Chicago's Museum of Science & Industry ("MSI") had a great idea last year: let someone from outside the institution literally "live" there for a month, and let the public see the place through her or his eyes. Sour grapes alert: I applied for the job, but found myself among a few thousand others who lost out to a plucky twentysomething who went on to be utterly boring and forgettable.

Yesterday, MSI announced its second winner -- after picking from a list of finalists who couldn't be more ethnically, racially, age-wise, gender, or otherwise utterly ersatz and contrived -- who I fear will squander the great idea once again. I tried out for that gig, too, but couldn't get my act together in time to make the submission deadline.

Clearly, the people at MSI aren't marketers, and they've likely had this campaign pitched and delivered by an outside social media-savvy agency. So it certainly offers up all the prerequisite bells and whistles -- application videos on YouTube, voting, a somewhat steady series of museum resident blog posts about what they are shown, and the occasional external PR events (like riding the Zamboni at a Blackhawks game) -- but these constituent parts add up to nothing.

The person who lives in the museum isn't the point, and really isn't all that interesting after you get past wondering if they'll live in a box and be on display. Putting content about them online isn't an accomplishment, either, since museums have been virtualizing their entire collections for years now; in doing so, they rob people of any reason to visit their geophysical destinations, and make their brands no different than, say, Discovery Channel or National Geographic. But that self-destruction is the stuff of another conversation.

MSI deserves better advice and a more effective marketing campaign. The living at the museum stunt is only interesting if it provides a real, compelling, and motivational lens on what makes the museum real, compelling, and worth visiting. So the marketing has to be about the place, not the person, and hoping the latter will figure out how to stand in for the former didn't work at all the first time around.

Here are three thought-starters on what it could do this time:

  • Develop regular programming -- The occasional blog post about anything that someone chooses to write while living in the museum is no guarantee of readability, let alone utility for the potential museum visitor. MSI should develop shows, literally, like a  daily webcast called Stuff That Surprised Me, or a two-graph daily blog post about Secrets of the MSI. Design substance and relevance into the content development process instead of glibly hoping that it'll happen automatically. It rarely does, and certainly didn't the first time around.
  • Create real-time interaction -- The resident should be a constant, roving prop to get people engaged at the museum; in fact, wondering what’ll happen should be a draw to going there. There should be Tweets to museum-goers saying "I'm about to drive the Coal Mine train and I don't know how to do it," or "Join me at the historic street and I'll tell you how bad people used to smell," or whatever.
  • Think outside the box -- Again, literally, by finding more places for the museum resident to visit and promote the museum. Groups should be brought back to the museum to see the place through different eyes. This should also be a regular campaign with commitments and programmatic extensions arranged long before anybody even thought to submit a video application for the job.

The metrics for the campaign could be simple: museum visits, qualitative satisfaction, return percentages. Skip whatever runs online, since that’s just a means to an end. Great numbers of views and clicks just don't matter unless there are more feet on the floors in front of real-world displays.

My guess is that it's unlikely that any of these ideas will get implemented this time around, but perhaps Month at the Museum 3 isn't all that far away?

What do you think?

(Image credit: Nice logo, lame program)

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