Crowdfunding Campaigns as Minimal Viable Prototype for Museums?

You might have recognised that the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter has recently added a tag #museum for everything that’s related to museums, exhibitions and alike.

What does this mean for museums following a Lean Startup approach? From our perspective, Kickstarter (and other crowdsourcing platforms like Indiegogo, My Major Company [popular in French speaking countries], Startnext [popular in German speaking countries] etc.) can support your Lean Museum Startup project perfectly well.

First it can help you proofing a hypothesis: For example you can check if there are people outside you think they can be attracted by what you want to offer at all.

Second, crowdfunding platforms allow you to interact with people – you normally get feedback from individuals very quickly, can ask questions etc.

Third – it allows you performing price tests: You can e.g. package your offerings for backers in a way allowing you getting information for a second offering (be it based on a Lean Museum Startup initiative or not).

Fourth a crowdfunding campaign could (best case) allow your inner museum startup project shifting from startup to execution: If successfully funded, you can go ahead with your project and deliver what you have promised.

To sum up, we see crowdfunding campaigns as a perfect tool in the Lean Museum Startup toolbox.

What is Museum Transformation?

We previously  explained why extreme social, political, financial and technological changes will impact the audiences and its demands of nearly all cultural institutions.

Cultural institutions have the purpose to show their exhibits and/or spread specific information related to the institution. In the pre-internet era it normally wasn’t feasible trying to attract a global audience in situ: Even worldwide renowned institutions rather attracted people from all over the world by their exhibits and not by their content.
I.e. the mainstream, non regional, visitor was the tourist interested in the institution’s exhibit offering. This visitor (or the travel organiser) would receive the unique content of the institution through a local visit. Perhaps some people would get information through books or bilateral exhibitions. But this would not be done at large scale.

The internet has radically changed this: It’s never been so easy attracting people and distributing the most precious good a museum/cultural institution has to offer, its unique content, by being findable through search engines and distributing the content through websites or mobile apps or other digital offerings.
What does this mean for a museum? Let’s look a the risks first:

  • The institution has to establish itself as a unique content provider against ever-growing offerings in the digital world;
  • without being “visible”, i.e. being findeable in search engines and attractive through its offering, the museum will not participate in the broad possibilitities of the digital world;
  • digitisation can become extremely costly, money spent for digitisation cannot be spent for exhibitions or acquiring new exhibits.

But these risks demand that you start transforming your museum rather now than tomorrow. If you don’t, your institution might become invisible in the minds of the upcoming generations. If you start transforming, you will benefit from very nice side effects:

  • transforming your museum will lead to new audiences;
  • existing department barriers will be broken down;
  • museum transformation leads to a new spirit (w/o being esoteric), to a new culture of innovation, communication and collaborative learning.

Transformation is a process to change the organisational and procedural structures of a cultural institution. Assumed you want to transform your museum to get new audiences, to be visible in the digital world – how would Lean Museum Startup help you out?

Lean Museum Startup supports you with tailored tools and projects for e.g. starting interdisciplinary projects, find out which fundraising efforts will really pay out, define and create successful digital communication, establish an innovative culture amongst all staff (or if you’re adventurous – even with external supporters, like Science Gallery’s Leonardo Group) and many more.

All this can be done with minimal financial risk and even by satisfying the needs of rather conservative, publicity focused, museum directors.

Lean Museum Startup: Today’s Top 3 Challenges for Cultural Institutions

Thanks to the binary world, the atomic world faces extreme changes. It has never been so easy to consume and to publish content.

What started with local word processors has reached a level where everyone who wants is able producing ebooks, printed books, blog entries and all sorts of information sites. Everyone can publish her/his own picture gallery and easily apply special effects to the pictures that a decade before would have demanded a professional photgraphy studio.

Even creating real-world products is as easy as it never had been before: Thanks to the maker scene (see Chris Andersson excellent book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution on Amazon US/Amazon UK), you nearly can prototype everything you can dream of, and instead of spending 5-, six or even 7-digit budgets for an initial offering the most valueable thing you spend is your time.

How would these enormous changes affect cultural institutions like museums?

We see – amongst others – three basic challenges every cultural will be affected by and will need to respond to if they do not want falling into insignificance.

  1. Diversification
    First of all, the time of addressing recipients only from the local area following a sender-receiver principle is over: With the internet, cultural institutions have the possibilities spreading their content all over the world. This means two things: First, the museum needs to find out who could be addressed with it’s unique content and what would the best way to do this – on a global scale. This implies internationalisation as well as intercultural and intersocial research. Diversity is an old buzzword. But an actual challenge.
    Second, it’s possible and probably demanded delivering content to very different devices. That could be delivering to the humongous variety of devices. Just look at the funny Twitpic on the fragmentation of Samsung only devices:Embedded image permalink
    (Source: @BobComedy)
    But not only different screen sizes and internet capable devices want access your content. Perhaps hacked audio guides are the format your target audience demands. And so forth. Device proliferation is a not-so-old buzzword (coming from enterprise IT operations). But an actual challenge.
  2. Interaction
    More and more people, not are the young ones, are used to interact. As it seems, “gamification” of content is something that pours more and more into schools and daily life (see chapter 14 of the excellent book Diamandis/Kotler, Abundance: the future is better than you think for further references [Amazon UK/Amazon US]). It’s possible to get information based on geolocation information directly on the camera view of mobile devices (augmented reality) and even glasses. For most people using and loving these abilities to only hang exhibits on the wall (or wherever) seems not to be sufficient anymore: People can and want exploring, interacting, creating own content based on information and experiences.
    It’s the cultural institution that can support them here perfectly well.
  3. Distraction
    We face an increasing amount of pure content/information and produce more information quantity in a year than in the entire existence of mankind. People do get more and more distracted due to an increasing amount of content channels. The biggest challenge therefor is to establish relevance in the mind of your target audiences: The more relevant a cultural institution’s offering is, the less likely people would get distracted by other offerings. Whatever your institution offers, we are pretty sure you have somthing unique and special that is worth being settled in people’s mind.

Is there any recipe that would immediately help addressing these challenges? We don’t think so. But we think, that you must start transforming your museum to stay relevant. With the Lean Museum Startup approach, transforming a museum means following an interdisciplinary step-by-step process with low financial risk – and lots of fun :-)

The Museum Pivot or: A chat with Seb Chan

Standing in the wardrobe queue at Museum Next’s evening reception at the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam, I got the chance speaking to Seb Chan who previously held a gorgeous keynote explaining his work for and challenges at Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum.

Seb described the techniques used at the museum for dealing with handicaps like rather tiny staff, museum building’s renovation, rather reduced affinity for digital media and the challenge of reinventing the museum for the upcoming social, educational and economic changes.

Amongst the techniques used at Cooper Hewitt were

  • Establish a culture of learning, support staff, train people.
  • Accelerate production.
  • Prototype as the product, use minimal viable products to proof.
  • Use “promiscuous” collaboration.
  • Allow staff to do own experiments.
  • Always keep the long term change in focus.

Seb’s team is extremely successful in using this approach – and seems to have a lot of fun and inspiration. When listening to the keynote, it became obvious to me that the techniques used are very similar to the Lean Startup practices.

So I asked Seb if he knew Eric Ries’ Lean Startup, explained that I thought it could be greatly adopted to museums/cultural institutions and asked for his opinion (first .

In fact, Seb was very aware of the Lean Startup methodology and knew it very well. But though he saw some parallels in single practices he was arguing that Lean Startup’s main goal is to learn about a sustainable business growth model. But this should and could not not be the goal of a museum. Especially, one could not easily “pivot” and change the entire “business model”.
So he rather doubted that Lean Startup could be applied to museums/cultural institutions.

Though I fully agree to Seb’s concern, that you cannot easily change the entire “business model” of a museum (which is rather its main mission, e.g. derived from the foundation’s mission), I’d like to differentiate a bit more using   Lean Startup terms:

Here, pivoting is normally not done at the “vision” level (where I locate a cultural institution’s mission), see the graphic from Eric Ries’ book:


Lean Startup Pyramid (c) Eric Ries
The Lean Startup Pyramid (c) Eric Ries


So – if your museum’s “vision” (in Lean Startup terms) would not be “cre­at­ing a thriv­ing and world-chang­ing busi­ness”, but – e.g. – “to advance the public understanding of design across the 240 years of human creativity represented by the museum’s collection” (see here), than you could derive strategies, build hypothesis, validate and do everything you need to fulfill your mission.

Lean Museum Startup was born :-)

The Lean *Museum* Startup

At the exciting, inspiring and mindblowing MuseumNext 2013 (see also the tumblr page) many people, mostly leading digital strategy/content or educational departments of museums and galleries and all sorts of cultural institutions spoke about their visions and steps to achieve them.

It was quite obvious that the goals to be reached were not of solely digital nature. In nearly most cases museums want to involve people, get them doing something with what each museum has to offer, get people active, inspired to pull some experience/enlightment from the institution into their life.

IT and digital media were rather understood as tools amongst others. Digitalisation is part of enablemend. Away the times when a museum website seemed to be the website of an enterprise offering cultural artifacts. Away the times when the management of a gallery thought just submitting some app to the appstore means having a digital strategy as part of a vision for the 21st century.

Analysing the challenges and outcomes presented at the conference, I found out that museums and other institutions are in the position of a startup when it comes to realise new projects or even transform the strategy.

Being a big fan of Eric Ries’ Lean Startup methodology, I was immediately convinced that this methodology can help all sorts of institutions to reach their goals. And here the journey begins…