Museum Branding Lessons from Bonsai

Practically speaking, only a few kinds of museum will collect, preserve and interpret bonsai. But the attitude of bonsai – lifetime growth and change, often with the complicity of the artist — is something for all museum branders to think about.

In an impromptu talk with a staff gardener at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I realized that bonsai change after the artist has completed them, and that curators thereafter help these living exhibits follow their natural trajectory. One can’t help but compare that with how other museums handle change. Of course, you can’t tweak the objects or modify the artifacts. But — and it’s a big but – the presumption of change, from the beginning of the work’s creation throughout its life with the artist and then the museum, is an enlightening idea.

A museum dedicated to keeping its brand relevant doesn’t have to be a botanic garden museum. The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago addresses changing times by devoting much of its energy to performance art; The museum brand encompasses all expression of contemporary art. Three New York art museums — El Museo del Barrio, Studio Museum in Harlem, and Queens Museum of Art – are also tackling a new discipline: the history and sociology of the Caribbean, using art as its reference material. (Robin Cembalest, ARTnews, June 2012) These are big changes, but with a strong brand, museums can make these brave adaptations.

Here’s another brand lesson, coming from a core value of the Garden.  It is Garden policy that visitors can ask any question of any person working on the grounds, and receive an informed answer. In the case of my serendipitous encounter with an employee who happened to be walking by, the brand uniqueness of the Garden was manifest.

An encyclopedic brand like a large botanic garden can easily be overshadowed by its exhibits, and that’s when its signature service becomes essential.








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