Museum Revolution sat down with Adam Reed Rozan, Director of Audience Engagement at the Worcester Art Museum, and adjunct professor at the Harvard Extension School. His current course is Audience Engagement: How Museums Learned to Love their Visitors. He recently spoke at the Communicating the Museum Conference in Quebec about how museums need to find their purpose.

What are your thoughts, following the conference in Quebec?

Adam Reed Rozan presenting at Communicating the Museum Quebec

Adam (A): Since the conference I’ve continued to think about purpose, mission, and values. I believe that museums and libraries not only don’t quite understand, but in fact are not really interested in purpose, mission, and values.  Yes, most organizations have a mission statement, and some have added a “vision statement” to their toolkit. But mostly these articulations of organizational mission do not reflect distinct institutional priorities or approaches; rather, they are just catch phrases and buzz words. Concepts with little-to-no meaning or practical application.

Purpose is missing from our organizations; it’s the “why” in our existence. The mission we have is not working to describe what we will do to accomplish our purpose. Purpose and mission must be the tools we use to help our organizations to serve our visitors, and equally important, our communities.

Change is difficult, it seems, in the museum world. What makes this a challenge for museums?

A: My focus is about how you create change, how do you help push your organization forward, and how organizations have to evolve. This is hard work. We all know change is difficult and takes time, but so necessary for our organizations if they are going to survive and thrive.

It’s a challenge, because it means that institutions and individuals have to shift from areas of certainty to greater areas of the unknown. Doing new and different things and opening up to perceived failure, is worrisome, but all organizations and individuals need to change, to adopt new practices, and continuously learn.  Imagine if we did change—what kind of institutions could we become and how could we better serve our audiences?

Is resistance coming from a place of fear or failure?

A: I want to be in a place where we allow for beautiful failures in which we learned a lot. Failure should be worthy of the word. Take a risk. Practice due diligence, but be radical. Real failure is not pursuing something, just because it is new, challenging, or defies the status quo.  When we self-censor ideas or opportunities it’s because we are afraid. But pursuing something new and discovering it doesn’t work, it’s not actually a failure. If no one showed up for a program, it’s not a failure; it’s a learning opportunity to do something differently the next time. We need to celebrate failures and take risks, but above all we need to use better labels to describe these things.

We need to create the space where people can try different things. If we have these conversations, we can determine where we need to shift, what people need from us. Let’s find a way to create more and different practices and to try new things.  Not necessarily more work, but better work.

For example, at the Tenement Museum in New York City you get a clear sense of what they do and don’t do. We have a responsibility to find the right projects to connect our purpose with our audience. When I visit the Tenement Museum, I totally understand their purpose and why they have to exist.

What are you doing to drive openness in your staff and students to take risks?

Worcester Art Museum | Photo by Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism

A: Great question. Most of this work is in creating space. Space to think, produce, play, experiment, and fall down. In reality, everyone is moving so fast and we do more now than ever before. So in my role as the cheerleader of the audience engagement division at the Worcester Art Museum is to work with my teams to create space within the chaos and the noise for better, smarter, and more engaged activities. In reality it’s hard, but it’s what we have to do.

My role is to ask questions, not provide answers. My hope is to champion thinking, bring everyone together to share ideas—and if all goes well—to create more meaningful opportunities for our audiences and our community.  When we think about our visitors first and put them at the center of every one of our conversations, we can move the needle and evolve our institutions. This requires core values and empathy. Empathy will drive the museum revolution.

What inspires you within your role?

A: I’m inspired by and so proud of our efforts to better connect with our community. For the past three years we’ve been the site of a farm stand, a program we created to better connect with our neighbors and neighborhood. Several years ago, the Museum became a polling place—most recently for the Presidential election. On January 11, 2017, we will host our first naturalization ceremony. We are working with local organizations and schools to make the event special. There will be junior high-school student greeters, veterans and ROTC color guards, a local choir, and more. The event is open to the public.

When you open your doors wider, you become more integral to the community. We have to be more welcoming and engaging. By providing opportunities for people to come together, we do our part to make our community a safer, friendlier, and more agreeable place.

Last thoughts?

A: Museums are important. They matter. Museums change lives and we can change museums for the better. We have to because our communities are counting on us to do so.