As with any field, the museum world has seen trends come and go with the requisite buzzwords to follow. However, in some cases, ideas that start as trends can evolve into lasting phenomena. Since I entered the field (circa 2005—my first museum internship), museums and collaboration has progressed from buzzword to industry tenet.
I remember a meeting in 2008 where several of my colleagues griped that “collaboration” and “sustainability” were trends that funders wanted to see now, and argued that those same principles would be out the following year. Actually, both collaboration and sustainability are here to stay—though that doesn’t mean we’ve mastered either principle yet.
What Does Museum Collaboration Mean?
Collaboration within the museum world typically means that a museum has partnered with at least one other museum or outside organization to develop a product—such as creating a traveling exhibit or working on a digital project.
Collaboration Done Wrong
Collaboration is a desirable feature in museum planning, projects, and funding proposals. But there is a fair amount of work that goes into formulating and implementing effective collaborative elements. I’ve seen museums sprinkle collaboration in as a decorative, superficial element that renders the collaboration fairly pointless. And I’ve seen museums take on huge partnerships with collaborative elements that weigh down the project, or worse, are impossible to successfully complete.
Museum Collaboration Done Right
Collaboration is a tool. If it’s wielded appropriately for the right task then the tool can be quite effective. Museums are the most successful at collaborating effectively when they are thoughtful in why they wish to include a collaborative element, and purposeful in how they include it. Collaboration done right is when the museum states its intention to collaborate during the planning phase and follows these six steps to collaborate effectively.
How to Collaborate Effectively
- Identify a program, project, or funding proposal that could benefit from collaboration.
- Invite potential partners to a meeting to discuss the collaboration details.
- Once partners have committed to the collaborative work establish responsibilities, timelines, and deliverables.
- Review what each partner is bringing to the table and check-in regularly to ensure the partnership is on track.
- Hold meetings at regular intervals to keep communication open and the work moving forward.
- When the work is complete hold a wrap meeting to review what went well, lessons learned, and what’s next.
Strive for Equitable Partnership When Collaborating
Collaboration isn’t easy, and if done right it means that each partner will come to the table to provide something and receive something. There should never be an instance where one museum gives more than the other, nor an instance where a museum receives nothing from the partnership. To the greatest extent possible, museum partners should contribute equal amounts of work or resources, and what is received in return should be proportionate.
The one exception to this is when there is a very large or well-resourced museum partnered with a small, or less-resourced museum. Contributions in this case should be equitable relative to each museum.
What Effective Museum Collaboration Looks Like
Digital projects and funding proposals are two areas that greatly benefit from collaboration. Here are two scenarios to consider:
- You’re in a small town where there are three different heritage and museum sites. Each of you have some resources, but not enough to launch your own digital workspace. If each of you were to set up a digital workspace it would be from scratch and you would need at a minimum: a flatbed scanner (large format), an overhead scanner, a computer, a digital server or cloud storage space, a collections management system, and training. To accomplish this each of you would need to raise at least $10,000 for a total of $30,000. Or, one of you could buy a flatbed scanner, another could purchase the overhead scanner, and you all share the costs of storage space, a collections management system, and training. Now, instead of $30,000, you only need to raise $10,000 collectively.
- Your museum has adopted a new strategic plan that requires you to implement Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion practices. As a result, the museum needs to conduct collection research, explore collection acquisition or loans, hire additional curators, and revamp several exhibits. The museum budget hasn’t increased, so you’re hoping to land a grant to assist with the cost. You know from previous experience that funding agencies encourage (if not require) collaboration so you reach out to your competitor in the next city who shares similar collections. In your collaboration you’re able to augment each other’s collections, share the cost of a visiting curator, and land a grant that will assist with funding for each of your museums to reconstruct the exhibits.
Collaboration has become an essential element as it’s sometimes the only way museum professionals can get things done. While engaging in collaboration takes extra thought and effort, the gains can far outweigh the sacrifices.
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