How to Lead an Effective Workshop

Carly Syms - Team Lead for Marketing & Customer Service

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Thirty years ago, if you wanted to see a lion in New York City, you’d go to the American Museum of Natural History.

Why?

To immerse yourself in the majesty of one of the museum’s wildlife dioramas. Seeing a lion today is as simple as a quick search on a smartphone.

The way we consume education, entertainment, and media is continually evolving, and as museum professionals, we can leverage this change to lead our visitors to new levels of engagement and understanding.

At many museums, things are done the way they are because it’s the way they’ve always been done — and that isn’t really the best reason to do anything, if we’re being honest.

Museum professionals often serve as teachers in their spaces, but it’s rare that they’re offered the opportunity to be taught new things. It’s important to continually learn about and better your craft, and a fun way (the best way, in our opinion!) to do that is through workshops.

Tour Guide Ethan Angelica leads a workshop at the museum.
Tour Guide Ethan Angelica leads a workshop at the museum.

How do you come up with ideas for workshop programming?

Stick to what you know. If it’s something you do really well that you think will add value to the work of other people, then go for it! There are certain things we do on our Museum Hack tours that we excel at, and we’re constantly thinking of ways we can share those ideas so other people can adopt them for their own work.

What’s going to add value? Why are people going to want to listen to what you have to say? Make sure there are specific, practical ways the people you’re talking to can take what you’re talking about and put it into practice.

Kate Downey, creator of our Badass Bitches tour.
Kate Downey, creator of our Badass Bitches tour.

How does Museum Hack tailor workshops for each client?

Each museum or institution we work with is different, so the way we explore their spaces, tell their stories, and engage with their audiences is different! Every museum has amazing things in it, and it’s important to figure out new ways to bring those objects to life that maybe aren’t being done or utilized well in that space.

It can all be boiled down to two points:

  • Who is the audience you want?
  • How do you tell stories that bring the space to life that resonate with that specific audience?
A workshop group in the museum.
A workshop group in the museum.

Remember: this isn’t about you or your space. Think first about the group that you want to come into your space and how we can find the tangible connections in their lives to your institution. Start with the audience and the rest will follow.

What to do to lead an effective workshop: 

  • Have people do the things you’re talking about as much and as early and as often as possible. At workshops facilitated by Museum Hack, we try to be less on the conceptual side and more on the practical side.
  • Give people ownership and agency over activities and games. It may be scary to them at first, but having people do the things you’re talking about is the only way to get the ball rolling.
A workshop attendee puts learned principles into action.
A workshop attendee puts learned principles into action.

What not to do to lead an effective workshop:

  • Tell people what they’re doing is wrong or that you’re doing it better. Rather than telling people what they’re doing wrong, we model on what we’ve found to be successful and let people adopt what they think would work best for themselves and their audiences — because ultimately, they know their museum and their audiences better than we will.

From an outsider’s perspective, Museum Hack has a different method of engagement than most museums.

When Dustin, our Audience Development + Team Lead for Science, facilitates workshops, he stresses to our clients that it’s all about us sharing what’s been successful for us. We tell clients how to duplicate what we’ve done, ask them to try it, and if it works for them, encourage them to keep doing it!

Workshop participants share their findings.
Workshop participants share their findings.

How is taking part in these workshops effective for museums?

At Museum Hack, we’re about talking the talk and walking the walk.

We develop and model our programming in such a way so that literally the day after the workshop, museums can put into practice what we’ve taught them. We talk about why we use the methods we use, of course, but we want to put these practices into effect immediately so there’s actual, tangible things that can be put into practice the next day.

In addition (and almost without meaning to), workshops serve a dual-purpose as team building events.

A lot of times, staff from different departments will come together for a workshop to reimagine the space — and as a result, they remember why they fell in love with working at a museum in the first place. It’s rare that some of these departments get together and interact, so that in and of itself helps re-energize people and get them excited about what they do.

Mini Case Study: Workshop at the Canadian Museum of Nature

Several of our tour guides recently facilitated a workshop at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Prior to this workshop, the museum’s docents used a pre-planned route and a script for their tour. This allowed for no customization on the docents’ part, which made for less impactful storytelling — and resulted in a less passionate, personal experience for their guests.

As a result of their time with us, the museum’s CEO told us they’d be getting rid of the script and instead developing a “skeleton” script to let their docents work from, allowing them the freedom to build stories around the exhibits they’re passionate about. They no longer have set routes or set scripts, giving their staff the agency to truly make the experience their own.

In this case (and countless others like it!), our workshop helped this institution expand their knowledge about their target audience and provided tailored, actionable tasks that put them on the path to bettering both their craft and their museums, as a whole.

One More Thought

We believe that workshops — whether facilitating or participating in them — can be an amazing tool for museum professionals in continually shaping the way they approach their careers and the museums they love. There are many tools and methods for showing your lions to the world, and workshops offer a great return on engagement.

What are you waiting for?

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