The Museums-As-Progress Ecosystem
Never survey a plant about its "needs." It'll just talk about things like sunlight and water.
“Quick — What do you call a place where there’s, like, trees, and grass, and sunlight, and the trees block the light, so you have to trim the trees to grow things, and — Ah, I can’t think of the word! It’s like—“
Christie stared back at me. “Crazy?”
A puddle gathered on the living room floor beneath me as I hitched up the towel around my waist. Christie watched it spread, hoping it was shower water.
“It’s like, a landscape, or — An ecosystem!”
I shook off like a dog and ran into the office to draft this letter.
That was last Thursday, and I’ve been thinking about forests, and trees, and gardens ever since.
My thinking has revolved around the MAP Community, which is a place for folks interested in bringing problem-space research to their museums. But I have a hunch there’s something here that you can bring back to your work. And, well, the whole reason I write this newsletter is to find ideas that might resonate with you — not just describe them. It would be boring to just write (and probably for you to read) letters about ideas that are well-worn and neatly packaged.
So, I’ll make things a bit more concrete by way of the community project, and then we’ll see if any of this might relate to your work, dear reader.
A goal for every group
I’ve been working with community members to create a few more community groups.
Groups are like sub-communities that are devoted to a particular goal. I think of groups as planets in the Museums-As-Progress solar system — They revolve around the Problem Space Sun.
Why would we want to create groups within the community?
That’s what I was asking myself last week, and that’s what got me thinking about ecosystems.
Groups are important because they’re opportunities for us to acknowledge and address particular challenges that prevent organizations from prioritizing the problem space.
That is, our purpose within the community is to adopt problem-space thinking and pursue a better understanding of the people we hope to support through problem-space research. But the path to the problem space is littered with obstacles and landmines.
Besides being a pretty foreign thing to many museum folks , problem-space research is less likely to take root in some environments.
And that’s what got me thinking about ecosystems and less-developed human habitats. Let’s wade through some tortured metaphors.
An overgrown canopy
A forest canopy is full of life. A forest isn’t a forest without a canopy. But it can’t drown out all the light or new plants won’t be able to grow.
The light from The Problem Space Sun won’t reach an organization that leaves no room for people to be heard. Decision-making processes and the character of an organization’s culture may undermine an individual’s ability to bring problem-space thinking to their museum.
A facilitation group may help community members address those challenges.
A better way to fish
A fisherman can catch fish with a spear, but if they spend all their time spearfishing, they may never imagine a net.
Problem-space research is also called “futures research” for a reason — PSR helps us uncover unexpected opportunities, but that may be harder to do if we don’t feel we have the time, trust, or permission to imagine.
A futures group makes space for imagination and play.
Vines can be beautiful — The way they wrap around and soften tough bark as they for the light. But left to their own devices, they’ll suffocate the trees.
We need mental shortcuts to get things done efficiently — or get things done at all, really. But shortcuts can also lead to personal biases and unseen prejudices that compound over time into a kind of invisible, toxic armor within an organization. Problem-space research, which invites decision-makers to suspend judgment and accept people’s purposes as valid no matter how unfamiliar, will struggle in that kind of environment.
An inclusion group helps us identify and remain vigilant against those patterns and practices that undermine our (usually good) intentions.
That cave wall isn’t going to paint itself
Wood must be gathered, animals must be skinned, but that cave wall needs painting, too.
We need to do the things that ensure the organization functions — tasks that can feel tedious. But if an individual has taken on the responsibilities of two (or four) staff members that have been laid off, in addition to their usual responsibilities, they may have absolutely no space for creativity. Their spirit is sapped — Again, not fertile ground for problem-space thinking.
The Shipping Crew — a group that already exists in the community — seeks to restore that creative spirit by inviting people to carve out 48 hours to create something together that they never thought possible.
Imagine a plant-person
Think about the people your organization seeks to support.
Imagine that they are plants. (C’mon, this letter is almost over — just work with me here.)
Your people are plants.
What is their sun?
What light are they seeking? In what direction are they growing to find that light today? What shady trees would you need to trim to help them absorb more of that light? What tools might you create to help them capture more of their sun’s energy?
Notice we’re not thinking about your organization’s mission. Try to set aside organizational purpose — for a little while — and consider the ecosystem from the plant’s perspective.
Once you’ve identified their sun and how they’re pursuing that light today, then consider your organization. Is your museum a shady obstacle for them? Is it a sunny windowsill they sit on to absorb the sun’s rays?
Either way, even if we assume the plant considers your museum as a vehicle for sunlight, it is still only one of many ways that the plant can pursue its purpose.
Now, remember that the plant isn’t really even trying to get more sunlight. The sun isn’t the plant’s purpose — growth is the plant’s purpose. The sun is just one tool it relies on for growth.
Where does that leave the museum in our incredibly strained analogy?
Our plant-person is not striving to “engage” with our organization.
It’s not really even striving for sunlight or any other resource — water or oxygen. It’s trying to grow, make progress, or become a better version of itself.
The most an organization can hope for is that it can help people make progress toward some greater goal.
But that’s no small thing.
As always, reply to this email to let me know your thoughts.
Many museums tend to think of their audiences in terms of demographics; The data museums gather is primarily quantitative and is focused on stated preferences; The emphasis is on “engagement”, not progress, and so on. I know there are exceptions, but, in general, I think it’s safe to say museums put their faith in numbers and focus on finding evidence of their impact much more than they prioritize understanding the progress people are seeking. ↩︎
I know — We were supposed to stick with ecosystems. My newsletter, my rules. ↩︎
A little voice in my head is screaming, “We can’t know! We probably don’t even know what their purpose is right now…” Hush, little voice. This is just a thought exercise. ↩︎
Want to make progress applying problem-space research at your organization?
- Subscribe to this newsletter. Paid subscribers can access the full newsletter archive, get subscriber-only letters in their inboxes, and attend subscriber-only events. Some subscribers have left unhappy marriages after subscribing to this newsletter, while others have fallen in love in the hours between receiving one subscribers-only newsletter and another. The point is, you can't prove that the newsletter didn't contribute to those major life events. Those things happened; The newsletter was a part of their lives when they happened. It's 1+1 — simple math, folks. Start a free, three-week trial→
- Join the Museums-As-Progress Community, which is where we're exploring the problem space and museums together. In a sense, the MAP Community is the child of SuperHelpful Letters. Of course, SuperHelpful Letters will live forever, but I'm a superstitious man, so if some unlucky accident should befall this newsletter — if its authors are arrested on trumped up charges or a bolt of lightning should strike an editor — then I would look to the MAP Community, and I would not forgive. But, with that said, I pledge — on the souls of my readers — that I will not be the one to break the peace that we have made today. Start a free trial→
- Or contact me directly.
Sign in or sign up to join the conversation.
Enter your email below to get a log in link.