Plan A and The Year of Living Experimentally

After a very long winter (we just had a snow storm that was almost six months to the day after the first snow of the season), there are birds chirping, daffodils blooming,  and it’s finally starting to seem like spring might actually come. Which can only mean one thing.


Actually, it means two things, because with budgets comes planning, and planning is the exciting part of budgeting, even if you have to make two plans for everything (the with and without funding plans). This year I wanted to try making a small change to the process: flip Plan A and Plan B.

Often, Plan A is With This Many Dollars We’re Going To Do This Awesome Program/Project, and Plan B is With Fewer Dollars We’re Going To Do What Could Have Been An Awesome Program/Project, But Is Now Going To Be Less Awesome By The Power Of X, In Which X Is Correlated To The Size Of The Cut In The Budget. (Or sometimes Plan B is With No Dollars We’re Going To Weep Mightily At The Funeral Of The Awesome Program/Project That Never Had A Chance To Live). So this year we’re going to try starting with what we can do without funding. Here’s what I’m hoping will happen:

We’ll devise Plan As that are Awesome Programs and Projects, and Plan Bs that will expand the awesomeness of the Plan As through the wonders of funding for things like printing and supplies and outside services. And when our final budget is in place we’ll have funding for some (dare I even hope for many?) of the programs/projects, but because we started from unfunded awesomeness, all will be awesome.

Okay, that maybe isn’t exactly what will happen, but having experienced budgeting at a variety of institutions (the thrill of victory! the agony of defeat!), I wondered if a turn of mind would have an impact both on the experience and on the plans that come out of it. Necessity is the mother of invention, right?

Interestingly, something has come out of it. We’ve started thinking about what to do in the next fiscal year and the big things that have bubbled up have been experimenting and evaluating. Which is not to say that neither of these were part of what we were doing before– they definitely were– but rather that one of the big themes for the year will be iterative experimentation– including documenting what we tried, how it worked (or didn’t), and what we learned.

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Welcome to The Year of Living Experimentally.


Stories was everything

“Everybody told stories. It was a way of saying who they were in the world. It was their understanding of themselves. It was lettin’ themselves know how they believed the world worked, the right way and the way that was not so right.”*

I come from a family of storytellers. Most people do– we all have those family legends that are brought out at the holidays, when all the cousins get together, and someone retells the time when Uncle Bob was a boy and his father convinced him that he could read Bob’s mind, or when Cousin Gina found the pies that were going to the bake sale and stuck her fingers in all of them. My family has stories, too (ghosts in the pipes, death narrowly averted at the circus, motorcycle accidents, angry nuns), but the craft of storytelling in our house is as valued as the content.

My grandfather was a champion storyteller. He could turn the most quotidian trip to the grocery store into an epic comedy of errors. His descriptions of the characters in his stories had the sharp efficiency of a Toulouse-Lautrec poster, capturing the essence of the person in a few quick but amazingly precise strokes.


I didn’t quite realize how extraordinary his talent was for a long time– not until I’d heard a whole lot of stories told by a whole lot of people.

I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately. I think a lot of what we do at museums is tell stories. It seems pretty obvious–isn’t it also how humans make sense of the world, taking the information we have and figuring out what part is the beginning, what part the middle, and what part the end? But it isn’t always called storytelling in museums. “Stories” and “storytelling” (if used) often seem connected with programming for children, or for programming that is thought of as lighter fare. Instead, I often hear “content,” “narratives,” and “didactics,” but less often the word story.

There are lots of ways to connect with art. Sometimes I look at a work of art in a museum and am focused on wanting to know who made it, when, where, for whom (just the facts, ma’am). But sometimes I wonder what it would be like to hear the story of the piece– its provenance, the people being depicted, the biography of the person who made it– if my grandfather had gotten a hold of it. Certainly, he would have told a story. It isn’t the only way to connect to a work of art, but in talking with friends, family, visitors, kids, adults, volunteers, something that I often hear is “what’s the story?” So I’m curious to know why it is a word that (in my experience) isn’t used as often. I wonder if it is the connection to childhood (bedtime stories), or that the word story might imply a fictive element, or something else entirely. But I also wonder if the aversion to using the word story also sometimes has an effect on the ways in which we engage with art, with visitors, with our work at the place where the joyful experience of hearing a good story, told well, lives.



*The clip is from the film Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, from the section of the film featuring novelist Harry Crews.

Thinking about (Design) Thinking, Part 1

For the last year or so design thinking has been stalking me. (There are lots of images showing the design thinking process. I found this one here).


I keep ending up in meetings and discussions where someone says we should try using it for a project. I hear it talked about at conferences, and recently saw a presentation in which graduate students showed proposed museum projects devised through a design thinking process. In the last few months I’ve been involved in two attempts to actually use design thinking. In the first case it seemed like a process with quite a bit of potential, but because of the circumstances it ended up being rather truncated. It was an all day workshop and we got to the Ideate stage and then the day ended. Taking it beyond that stage wasn’t part of the plan for the day, but there also wasn’t a plan for taking the imagined projects back into our regular work. Talking through the process was exciting in the day, but as weeks and then months passed and the ideas stayed in the corner, rolled up on giant post it notes, the process began to feel a lot less magical than it did when we were idea-ating months earlier.

The second experience was more recent and was disappointing, even frustrating. Like the first experience, we didn’t get past the ideate stage. Unlike the first time around, those of us who participated had the distinct impression that the organizers had scheduled the day with the ideas that would be going to the prototype stage already identified before the rest of us had begun. We split into groups, and each group came up with a slate of ideas, which were presented to the somewhat glazed over expressions of the organizers. They complimented everyone on how fantastic and creative the day had been, but when the project moved to the prototype stage it incorporated none of the ideas any of the groups had come up with.*

Although one of these encounters with design thinking felt exciting and full of potential, while the other one felt disingenuous, the two experiences were, ultimately, surprisingly similar. In neither case did we get past coming up with ideas. In neither case was there a plan for bringing ideas to the prototyping or testing stages. In neither case was the problem design thinking as a process itself, but instead perhaps an incomplete commitment to the process. And so in both cases a lot of energy was spent on coming up with ideas that never had a chance at being more than ideas. Ideas will only get you so far.


Ideas that aren’t taken out for a test drive are pretty easy to come by (at least I find them to be thick on the ground in my work), and some of them you realize (perhaps even as you’re coming up with them) don’t really deserve a second look in the cold light of day. But some (or many) of them just might work. There’s only a couple of ways to find out if they do: 1) try them out and see if it works; 2) wait for someone else to come up with the idea and try it out to see if it works for them.

I’m pretty sure one of these is more satisfying than the other.

*Since then the idea one group had come up with appeared as a major component of another organization’s project. It’s been very popular (for them).