What Do We Mean when We Say Creative?

In our initial survey, we intentionally did not define creativity,  because we wanted to see what filtered up from all of our colleagues.  But after talking, reading your comments and lots of other sources,  and writing collaboratively,  we’ve come up with a definition–or perhaps we might more accurately call it a manifesto–about what we think makes a museum creative and what we mean by creative practice.

We envision that in every step of our process, we’ll be sharing ideas with our colleagues.  Once a week or so,  we hope to post a question or topic for your thoughtful comments.  So we begin at the beginning.  Here’s what we think:

For the purposes of this project, creative museums—and creative museum workers—produce new ideas and new ways of seeing things that add value either internally (to the staff and to operations behind the scenes) or externally (to the community). Our definition is broad, including idea generation in any museum department (inventing bold new interpretive methods, management techniques, or even fundraising strategies), creative problem-solving (finding a graceful way to move past entrenched challenges), and—what most people think of first—artistic creativity (making the museum aesthetically appealing). Creativity isn’t something you have or don’t have; it’s a practice that is open to everyone. And it must indeed be practiced—it does not happen out of thin air. A creative museum generates both successes and failures, and requires testing, revising, and rethinking ideas and opportunities. Often you simply know a creative museum when you see it. And the good news is that our visitors know it when they see it too.

What’s your initial response to this?   Are we missing any elements?  Is it too broad or too narrow?  Can you see how it might pertain to your organization or others you know?

Comment below, or directly by emailing either one of us.  And thanks for your insights!


4 thoughts on “What Do We Mean when We Say Creative?

  1. I’d be curious to hear how–or if–you view creativity vis-a-vis innovation. Are they different? Are they the same? What is their relationship? In the definition you provide here, I could see “innovation” standing in relatively easily for “creativity,” but I think you’re getting at something slightly different. Maybe it’s as simple as asking why you chose to locate your project under the umbrella of “creativity” as a word and not “innovation.”

    I’m also curious about the part of visitors knowing creativity when they see it. What do visitors see? How do they express their thoughts about a museum’s creativity?

    • That’s a good point about creativity vs. innovation, Andrea. We’ll work on addressing it. As for visitors knowing creativity when they see it, we feel that there is a correlation between a museum’s level of creativity and visitors’ level of satisfaction. Our brains are wired not just to get excited about our own new ideas but also to get excited about other people’s new ideas. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the museums most often cited as creative in our survey also have passionate audience bases.

      This weekend I spent an afternoon at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum that tells the story of Plymouth Colony. It’s a large outdoor space, with wooded paths connecting several different interpretive areas. Along the path just outside the recreated English village is a sign that says “Welcome to the 17th Century.” Plimoth Plantation could’ve put up a sign that said “Entering the English Village;” it would’ve served as sufficient wayfinding but would’ve otherwise been unremarkable. But by phrasing the sign “Welcome to the 17th Century” Plimoth Plantation committed a small act of creativity, and consequently nearly every visitor group I saw pass it stopped to take a photo. This kind of widespread photo taking is one example of visitors knowing (and acknowledging) creativity when they see it. Would you agree, Andrea, or do you look at it differently? And I’m interested to hear from others too–what’s your take on visitors knowing it when they see it?

  2. Rainey, the thought of demarcating a line between creativity and innovation makes my head explore, so let me know if you and Linda come up with a concept that is even fuzzy. 🙂

    On the note of visitors recognizing creativity, I like your example from Plimoth Plantation and agree that it is a creative move on the museum’s part. I’m not sure, however, that visitors necessarily identify that move as creativity. I feel like for visitors, creativity is more about creating (can’t get away from that word) an experience—the photo op at Plimoth, etc. Creativity in museums seems a bit like museum speak, whereas I think visitors are speaking a different language. In those museums that have passionate audience bases, do those audiences love the museum for its creativity or something else? I suspect they creativity may be the foundation of something else that’s going on.

    Does that make sense? For me, I think it really hinges on experience for visitors. Maybe the museums you’re hearing about are creative in creating an experience?

    • Okay, I think I see what you’re getting at, Andrea. Visitors are more likely to say “neat,” “cool,” “what an awesome day” rather than “wow, that’s creative.” That creativity is the means to an end, rather than the end itself. I’m going to ponder that one and see what we can do with it. Thanks for being so thoughtful about our definition.

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