Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Museums making progress for the sake of progress, at what cost?

An old building was torn down on Monday behind the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. It was a carriage house-- a relatively old, late Victorian building, designed and commissioned by the Museum's namesake, the significance of which had been widely debated. Suffice it to say, the Museum owned the building and wished to tear it down to clear the way for a new addition designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano.

An article in the Boston Globe gives the account of the eventual demolition and comments posted by readers allude to the disagreement over the Museum's decision to raze the old structure to begin anew.

Gardner Museum tears down carriage house at heart of dispute - The Boston Globe
Photo above: The carriage house demolished by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)
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As I am unfamiliar with the specific motivating factors on both sides of the argument in this particular case, I'll set aside my own opinion on the demolition of the Gardner carriage house, but the incident does beg the question, when are we seeking progress for progress' sake alone? How do we effectively weigh the future cost of today's decision to sacrifice something old, to bring about something new? As museums, when are we truly improving our visitor experience, and when are we simply refreshing it? And, if all we need, or desire, is refreshment, do we really need to destroy what is old, or can we effectively repurpose it?

I am sure that in their due diligence process the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum wrestled with all of these questions and more, but how did they know when they had arrived at the right answer? In destroying an edifice conceived by their founder as part of her original museum vision, how did the Gardner Museum leadership balance their founding principles and core mission with their own vision for the museum in the 21st Century and beyond? We all hope that egos, deep pockets, and other traditional sources of power and influence will not weigh heavily upon our decision-making process, but living in the real world we have seen these forces at work in conference rooms, cocktail parties, and board meetings. Who you know and what you can bring in still makes a difference. Even when the strategic plan is specific, collaborative, and comprehensive there seems to always be enough room for individual interpretations and personal visions.

Working in the museum field for these last 13 years, I have been involved in strategic planning on staff at several institutions, and as a collaborator or facilitator at several more. In each process the details are different, but the aim is the same: let's define who we are, why we are relevant, and how we can do what we do better in the future. Along the way, some ideas are set aside as impractical, some goals are determined to be unattainable, and some buildings are marked for demolition. In my opinion, the process is most authentic and "refreshing" when there are no sacred cows, when everything is on the table and all ideas are considered and debated upon their own merits. I assume that this is what happened in Boston, and eventually the Museum decided that the carriage house needed to go to make room for a new space that will better serve their mission and long-term goals.

As guardians of the public trust, museums need to be very open with their staff internally and with their external constituents, sharing, explaining, substantiating, and even reconsidering the goals and initiatives that drive their biggest and most controversial decisions. Ultimately, the final plan and directives will, and should, still come from museum leadership, but I believe the most inclusive process would have the best end result.

The Cleveland Museum of Art exemplified this open approach in 2004-05 as they prepared to embark on their massive $300 million renovation. The Museum did an excellent job of including its members and other visitors in the planning phase, encouraging public input and gaining their trust. Some decisions were initially unpopular (like enclosing the courtyard and cutting down the towering old trees), but through open dialogue many Clevelanders were persuaded that the Museum had a clear, relevant, and important vision for itself, which the renovation design would effectively carry out.

It is a reality that in every business, even in nonprofits and museums seeking to serve the greater good, people in leadership positions must make tough calls and some people on the outside will be unhappy with those decisions. Certainly, there are angry and disappointed people in Boston this week, but could the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum have avoided the current PR quagmire with some open dialogue and public briefing sessions? Perhaps. We will never know for sure, but the rest of us can learn how not to knock down an old building from their experience. May our renovations be guided as much by reflection, as ambition, and let us all be as eager to build consensus as we are to build a new wing.

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