How the Memphis Museum of Science and History used the pandemic to launch its strategic plan – American Alliance of Museums
By the time the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis had already embarked on a radical overhaul of its image, structure and programming. When I started as Executive Director in January 2020, we were armed with an ambitious five-year strategic plan, including a rebranding, which revolved around the organization but had not yet been activated. We might not have appreciated it at the time, but the pandemic hitting our operations has given us the unique opportunity to accelerate this plan.
This summer, we are officially renaming the Pink Palace Science and History Museum (MoSH). We decided to change our name to Pink Palace Museum because we needed each audience segment to immediately understand what we are offering. To residents, the name Pink Palace is a fond term, but for most visitors it doesn’t convey who we are – the largest science and history museum in West Tennessee – or connect our multiple properties.
As with any museum, the list of what we want to accomplish is staggering and very exciting too. This is an opportunity for the museum to recreate our identity and engage more fully with the entire community, from students to young professionals and families of all ages. To focus on quickly achievable progress, we focused on three elements of our strategic plan that we were able to quickly implement during the shutdown months:
“Memphis As Museum” is our digital transformation of the museum, taking it beyond the walls of our buildings both through a website redesign and new online programs to engage young people in their homes.
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During the pandemic, like many museums, we increased our digital engagement. We have created “Museum to Go,” a digital learning program launched in response to a business closure during the pandemic with home activities and content on historical events in our region. We have also created digital tours, virtual tours and other programs to meet the needs of voters during the pandemic. It was not at the forefront of our strategic plan, but the pandemic allowed us to accelerate this initiative and remain relevant to our audience, as it would be our primary means of public communication during a shutdown.
Simultaneously, we kept moving forward with five long overdue technology upgrades needed to lay the foundation for elements of our plans, including electronic ticketing and web interfacing, a new budgeting system, our collections inventory system, a new website (coming out this summer) and IT infrastructure improvements to expand our engagement.
Even before the pandemic, attendance had declined and we had to carefully consider what needed to be done in order for the museum to best fulfill its mission. We wanted to create shared spaces to invite participation, foster exploration and provoke engagement. We realized we hadn’t done well. We had blocked off the walkways to our expansive front lawn, making much of our property essentially off-limits to guests. We had placed signage at our entrance that greeted visitors with nearly twenty rules and warnings before they even entered the building. Creating a more welcoming and distinctive atmosphere was essential for us and a way to re-introduce ourselves to Memphis and visitors to the city.
This spring, we demolished an old guard hut and commissioned an astonishing piece of art from the National Metal Museum in Memphis: a twenty-five foot statue of a mosasaur suspended in the air. The sculpture greets visitors upon their arrival and contributes to a more inviting overall entrance design, as well as a physical indicator of who we are, being part of the museum’s long term plan to improve our facilities by creating points of welcoming access. The installation of the sculpture coincided with the first of many new events, ‘Fossil Fest’, which allowed visitors to search for fossils and participate in fun and stimulating activities inside and outside the museum. . We are planning a complete renovation of the entrance, anchored by sculpture, announcing to the Memphis community and guests that we are committed to developing and expanding this facility.
Beyond the walls
In the long term, we want to expand our reach and develop our relationships with more communities by bringing the museum to them. Through close collaboration, we’ll make lasting connections with a wider audience and reveal Memphis stories that would otherwise have remained hidden.
Some examples of collaborations we’ve already undertaken, in addition to working with the Metal Museum for mosasaur sculpture, include partnering with the University of Memphis for an exhibit on the Memphis Tigers basketball team, and collaboration with the parks department our summer camps, which attracted four thousand participants last summer. We strive to further expand our relationships with the community and the university as we seek to create in-house designed exhibits that highlight the formation of our region through the prism of natural sciences and cultural history.
Updating our programming stimulates our engagement. We removed corporate silos at weekly content development team meetings that plan programming six months later. We know we have the potential to attract different audiences, regardless of the level at which they wish to engage with us. While our long-term plans involve a new facade, entrance, and renovated permanent exhibits, we will also continue to innovate in how we engage our community through our programming. We are able to start growing our staff again and look forward to connecting with professionals who share our vision and are excited to be a part of the changes we make. We want the Museum of Science and History to be a living and breathing embodiment of Memphis and our region.
We knew we had to make big changes as part of the five-year plan, but the pandemic accelerated the need to make some internal adjustments. We spent a lot of time imagining the structure that would help us become a more dynamic living and breathing resource for our city and its visitors, and we made some major changes. We have combined our Collections and Exhibitions departments to make the best use of the extraordinary resources available to us as the heads of previous departments retire. We are shifting our education service to community engagement, which can help us create more opportunities to fully engage with adults and students. We are looking for a new Director of Development who can help us fund our ambitious five-year operating plan in new ways. And we’ve restructured part of our relationship with the city in terms of part-time staffing and management.
Ten years from now, organizations that survived the COVID-19 pandemic will examine how they weathered this storm. We are confident that we have taken advantage of the disruption and pivoted to become stronger, more innovative and more essential to the community and set the stage for growth.