How do you get 44 museums to work together?
Last week I interned with Björn Stenvers, frontman of a collaboration between the museums of Amsterdam, and this was my central question. His answer – as with the joke about the elephants and the Volkswagen – is almost disappointingly simple: you start with one and use keep inviting others to join. If you do this for a couple of years, relentlessly, and use every opportunity you can find to make connections, before you know they’re knocking on your door asking for more opportunities to collaborate.
I met Björn years ago, when he was still head of marketing at the Amsterdam Museum. When we met again last year in Moscow, where I was amazed by the stories he told about collaboration among the museums in Amsterdam. Across 44 museums, departments work together to unify and strengthen their offering. All heads of finance work together, for instance in countering invoice fraud. The museums have joint procurement, coordinate their venue rental centrally, etc. etc.
Such collaboration among 44 museums has considerable impact. For each individual employee in a museum in Amsterdam for instance, it means s/he has over 2,500 colleagues to learn from, borrow from or build upon.
Björn’s recipe to get to this level of coordination is simple:
- Get to know about each other
- Then meet each other
- Bring together questions and answers
- And finally share the successes you achieve together
Initially, Björn used this approach to get people in the Amsterdam Museum to work together, then to involve some smaller institutions and ultimately to bring together 44 museums in his initiative. What I like about Björn’s approach is that it’s both painfully obvious (collaboration has been a buzzword for a long time now), rather straightforward (the strategy isn’t overly complicated) and shows direct results. For example, Björn works wirelessly from as many museums as possible. To simplify this for himself and all other visitors, he encouraged all museums to open up their wifi networks. Small change, big impact.
When I asked Björn why he works so hard to unite the museums of Amsterdam, he stated that collaboration is the path to more independent museums that are better equipped to face the unknown in the years ahead. I like to believe that. As they say in Gladiator, “Whatever comes out of these gates, we have better chance of survival if we work together”.
Currently, in Amsterdam, the collaboration between museums also has its limits. Especially when museums feel they’re competing with each other (for visitors, members, funds) they still seem to prefer to work alone. I believe this assumption is wrong. As came out of the entrepreneurship workshop at MuseumNext: The pool of potential visitors and other resources is big enough to not have to compete with other museums, as long as we dare to let go of some traditional ways of doing business. Working together benefits all areas of museum work.
I would have loved to spend more time with Björn and his team, if not only for the fact that we worked wirelessly from five museums in a day (what a luxury!). Plus he’s full of funny anecdotes from his work around the world. Apart from learning a lot, I had a lot of fun (which is also learning), which – after all – is also a good reason to collaborate with others.
Björn (in front of the mirror) and the people he brought together during my internship.
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