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Book offers lessons from 'magnetic' Fishers museum

May 6, 2013

Conner Prairie’s focus on experiential learning has boosted attendance and drawn financial support from the likes of the National Science Foundation.

Now the Fishers living-history museum is one of six “magnetic” institutions featured in a new book that aims to identify the qualities that allow some organizations to thrive, rather than simply survive.

Written by national museum thought leaders Anne Bergeron and Beth Tuttle, “Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement” is being likened to Jim Collins’ corporate-focused “Good to Great.”

The authors spent more than three years analyzing data, observing operations and interviewing stakeholders for the book. The other featured museums: Children’s Museum Pittsburgh; the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va.; The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia; Natural Science Center of Greensboro, N.C. (now Greensboro Science Center); and Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Okla.

“It is really gratifying to be included,” said Ellen Rosenthal, CEO of Conner Prairie Interactive History Park.

The museum community has taken notice of Conner Prairie’s work to draw visitors and supporters following a years-long governance dispute that left both on short supply. In the six years since then, attendance has more than doubled, Rosenthal said.

More than 235,000 people visited the museum or took part in Conner Prairie programs last year, and the organization received more than $1.7 million in gifts and sponsorships.

Rosenthal credits the museum’s “Opening Doors” initiative, which took a research-based approach to customer service. Studying how visitors responded to various activities helped Conner Prairie come up with strategies to better engage its guests.

“That created what we have now, which is a ‘choose your own adventure’ kind of experience,” Rosenthal said.

Staff members have embraced the idea and carried it forward, she said. Conner Prairie’s Animal Encounters program, for example, became a lot more interactive after the breeding schedule was tweaked to produce lambs when the museum grounds are open to the public. (Sticking to the “historically accurate” breeding season meant lambs were born in March, Rosenthal said.)

“The staff understands it’s in their hands to understand how to engage people,” she said. “It’s very ingrained in our culture now. It has a life of its own. One of our board members calls it our ‘special sauce.’”

That’s exactly what the “Magnetic” authors were looking for when they set out to examine successful museums and share the lessons learned with other mission-driven organizations.

“This book shares the stories of museums that have experienced superior business results by virtue of turning up the emotional heat, tapping into the power of creating meaning, and purposefully becoming more relevant to their communities,” said Tuttle, CEO of the Pennsylvania-based Cultural Data Project, in a written statement. “Because all organizations need people to accomplish their goals, we believe that every for-profit or nonprofit business can learn lessons from these magnetic museums.”

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