How to Energize and Empower Staff with Creativity (Case Study: 21c Museum Hotel)

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Museum Case Studies August 29, 2016 Featured Image

As we move further into the 21st century, museums are getting more creative about their programs and spaces.  But where is the most effective place to begin your museum’s creative journey?

With your staff!  Museum staff are the key to infusing new life into your museum at all levels.  By investing in your staff, you create an open culture that empowers staff to work better together when facing the unique challenges of museums today.

21c Museum Hotel is a museum fit for the new millennium.  As a combination hotel and art museum, their spaces abound with creative energy.  Yet 21c Museum Hotel was facing a dilemma: they wanted to get their staff energized and thinking creatively in order to bring new programming and fresh marketing to their expanding chain of hotel-museums.

21c Museum Hotel staff during Museum Hack workshop
21c Museum Hotel staff

The solution? They called Museum Hack to lead a custom workshop on audience engagement as the big finale to their staff retreat.  We packed our bags and headed to Louisville, Kentucky, to empower 21c Museum Hotel staff with ideas to get their creative juices flowing.

Planet Museum Hack

After spending a day at 21c Museum Hotel meeting with staff and researching collections, Ethan Angelica and Mark Kennedy kicked off our Audience Engagement Workshop with a Museum Hack mini-tour!  This short tour showcased 21c Museum Hotel’s collections from a visitor standpoint.   It also helped staff buy-in to our techniques and see their museum from an “outside in” approach, making it the perfect starting point for thinking creatively.

After the tour, we introduced our scaffolded approach to museum experiences: Planet Museum Hack.  This roadmap for creating a museum adventure invited 21c Museum Hotel staff to start small, looking at our core best practices for engaging audiences, and work outwards to the entire social experience of visiting a museum.

To kick off our journey, we began with our core demonstration: Drunks vs. Docents.  Stepping outside the museum to view a giant golden statue of biblical David, we invited 21c Museum Hotel staff to see this incredible piece in two very different lights.  First, Ethan introduced David by offering factual information and art concepts delivered as a traditional docent tour.  Next, Mark played the part of a drunken friend reveling in David.  By illustrating these two competing viewpoints, we were able to illustrate one of our core tenets: that audiences have to be entertained before they can be educated.

Practice Makes Perfect

Now that 21c Museum Hotel staff had viewed the core tenets of our methodology, it was time to get them practicing our techniques!  We began with our signature “5 Elements of a Hack” method for creating amazing stories.  21c Museum Hotel staff were introduced to the concepts, with examples from our mini-tour, and then invited to create their own!

We split staff into pairs, and set them loose to find an awesome piece in their collection and create a 5 Elements-based story in just twenty minutes.  Staff were then invited to share their stories in small groups, getting feedback from us and their peers.  Check out the photos from their mini-tours:

21c Museum Hotel staff presenting their object story.
21c Museum Hotel staff presenting their object story.
21c Museum Hotel staff presenting a story about this glow-in-the-dark installation.
21c Museum Hotel staff presenting a story about this glow-in-the-dark installation.

After a break for lunch, we led staff through another fun activity: Story Shortening.  21c Museum Hotel staff were split into different pairs and challenged to shorten the biblical story of Adam and Eve.  In the video below, staff are challenged to shorten the story to just one minute long:

Story Shortening is a great activity for helping staff discover the breaking point of a story.  By continually challenging staff to shorten the story, from two minutes to as little as five seconds, we help them uncover where a story gets “lost,” how individual instincts can shape a story, and figure out how to craft a great story that doesn’t get lost in detail but still makes a strong point.  By pairing off, staff are also challenged to see the story from two different viewpoints, which often helps reveal the common – and truly human – elements of a story.

21c Museum Hotel play Buy, Burn, Steal with Museum Hack
21c Museum Hotel staff discussing their “Buy, Burn, Steal” objects.

How to Create Awesome Tours

Now, with 21c Museum Hotel staff empowered to tell great stories, it was time to create awesome tours.  We began by walking staff through how we structure tours: building in moments for visitor comfort, and using varied levels of intensity in order to re-energize visitors.  By scaffolding tour elements, we ensure that visitors travel from the lowest point of engagement (i.e., their comfort zone) to fully co-creating the museum experience.  Through facilitated discussion and a demonstration of our “Buy, Burn, Steal” activity, we invited staff to brainstorm new activities for their upcoming events and tours.  Some staff even found ideas that they wanted to put into practice immediately!

Our tour discussions also invited 21c Museum Hotel staff to share their experiences with different types of visitors.  Using their experiences, Ethan tasked four 21c Museum Staff members to act out the parts of their most common visitor archetypes.  While presenting an object’s story, Ethan also demonstrated how to handle difficult situations that can arise on tours while catering to specific types of guests.

Visitor Archetypes game: Ethan tries to keep a guest from touching the art
Ethan Angelica and 21c Museum Staff demonstrate various visitor archetypes, including those who like to touch art!
Ethan Angelica and 21c Museum Staff during our visitor archetypes game, demonstrating how to effectively handle a variety of guests.
Ethan Angelica and 21c Museum Staff during our visitor archetypes game, demonstrating how to effectively handle a variety of guests.

Afterwards, we discussed the demonstration with staff, inviting them to brainstorm together on how they want to approach difficult situations as a team.  By using interactive demonstrations and fully involving staff in every aspect of the workshop, we taught them our tips and tricks for successful audience engagement while empowering them to work better as a team – no matter which 21c Museum Hotel location they called home.

We ended our Audience Engagement Workshop with a demonstration of VIP Experiences, sharing our secret for making every museum experience feel like a one-of-a-kind adventure.

21c Museum Hotel staff practicing VIP sensibilities
21c Museum Hotel staff learning the secret to our VIP Experiences.

Mission Complete!

“It was really fun to work with people who are innovating on what a physical museum space looks like — surrounding it with a hotel — and try to help them reimagine guest experience in a space that is already changing. I’m excited to see more Hack-y experiences at 21c Museum Hotels nationwide!” – Ethan

21c Museum Hotel staff loved it!  Check out this great testimonial from Alice Gray Stites, 21c Museum Hotel’s Chief Curator and Museum Director:

We had an amazing time exploring 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville and infusing their staff with energy and creativity.  We can’t wait to see all the fun ideas they put into practice.  All hands in for museums!

Want to empower your staff to think creatively about your museum? Find out about our consulting work with museums, or email us at [email protected] to find out more about how we can help your staff discover new tools and methods for successful audience engagement.

written with 💖 by Museum Hack

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