The California Museum Association Conference, Friday

I went to the California Museum Association conference, and learned that the museum zeitgeist is in a similar place to the library zeitgeist. They’re focusing on community engagement and experiences, and trying to balance what it takes to attract new audiences with what core members expect. They’re moving from the stewardship of things to the cultivation of people.

Friday I went to:
Museum Public Relations – How Museums Big And Small Can Get The Most Out Of Media
Moderator: Alexandria Sivak, Senior Communications Specialist, J. Paul Getty Trust. Presenters: Emma Jacobson-Sive, Director, Public Relations, Pasadena Museum of California Art; Sasha Ali, Exhibitions Manager, Craft and Folk Art Museum; Stephanie Sykes, Communications Manager, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

This presentation brought together people doing communications in different size museums, to talk about their strategies for successful press coverage. While the LACMA is a large institution, and can shoot for starting a press campaign six months in advance, the smaller museums may run on a much tighter schedule. At the Craft and Folk Art Museum, where the press campaign is also run by the person in charge of installing the exhibit, a lot of the press may happen after the exhibit has opened. Larger museums, with dedicated communications teams, may also have more time to cultivate personal relationships with reporters. However, all presenters emphasized the importance of finding the right angle into the exhibit and that would be of interest to the reporter or outlet.

A press campaign relies on several things:

  • Timing and suspense (to build and maintain momentum)
    • relate to current events?
    • if your press release is late, why is it late
  • Novelty
    • superlatives or landmark statistics – biggest, first
    • celebrity (an accessible celebrity)
  • Access
    • special tour or interview
    • first look at information
  • Proximity
    • What’s your geographic reach? Will help determine your target outlets
  • Spokespeople (generally not the communications person)
    • someone in a leadership role in the org (may need to provide media training)
    • provide/work on streamlined message points
    • multi-lingual a plus
    • someone invested, engaged and knowledgeable about the exhibit
    • helps diversify your institution’s faces in the media
  • A Strong Image (or more)
    • needs to stand out
    • but, don’t drown out your story

Cultivate real relationships with the media. Understand the tone and interests of reporters and publication. Is the journalist staff or freelance? What is the reach and audience of the the outlet?

Timeline: Gather info, images, messaging points -> send out press release to long lead outlets – > send to short lead -> frantic week-of push.

A Press release should be 3-5 pages of fact-based information. Who, what, when, where, why, and how much, plus quotes that can begin to ID and give voice to your spokespeople.

A Media alert is just 1 page – brief, facts only.

Targeted emails can cut through oversaturation and get your message out. They need to be tailored to the reporter, and can be more effective if there is already an underlying relationship. One way to tailor is to read what reporters write, and then pitch based on their last article. You can also text your pitch – find your reporter’s preferred contact method and use it.

Emma Jacobson-Sive talked about working to get publicity for their June Wayne exhibit. She had sent out her pitch and heard nothing back, so she looked for other angles. She pitched to Jewish-focused publications and got picked up. She also pitched to the Science section (after having no luck with Arts and Home) and got picked up.

Sasha Ali talked about using the allure of access to get coverage. They offered an exclusive tour of one artist’s studio. They also do a press lunch in the gallery the week after opening.

Media outreach is different than community outreach. However, both require a sincere enthusiasm for what you are promoting, and the ability to match what you are doing to the interests of your audience.

The last session I went to was:

California Museums and National Initiatives with IMLS

Moderator: Claudia French, Deputy Director for Museums, Institute of Museum and Library Services. Presenters: Luigi Anzivino, AD of the Tinkering Studio, Exploratorium; Robin Sease, Manager of Visitor Education and Services, Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden; Michael Shanklin, Chief Executive Officer, Kidspace Children’s Museum.

This session presented three IMLS grants: Let’s Move Museums and Gardens, with the Los Angeles Arboretum, Museums for all, with the San Diego Children’s Museum, and Makerspaces, with the Exploratorium.

The LA arboretum is a member of the American Public Garden Association. There are about 250 peacocks on the grounds. They don’t own the peacocks – but the peacocks are there nonetheless. They participated in the Let’s Move initiative with a lot of creative, interesting, and low-budget programming. For example, they provided a recipe of the month. They created special walks that people could do on the garden grounds – an extreme walk, with a pedometer, and the “Serpent Trail” The “Serpent Trail” was in the Austrailia section. Kids would get a new activity at each of a series of checkpoints. For example, at the Kangaroo checkpoint, they would have to hop like a kangaroo until they got to the Kookaburra checkpoint, and then they would have to flap like a bird. They also used teen volunteers to create a gardening obstacle course for kids. Activities included things like putting on gloves and knee pads, and pushing a kids sized wheelbarrow. They created a garden expedition, where kids would get stamps for completing objectives. And finally, they worked with the cafeteria to ensure that there were healthy menu options.

The Museums for All initiative provides free or heavily discounted museum entry for families with EBT cards. This initiative is year-round, and to some extent removes the “charity” stigma of free days. The Children’s Museum of San Diego has had a lot of success with this program. In 2013, they had 684 participants. In 2014, they had 11,610 participants. And in 2015, they are on track for over 22,000 participants. These are generally new visitors. The program provides exposure to museums for people who may never have thought of a career in museums or education as even a possibility. It allows museums to foster a love of learning in a larger and more diverse audience. It introduces families to museums.

The Exploratorium is participating in the Makerspace initiative with their Tinkering Studio. One program they do is the Tinkering Social club. During the Exploratorium’s adults-only nighttime hours, they invite a special guest to come to the studio and do an activity or share a current project with attendees. They also worked on a project with libraries – a marble run on pegboards that traveled to different branches of the San Francisco Public Library.

Tinkering is fun. Fun engenders engagement, persistence. It means there is no need for a “right answer. It allows people to stretch, to engage in new behaviors and experiment with new identities. In tinkering, the BIG IDEA is the participant’s idea. It encompasses science, art and technology, and demystifies and transcends them, providing mutliple access pointers for tinkerers. THINKING happens with your HANDS.

Learning is not terminal – Learning never stops. Tinkering allows people to prototype and build rapidly, iterating ideas and gaining comprehension. It is EMPOWERING and social, and builds a kind of instant community. Tinkerers don’t hoard knowledge, they share.

The tinkering process includes failure, frustration, and facilitation. Part of running tinkering activities is knowing when to intervene. The Exploratorium bakes failure into its activities. This provides fertile ground for learning and allows people to push past boundaries. Frustration is a learning activity.

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