to do brave experiments with a variety of local partners. The door will not be closed behind them, though, as they should regularly return and encourage and inspire other to follow their lead, take their experiments to a next level, grow the local network.

I don’t think it’s easy leaving a building. I do think by acknowledging that their mission reached beyond their physical walls the Franklin Institute has taken an important first step. I’m very curious to see where their journey will take them.

Photo by Grant Hutchinson on Flickr.

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  • I’ve been thinking about this a lot following the Walker Art Center presentation at MuseumNext about their new website.

    I felt that this case study was an example of success in leaving the building in a digital sense, creating something which felt like it fulfilled their mission in a way which was separate from the physical location.

    Many people have commented that the Walker Art Center approach to the web is unsustainable because it requires staff to constantly be creating editorial content and is a bit of a beast to keep fresh.

    I can’t remember the exact number of people working on their website, but I seem to remember it being a team of four people, which in the context of an organisation with an annual turnover of $17 million does not seem outlandish.

    The truth is that doing stuff outside of the museum either digitally or physically can be great at fulfilling mission, but museums need to make sacrifice in venue to pay for these and most won’t.

    I look at all the museum websites which are updated a few hours a week by a member of the marketing team (probably in their spare time because half the team have been laid off) and think that these online brochures are such a wasted opportunity, when they could be doing something meaningful online beyond getting more people through the door.

    If we want to go beyond the walls of the institution then museum directors need to rethink their budgets and rethink what success might look like. Most larger institutions could have a four person editorial team putting great content online every day (if that made sense to fulfil their mission), they would just have to make hard decisions elsewhere.