In the tough world of circuses, Cirque du Soleil became the world’s largest theatrical producer because after a rough start in the 80s, they redefined what it means to be a contemporary circus. To ensure their long-term success and sustainability, they identified their unique strengths and got rid of expensive and hard-to-maintain elements of a traditional circus (such as animals). It is still a circus, but a circus uniquely suitable for today.
Airlines such as SouthWest and EasyJet did the same thing when they pioneered low-cost flying. By getting rid off unsustainable elements and emphasising their core business, they redefined air travel, and what it means to be a carrier.
In September 2016 I was asked for a lecture and workshop in Helsinki to redefine what it means to be a museum today. My belief is that a modern museum (any modern organisation) is not a fixed, static thing, but rather a dynamic collective of people and ideas, that mixes approaches to ensure meaningful engagement with its audiences. In Helsinki, I called this “the Freestyle museum”, which is just one label. As my business partner Erik Schilp says, ‘there is not A museum of the future’, not one template.
A wonderful example of such a museum is the Street Art Museum of Amsterdam. It is a dynamic organisation that uses the neighbourhood it is in as its exhibition space, works together with local communities and does not have a traditional building (see my vlog to get a sense of the museum). Their approach begs the question: Is the Street Art Museum of Amsterdam actually a museum?
The simple answer: yes!. Although it doesn’t look museum-y if you compare it to a classical museum, when you look at ICOM’s definition of a museum, it ticks all the boxes. The Street Art Museum of Amsterdam may have unconventional approaches, but without a doubt it’s a museum.
What I did in Helsinki when asked to redefine museums, in preparation and live on stage, was take the full deck of strategy cards from Cards for Culture. Together these 64 cards describe everything a museum does and can do. One by one, I picked a card and challenged its importance to defining a museum. “Are you still a museum if you take away (the traditional approach) to education, to online, to politics…?” It is a difficult exercise. The answers aren’t a simple yes or no. And the answers are not universal. One museum will excel without a building, another will disappear.
This January, we launched the 2017 update of Cards for Culture – Museum Edition. When we launched this tool for playful strategy development in 2016, it’s approach to what a museum is and can be, was already broad. I believe the updated version takes this even further. The 16 new trends and 16 new inspiration cards (including the Street Art Museum of Amsterdam, but also a parade, a shop, a bicycle tour, and much more) show the diversity of ideas about the future of institutions. It also helps you define your own unique approach to the future.
I’d encourage you to buy, borrow or steal a box (or use your own understanding of what a museum is and can be), and define your own answer to what a museum is and can be. If you found your unique answer, I’d love to hear about it, for a video on my YouTube channel or simple to know about more case studies. Thanks in advance.