Taylor Studios (TSI): John, you have great visitation and community involvement. How did you make that happen?
John Myers (JM): So many people think they know what the community wants to see out of a nature center (or museum, cultural institution, etc), but very few leaders of these organizations actually stop and ask. The biggest thing that we did to increase visitation at Indian Creek Nature Center was to listen to what the community wanted and deliver on that. This was hard for our staff as they viewed themselves as the industry experts and “knew what people wanted.” But in reality, the staff knew what they wanted, not what the community wanted.
The other important item is to say “yes”. By being open to strategic partnerships and new opportunities it allowed us to expand the number of new people who were able to visit the Nature Center. This is easier said than done. Organizations must realize that great things are possible and not limit themselves. Many non-profit and cultural institutions face a perception of a deficit of resources. Effective leaders change the paradigm to ensure that staff and board members believe that there is abundance and that anything is possible.
(TSI): What is the most challenging moment you’ve experienced while developing your new building?
(JM): There are always a lot of people who will tell you that something is not possible, whether it is achieving true Net Zero energy sustainability, raising millions of dollars for capital and endowment, or increasing visitation by over 200%. Often times their negativity and fear comes because they don’t know how to manage change or deal with new (and often scary) opportunities. Helping staff, board, and volunteers to personally grow, support them in the change, and challenge them to be better are all keys to overcoming this negativity and fear. Yet, once they start to see success, many of them become excited about change and what the future holds.
(TSI): What’s your best advice for someone running a center?
(JM): Do things differently and respond to community demand.
The general population is used to visiting museums, nature centers, and other similar venues. They want to see more than the fanciest and most expensive exhibits. They want true engagement.
Often, we overlook the benefits of listening directly to the constituents we are trying to serve. Community surveys, suggestion boxes, visitor evaluations, and the like are not successful. There must be direct interaction with people who are NOT visiting the venue to determine why they aren’t visiting and what can be done to fix the problem.
Ultimately, success begets success. As one program starts to take off people begin seeing other things that they can do and be engaged in while visiting. They then talk to their friends and family and more people start coming to visit.
(TSI): What exhibit (anywhere, anytime) has made the greatest impression on you?
(JM): The most impactful exhibit that I saw was the prairie root exhibit at the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan, Kansas. This had an impact because it visually told a story about prairie roots, their amazing depth, and the benefit that prairie can have on a landscape, environment, and watershed. While it was not the most interactive exhibit, the visual impact that 12 feet prairie roots has tells a story that no narrator can achieve. It’s the wow factor that comes when someone learns something new that they weren’t expecting.
I saw this exhibit prior to beginning construction on Indian Creek Nature Center and it really guided my theory and investment in exhibits. Lots of people wanted to see fancy built exhibits that kids could crawl and climb over and had fancy technological features. The problem with this is that those types of exhibits only dilute our organizational goals. The number one goal was to educate and inspire people to get outside, so the exhibits that we installed were designed to encourage people to make a connection to what they experienced outside, not keep them inside looking around.
(TSI): How did you get to where you are today?
(JM): Every path is winding, right? I think that the most important thing that I did to enhance my career (and ultimately the presence of Indian Creek Nature Center) was to ensure that I had the skills and abilities to focus on the “double-bottom line”. So many people in the museum and non-profit field have a deep passion for their mission, but not all of these people can successfully manage the business side of the organization. Strong leadership skills, financial acumen, customer service interactions, and other similar skills must be developed in our upcoming leaders in the field. That will ensure organizational success more than the most passionate person in the world.
(TSI): Which exhibit within your museum has been the most popular among your visitors? Why?
(JM): Through a partnership with one of our volunteers we created an Augmented Reality sand table that teaches visitors about watershed, topography, and elevation. Its popularity comes because it is a hands-on, technology based way to present a traditionally boring topic such as topography. Google Augmented Reality sandbox and you will see how simple they can be to make, but how impactful they are. Further, the entire exhibit cost under $10,000.
(TSI): What would you do differently?
(JM): In reality, there’s always tweaks and changes that need to be made when constructing a new facility and changing an organization’s trajectory. One of the very first things that I would do different is to realize that this type of change takes time. While most people want to move fast, and speed is necessary, true organizational change takes years to attain. Consistency and pacing towards an end vision are important in order to ensure the sanity of the staff, board, and volunteers.
(TSI): What book would you recommend?
(JM): Two books
- For engagement and community development – Magentic published by the American Alliance for Museums. Magentic is a collection of research centered on how case study museums have become magnets that draw people to their sites.
- For leadership – Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last. Most people go first towards Sinek’s book called Start With Why. I like Leaders Eat Last because it focuses more on personal growth not organization growth. Personal leadership growth is necessary in order to make organizational wide change.