Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the Communicating the Museum conference in Berlin.  Targeted to the marketing and communications teams from museums around the world, it was a conference that spoke directly to the themes we at Museum Revolution have been talking about for months now:

  • The Museum world is changing, rapidly and substantially
  • We need our communications to be a dialogue with our visitors, not a monologue offered to them
  • We in the museum world need to think beyond the boundaries of our four walls for who we reach and when we reach them with our messages

In a nutshell, we need to really look at more than “what” we are offering to the world in terms of knowledge and experiences. We need to look at “how” and “when” and “why.”

It was a drumbeat throughout the conference, but probably brought home best by a few of the keynote speakers. Chris Dercon, director emeritus of the Tate Museum, challenged us to find “the questions that Google can’t answer” and then answer them. Bring unique knowledge to your audience.

Natalie Bondil, Communicating the Museum
Nathalie Bondil urges museums to reconsider how they use their art. 

Nathalie Bondil, director and chief curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, explained that museums have an encyclopedic collection, capable of elucidating many subjects; we should use that. She implored the audience to reach out to people outside your current audience, engage in building intellectual bridges, and recognize the humanity in your narratives. She explained, “Artists didn’t create their art for art historians.” They created the art to move people.

It became clear as the week progressed that this call to action is not for art museums alone. It is imperative for museums of history, science, and culture as well. No matter what your mission is, it isn’t defined by a single chronicle. We can weave narrative threads through history, philosophy, human evolution and development, social justice, and myriad other topics. We can no longer afford to be dry and encyclopedic in our framing.

Here are my key takeaways:

  1. Expand the narrative. Move beyond the facts and find the emotional core.
  2. Expand the audience. The world is changing; our messages need to change to include different people.
  3. One message doesn’t “fit all.” Define your audiences and their message needs, then find ways to talk to them, which means telling multiple narratives.
  4. Break through your figurative and literal institutional walls. It won’t be easy, but it needs to be done. So start chipping away.
Communicating the Musem Berlin, Carol Summerfield
My workshop dream team discussed how to authentically message to Millennials.

It was an inspiring week, led by the great people from Agenda. The conversations inside and outside the beautiful atrium of the Deutsches Historisches Museum were some of the best ones I have had about museums in a year. It made me think differently and push my own creativity. I came away inspired. Every one of us should have this jolt to awaken us to what is possible in our spaces and to be motivated to tackle any obstacle that prevents us from moving forward.

Thanks to Corinne Estrada and team for a week well worth the journey to Berlin.

If you want to read more about the inspiring dialogue and discussions at Communicating the Museum Berlin, you can review Agenda’s key learnings here