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Month at the Museum: MSI Kate a cure for stodgy museum

January 17, 2011
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MSI Kate with baby chicks

Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry takes museum blogging to the next level with their “Month at the Museum” project in which a blogger was chosen to live 24/7 inside the museum and document the whole process. 24-year-old Kate McGroarty (a theatre graduate) was chosen out of 1500 applicants. She won 10,000$ and a month living, learning, and blogging from inside one of the nation’s most interactive, fun spaces! This is a great marketing idea that got a lot of press and has brought the MSI back into the public eye. It was also hard work.

The project is a marketing scheme developed in response to the museum’s rather stodgy reputation and to the fact that while many people visited as kids or “a long time ago”, few returned recently. That’s frequently the problem with museums that are real “institutions” – and the MSI has been open since 1933 in Chicago’s Hyde Park (near the University of Chicago). Thus the choice of an energetic and engaging representative to talk about what fun things you can do in the museum. Kate spent a lot of time working with the schoolchildren who visit the museum frequently, but she also had access to behind the scenes stuff – and of course, she was there at night. Just her and the security guards.

Kate worked hard at this job, which involved long hours and a lot of media attention. She tried to be as natural as possible and also stuck to her goals of frequent facebook and twitter updates as well as daily (or more) blog posts and videos. I think she did a really great job. Contestants were subjected to a battery of psychological tests and a personal interview, and Kate was chosen in part for her communication skills. But the MSI was just in part lucky that she also comes across as really friendly and upbeat throughout the whole time. thus creating an excellent image for the museum.

You can also imagine that a significant amount of planning must have taken place at every level of the museum organization in order to make this happen (something that is not mentioned in the press on the topic, which focuses, rightly, on the “star”). Aside from the launch and promotion of the search for a “roommate”, the MSI must have had tech and social media experts on hand to develop the channels on which Kate was to communicate, designers to create the glass cube in which she lived as well as the private areas for sleeping, education department members to decide part of her schedule. They also probably had to think about insurance and food and any other support the winner might need.

This is a large project and not one that is easily replicable for other museums. But Kate is not the first person to sleep at the MSI: the museum hosts monthly sleepovers called Snoozeum at the cost of 45$ per person. Participants (often children) are asked to wear a sweatsuit and pack a sleeping bag and air mattress, and they have access to the exhibits until late (but not all night). Snack and breakfast are provided. The cost of this activity is extremely reasonable for the experiential value, but also brings much needed income to the museum (these nights are always sold out, so it’s guaranteed income). I’m quite sure that any kid who gets to do this will remember it forever!

Museums that cannot have kids sleeping on floors for security reasons could consider hosting late-night openings – i mean really late, like ’til past midnight – or other events to animate the museum at night.

Read MSIKate’s blog.

Sources: Huffington post article, NPR article

MSI Chicago 2001: I liked the tractors, Tommaso liked the giant heart.

PS the MSI really is a fun place to visit because it’s very interactive – you can climb on stuff! My favourite exhibit is the tractors. I’m not kidding. Here is a page from my 2001 photo album.

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