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 :-)

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