How do we change a museum’s relationship with its building? Interview with Steven Snyder

Dr. Steven Snyder is the President & CEO for the Fleet Science Center in San Diego, CA. Since taking on the role in 2013, Steve has redefined the Fleet’s role, taking it from a science center in Balboa Park to a community organization dedicated to helping all San Diegans achieve their place in our shared scientific future.

In a recent webinar you mentioned that you are rethinking the relationship of museums to their buildings.

A while back I did a review of museum mission statements and found many followed a similar format. They would begin with a statement of what activities the organization would undertake (collection/preservation/exhibition/interpretation) followed by a statement along the lines of “for the purpose of connecting art to life”, or “fostering an appreciation for history” or “igniting a passion for science.” There was a very familiar pattern, a description of practice followed by a statement of purpose. This second part, the purpose really was the core of the mission and yet time and time again organizations felt the need to include the how as a means of modifying the why.

I began to wonder what drove this and I think much of it has to do with our organizational identities. Museums are buildings. Inside the building are exhibitions and those exhibitions are made up of collections. We are museums, therefor we are our collections, exhibits and buildings. Our buildings have become dominant in our thinking and the result is that our practice (building, collections and exhibits) has become our purpose. That’s why for all the aspirational aspects of our mission statements we end up focusing on our building, collection and exhibitions. But what would happen if we defined ourselves by our purpose first and used that to define what we do? What might that mean for our organizations if we broadened our identities to address our purpose?

MOMA’s building renovation was just one of many museum building projects in 2019.

What does it look like when we broaden or better address our purpose?

If we start with our purpose front and center the next step is to ask what is the best way to achieve that mission. It may well be exhibits, but because of the investment we have made in our collections and exhibits we don’t always explore much else. Even if those tools work against the mission. For example, if my mission is to engage people in science, keeping science in a special place (our building), with special tools (our exhibits), for special people (those who have the time, money and access) might actually be antithetical to our purpose.

The topics that museums are passionate about are not just conversations for inside our buildings. History, science, art and culture are shaped by the conversations that happen in every community center, park and dinner table, but ironically, because we focus so intently on our buildings, we are not part of those conversations. But if we are willing to expand our thinking of who we are, we certainly could be. We should be asking, what do we need to do to become part of the community conversation? By recognizing that the power and authority for those discussions rests with the peoples who make up our communities (rather than our buildings), we can open up the possibilities for how we become part of that discussion.

At a time where we’re thinking about reinvention, we need to open up our thinking to a broader sense of possibilities.

I would guess it would be rare that a museum’s mission would be best served through exhibits. But what about museums’ historical roles as caretakers of objects?

Let me just say that I love collections and the exhibitions that spring from them. However, if part of the role museums play is collecting and preserving material culture – we collect to maintain for the future, for research and understanding – shouldn’t we ask if we need 17,000 individual collections? Do we need to have a Matisse preserved in every city? Is there a better system for holding and preserving these invaluable items?

I honestly don’t know but I do think we will be well served by taking an unflinching look at how and what we are doing. Our “system” of independent collections emerged over time by chance not by plan. Perhaps it is an optimal solution but what if it is not? If we remain so firmly attached to our buildings and collections as our identities, we will never ask.

What is your mission at the Fleet Science Center, and what do you think is the best way to achieve it?

Our mission is to realize a San Diego where everyone is connected to the power of science. Exhibits are an incredibly powerful way to do that, but we can’t assume that in the two hours we have our visitors we can achieve our mission. That contradicts what we know about education. If someone comes to our building and gets inspired by something and then they go home and there is no way to follow that up, or there are active cultural forces working to keep them away from learning more, then we are spitting into the wind.

What we’ve been working on over the last several years is remaking ourselves into a county-wide organization that happens to have a science center. The mission is the same but now the science center is just one tool. We have been actively building the capacities necessary to connect with people where they live, work and play and to make those connections our primary point of contact.

A Fleet Science Center program

How has that changed the way you do your daily work?

It’s shifting how we deploy the resources we have. As museums we have expertise and cultural resources available to us beyond our collection. We bring people together to explore ideas through exhibits, programs, lectures and forums. None of those things, even our exhibitions, are bound by our space. They are assets to be deployed along with additional resources of our fabrication shops, marketing, PR, etc.

When we began this work we looked around and found over 300 STEM programs in the county from large organizations to mom and pop shops. When we looked at the work they were doing compared to our mission it became clear that if they are successful, we are successful. We are all aligned in purpose. We realized that we do not own our mission, there are many others who are working to the same ends. That means that we are not in competition, we are potential partners. So we implemented a radical collaboration approach. We asked ourselves how we can use our resources at the service of others while advancing our mission. For example, we partnered with a group of graduate students who were scheduling a week of science talks in bars around the county.  As a small organization they were struggling to get attention. For us, writing and distributing a press release is all in a day’s work so it was easy to leverage our resources to support their program. They got the press they needed which strengthened the impact of their program, which served to advance our mission as well.

This is a radical approach to collaboration for museums. It encourages you to do things you wouldn’t have thought to before, but does it lesson the need for resources for the building itself?

No. Our building, like most, is a beast that needs to be fed. That said we have made a strategic commitment to a very community-centered approach. We have budget dedicated to community engagement, to the facilitation of our local STEM ecosystem, to supporting a cohort of scientist volunteers. That means we have had to shift resources away from other areas. For example, we have changed what we spend on bringing in temporary exhibits.

Right now, as we think about cutting the budget, the last things we would cut are what’s core to who we are, which is a county-wide organization.

How is this work changing what you are doing right now, during COVID?

Over the last five years we have been doing a great deal of work in building relationships with neighborhoods across San Diego and understanding their goals and aspirations. Because of this, even with the building closed we were able to continue serving our partners. One neighborhood identified the need to connect with families who did not have reliable online connectivity, so we worked to distribute materials through the school lunch pickup program. Another set of partners were looking for bilingual preschool materials that could be used by parents and kids together. Hearing that teachers were feeling isolated we worked with our Ecosystem partners to hold online teacher meet-ups.  We did not have to pivot to make these things happen, they came as a natural extension of our existing work.

Of course, the closing of our building has had a deep impact. We feel like we are going through the world with one of our arms in a cast. Luckily not only do we have multiple arms, we have learned to be ambidextrous.

 

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