Learning from a project team’s experience: what works??

front textThere’s been a lot going down on Twitter in the past few days around project teams, language, power and how to get the develop the best experiences for the end-user – whether an exhibition, a program, a digital project, etc, etc.

Much of the discussion has been focussed around the best way/s to approach these projects. Reading the (huge) number of tweets I was reminded of a project team evaluation we conducted back in 2003 at the Australian Museum. During the 1990s-2000s the Museum was pretty progressive in how project teams were structured – no curatorial dominance, a chairperson selected by the team (and usually not the exhibition project manager), and always an educator, marketing/comms person, programs person, subject expert, maybe a designer, often someone from the Finance or HR department (for PD reasons, as much as for their expertise), and (almost) always informed by audience research.

For one particular exhibition, death: the last taboo, we wanted to see how a (kind of) different approach to running an exhibition project worked from the perspective of the team themselves. I’m posting this study as I think it helps inform what has been discussed on Twitter this week.


The objectives of the review were to explore the team’s experience in developing the exhibition:

  • processes that worked well
  • processes that worked less well
  • how they solved problems and how they dealt with conflict
  • the measures of success held by the team and to what extent they were met
  • evaluate the value of external inputs (audience research, community, internet)

The review started with uncovering the team’s goals, which were, in an overall sense, to talk about a subject that’s not talked about, and answer some of the questions no-one wants to ask, specifically to:

  • demystify death, especially since it’s so sanitised in Western society
  • provide an opportunity for people to consider death at a time and place removed from death
  • generate community debate
  • educate, and therefore help people

Visitors reported never seeing such an array of urns before

Importantly, team decided that rather than cover the whole topic, which they thought impractical for a number of reasons, they decided to focus on a specific aspect of death:

  • the practical aspects of what happens when you die and the choices you have

And to make it as real as possible:

  • provide full, factual detail, get the details right, make it object based, using the Museum’s collection as much as possible


By their own account, the team worked very well together because:

  • the subject matter meant there weren’t any ‘experts’
  • they got on well as people, jelled as a team and respected each other
  • between them they had a good balance of skills and therefore different strengths
  • all carried their share of the workload
  • they were able to talk through and resolve conflicts with a minimum of casualties
  • they had a relaxed approach and got on well as a team
  • they weren’t precious about content
  • they made field trips, for example mortuary, crematorium, funeral parlours, cemeteries etc to help them explore and discuss the topic and help provide the realism and authenticity they desired and acted as a bonding mechanism for the team
  • they had the use of a project room:
    • somewhere for the researcher to work
    • a place to keep everything together
    • a place to meet away from everyday distractions

They also felt that audience front-end research benefited the process:

  • helped them to focus at an early stage, by having to prepare the concept
  • allowed the team to watch potential visitors talk about death – their questions, interests, what they did and didn’t want to see / experience, and helped them decide what to focus on
  • provided them with feedback on their ideas and specific objects
  • provided some guidelines as to the boundaries of interest, good taste and appropriateness
  • gave them a ‘false deadline’ – they had to be able to explain the concept to visitors and think about the questions they wanted to ask early on in the development process

They adopted a new approach to graphics production:

  • two people rather than one
  • split roles – allowed each to focus and be more productive
  • team was happy with the output and they finished ahead of time

They also decided to have the focused services of a researcher:

  • provided the team with new skills
  • found stories and made relevant connections between these stories and the Museum’s resources (objects, images from archives)
  • allowed the team to use the collection more extensively

The team identified areas that could be improved:

  • the middle ‘dead patch’ where initial enthusiasm is lost and the pressure of the deadline hasn’t yet set in was compounded on this project by waiting for a sought-after team member to return from holidays
  • would have liked the services of a writer – better if content providers don’t have to also write for less ‘performance anxiety’
  • allows team members to operate within their area of expertise

The senior manager on the team (a member of the Museum’s Executive) claimed it was too difficult to be both a team member and a manager due to conflicting responsibilities and roles and therefore hard to be frank! They felt that in future an Executive member could act as mentor but not be part of the team, and be able to lobby on the team’s behalf.

They reported that being part of the team had unexpected benefits:

  • their attitudes to death changed as a result of being on the team – they can talk about it now and would know what to do if someone close to them died, and possibly make different choices, as well as thinking about their own choices in relation to death

How the team resolved conflict and removed barriers:

  • they wrote themselves a brief early in the process, aided by audience research and by their desire to include objects from the collection
  • then used this as a decision-making tool, to good effect, helping them to focus, saving time and provided a rationale for their approach and decision-making
  • they debated difficult areas to reach solutions, respected each other’s position, were willing to listen and be swayed, yet the team manager took control when needed, clearing difficult blockages



Decomposition section

Some salient lessons here for production teams and one of my favourite projects of all time – both personally (my father died during this project and it helped me a lot) and professionally (one of the most interesting evaluations ever in terms of how far audiences felt a museum could go with a topic of this nature, for example maggots and a decomposing pig on display was OK, a child’s coffin was not).

And, if you’ve got this far, thanks for reading!


  • The project team review was conducted by Robyn Hayes, owner of Nosey Parker, a social research agency
  • The audience research – front-end and summative – was also conducted by Robyn with my input as the Museum’s audience researcher
  • More about death the last taboo exhibition is on the Australian Museum’s website
  • A summary of the front-end and summative evaluations have been published as follows:
    • Kelly, L. (2010). Engaging Museum Visitors in Difficult Topics Through Socio-cultural Learning and Narrative. In F. Cameron and L. Kelly (Eds) Hot Topics, Public Culture, Museums. (pp. 194-210). Cambridge Scholars Publishing: London. [if you’re interested and kind to me I’ll send you a pdf of the chapter, just don’t tell…]
Audience Research

One of THE most poignant exhibits – you’ll have to read the chapter to see why…


The display of how Victorian-era folks marked death was one of the most popular areas

2 thoughts on “Learning from a project team’s experience: what works??

  1. agriffin2012 says:

    Kia ora Lynda

    I just read this very interesting post which is very pertinent to me at the moment. I have started a large project at our small Museum in Mokau, NZ where I will be refreshing each of the display cabinets and would like to address difficult subjects if needed. Also working as a team on a much smaller scale is a challenge too. I’d be very interested to read the chapter that you offer from your book.

    Also I haven’t seen this Twitter discussion but would be very interested in finding it. It may be drowned out from all the other twitter discussions I follow! I looked on your twitter but couldn’t see anything that sounded like this. Any links would be much appreciated.


    Amanda Griffin

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