More than a Great Date: Sustaining Innovation at the Alutiiq Museum

All photos courtesy of the Alutiiq Museum

In February 2017, we profiled the efforts of Alaska’s Alutiiq Museum as it worked to reach beyond its core group of supporters and engage a curious, “second circle” of community members who had an interest in Alutiiq culture but had not yet engaged with the Museum in a meaningful way.

As a participant in the New Pathways | Alaska program (jointly presented by EmcArts and the Foraker Group), the Alutiiq Museum had spent three years strengthening its capacity to adapt to change, particularly by learning to use experimentation and developmental evaluation as tools to chart a new course for its future. Based on the promising results they saw from a series of new program prototypes (Date Night with Disaster, Community History Co-Creation, and Maritime Story Share), the Museum was selected into the third and final phase of the New Pathways program and granted capital funding to expand its efforts.

Now, one year later, we caught up with Alutiiq Museum’s Chief Curator, Amy Steffian, to see where their journey of adaptive change has taken them. Unsurprisingly, Steffian reports that the journey has been neither direct nor smooth.

“What we’ve seen,” says Steffian, “is that innovative thinking is seeping into the broader culture of the museum. We had focused narrowly on the Date Night with Disaster program, thinking, idealistically, that it would be this great, transformative program.

A museum visitor shares her story

That hasn’t proven true, but we’re noticing that we’ve learned how to think in a different way, and that’s seeping into everything we do from exhibitions to programming and long-range, strategic planning.”

As examples of this new thinking in action, Steffian points to the Museum’s focus on empowering their community members to co-create their own experiences with the Museum; to its reliance on small experiments with radical intent to uncover new ways forward;and to its commitment to developmental evaluation to learn, immediately, about what is and isn’t working as they experiment.

The Museum’s community and the broader museum field have taken notice. This past fall, the Museum was awarded Museums Alaska’s 2017 Award for Excellence in the Museum Field for its Pililuki—Make Them! exhibit. The Pililuki gallery is full of tables and comfortable chairs which encourage visitors to linger and create artwork. The art activities are based on Alutiiq cultural designs. Visitors are invited to share a visual story on a large roll of paper or use small styluses to draw something that represents themselves on black scratch cards. They can take their art with them or pin it to the growing collection on a gallery wall lined with cork strips.

“You begin to see a crossover between Alutiiq storytelling and what audiences are making in the galleries,” Steffian says. “The exhibit is decoding information in a better way. By making artwork yourself, you begin to understand why other people might have made a similar design. The ‘oddness’ of it falls away.”

Visitor artwork at the Pililuki exhibit

Museums Alaska President, Molly Conley praised Pililuki as “not just an exhibit, but part of a larger initiative to share Alutiiq culture with as many people as possible.”

“Alutiiq Museum staff, board, and culture bearers have taken a large step in expanding how people perceive the role of museums and how they experience exhibits in Kodiak,” Conley continued. “The project not only works towards the Museum’s goal of encouraging diverse audiences, but challenges customary ways museums present information.”

Young contestants enjoy the Alutiiq Museum’s first headdress pageant

Alutiiq staff and leaders have found that this focus on co-creation now drives their approach in all areas of operations, not just exhibition design and programming. Hoping for more of a turnout at their traditional annual meeting, which serves as a chance for the public to attend a board meeting and learn about the Museum’s financial health and major activities for the year, Museum leaders scrapped the protocols of the past. They centered their 2017 meeting around food (building off the success of one of their recent experimental programs, Free Fry Bread Friday) and an Alutiiq headdress pageant. The pageant drew entrants online and in-person, and more than 200 spectators on the day of the annual meeting. An excited, standing-room only crowd applauded the pageant winners as they paraded their headdresses in front of a panel of judges and won much-coveted bragging rights.

The crowd included a good number of the “second circle” of community members that the Museum has been working to attract. Much of this circle is made up of people of Alutiiq heritage who might not speak Alutiiq, might not think of themselves as “culture bearers”, and might not be sure what to do in a museum.

“We’re showing that Alutiiq culture is a living culture,” Steffian points out. “Not just something in a case.”

Museum staff continue to re-imagine the Date Night with Disaster program. In 2018, they’ll test out a Date Night in Port Lions, a small community in the Alutiiq diaspora, 32 miles from the museum itself. They’ll also try museum events that build on popular elements of the program (visitors learning an Alutiiq craft or skill, like skin sewing or dart throwing) while broadening the scope to families and other audience segments who might not sign up for a “date night.”

At the same time, they’re noticing and building their adaptive muscles in areas beyond public programs. They’re careful to design new staff orientations that emphasize innovative thinking and strategy. All staff, across departments, are expected to employ key tools like small-scale experimentation, constant evaluation using quick and novel methods, and an embrace of the possibility of failure in their work. The Museum’s new strategic plan will be tied explicitly to this approach; it has been dubbed a “plan-o-vation”.

Alutiiq Museum leaders want to push beyond what an average museum does and connect deeply to the Alutiiq culture that’s actually being lived now. This bold vison demands more than a great new series of programs; it demands a total re-orientation of the museum to its community, a shift that the Alutiiq Museum is slowly but surely accomplishing.

A visitor takes in the Pililuki exhibit


Tools and Tips for Practitioners:

More about Small Experiments with Radical Intent:

Learning to thoughtfully design small-scale, low-stakes experiments, or “small experiments with radical intent,” is the cornerstone of EmcArts’ approach to adaptive change. All of the inspiring Innovation Stories you’ll find on started with a just a kernel of an idea and a small experiment to test it out.

Here are some thoughts on experimentation from a variety of artists and arts administrators:
Making Space for Devised Theatermaking
Tidelines: Experiments in Community Storytelling in Alaska
Interview: Young Jean Lee on Experimentation, Failure, and Getting Out of Her Comfort Zone
Photo Essay: A Lab Concludes, But the Work Goes On…

More about Developmental Evaluation:

A response to some of the limitations inherent to formative and summative evaluation practices, developmental evaluation helps social innovators to explore possibilities for addressing complex challenges, identify and develop innovative approaches and solutions, and inform adaptation in uncertain and dynamic conditions. Developmental evaluation asks: What if we could blend the creative thinking of innovation with the critical thinking of evaluation?

There is a wealth of information on to get you started using developmental evaluation in your work, including:

Evaluating Evaluation: An Introduction to Developmental Evaluation
Building a Developmental Evaluation Framework for the Community Innovation Labs
Learning in Complex Contexts: Why Developmental Evaluation is a Promising Approach

More about Co-Creating with the Public:

EmcArts’ National Innovation Summit for Arts & Culture (held in 2013 in Denver, CO) brought together 250 pioneering arts leaders and funders from 14 different communities for a non-traditional conference that explored the challenges, discoveries, and achievements of daring to depart from traditional approaches. Many of these arts leaders chose to focus on the vital subject of co-creation with the public during their livestreamed Summit Talks.

Browse a selection of these 12-minute talks here:

Co-Creating with the Public: Stories of projects where the public is invited to step into the role of creator alongside professional artists and/or organizations

Louise has managed the New Pathways program and other community initiatives at EmcArts. She continues to work with EmcArts as a writer, researcher, and program evaluator.