Recently I was reminded of how scary and inspiring collaboration can be; and of how smart, clever, and creative museum educators are! I was co-teaching an AASLH workshop about how history museums can better focus on visitors through engaging programs, exhibits, and interpretation in beautiful Portsmouth, New Hampshire. For one activity, our host site, the Governor John Langdon House, bravely allowed us to use them as a case study for how to rethink or tweak current offerings. In this instance, it was their tour format, which they have been experimenting with for three years.
Opening yourself up for critique and suggestions from your colleagues can be intimidating—but it can also be liberating. After being given an overview of current offerings, demographics, and the honest lowdown on what paid and volunteer staff think about the current tour (all parties were represented and actively participated!), we were given a fantastic tour by longtime volunteer Kathleen Somssich. Afterwards, we split workshop attendees into three groups and gave them 20 minutes to make suggestions for how to tweak or rethink the current tour. When we came back together, I rapidly took notes as attendees rattled off their suggestions. They left no stone unturned and provided feedback on everything from the tour, to signage, to programs, to audience development. While some suggestions between the groups overlapped, others were quite different. Some suggestions would be very easy for Langdon to adopt, while others would challenge them to consider using and/or interpreting the house in an entirely different way. All of the notes are now in the hands of Langdon’s staff to ponder.
Fresh ideas and perspectives from outside your organization can direct and inform change. I’m not saying that those of us who have been at our institutions for a long time can’t have them, but outside perspectives and opinions can provide great inspiration. If you have an exhibit or tour that you and your work group are struggling with, consider inviting some local colleagues over for lunch and some focused brainstorming. I guarantee you that in one afternoon, you will be given suggestions and ideas that you never imagined. This kind of simple collaboration is a win-win for all.