Balboa Park Museums Find Synergy in Working Together

Strategy: Collaborate in New Ways, Take Advantage of Tech

Type of attraction: Arts Organization, Museum/Historic Site

Summary: San Diego’s Balboa Park offers a broad spectrum of large and small museums, many of which are housed in Spanish Colonial Revival buildings built for the Panama-California Exposition in the mid 1930s.

San Diego’s Balboa Park offers a broad spectrum of large and small museums, many of which are housed in Spanish Colonial Revival buildings built for the Panama-California Exposition in the mid 1930s.  The attractions in Balboa Park range from the San Diego Zoo to the San Diego Museum of Art, the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, the San Diego Natural History Museum and the Old Globe Theater.  Recognizing the benefits of working collaboratively, 24 institutions teamed up to form the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership (BPCP) in 2001.  In the fall of 2008, this collaboration was taken a step further with the creation of the Balboa Park Online Collaborative (BPOC).

Funded by a three-year grant from the Legler Benbough Foundation, this collaborative is working to encourage technology collaboration among Balboa Park’s institutions and improve on-line access to the park’s resources.  By having shared technology services which include on-line transactions and a shared content management system, the collaborative hopes to realize savings while improving public access and increasing cultural tourism in the park.  “While this concept was conceived of before the economic downturn, this collaboration was a great opportunity to share resources and do things that the museums individually couldn’t normally afford.” explains Rich Cherry, director of BPOC. 

Activities to date have included technology training for staff of member organizations, technical support and the network infrastructure for a high speed connection within the park.    Other efforts include a cell phone based alternate reality game (www.giskin.org) to allow visitors to experience the history of the park while exploring its hidden treasures, assisting sites with digitization of collections and the creation of digital archives. 

“One of the challenges of launching this effort during the downturn has been that some of our member museums, especially the smaller ones, have less capacity to work with us.  It’s been easier for us to build collaboration around things they already do (areas where we supplemented information technology work that they were already doing) and more challenging as we moved into newer technologies that they were unfamiliar with.  That’s been a lesson learned—if I was to do this again, I’d focus first on building the network—getting basic technology infrastructure and technology services in place before moving on to mission centric projects,” says Cherry. 

Cherry reflects that the new fiber optic cable network offering improved internet access for staff and visitors alike is one of the most valuable efforts to date.  In addition to offering faster and more reliable internet services, the museums will realize a cost savings for internet fees.   Because BPOC installed the new fiber optic cable, internet fees will now go to BPOC providing an ongoing source of earned income for the collaborative.  Long terms plans to bring a wireless network to the park will open up new opportunities for technology based interactive experiences.

Before 2008, most of the museums had not been digitizing their collections and putting content online.  As one component of BPOC’s work, over 130,000 new digital images were created and more than 100,000 were loaded on Flickr™ in 2010 alone.  Cherry notes “We were able to show the museums that the images on Flickr™ saw four times more traffic than the museum’s own website, giving the museums an opportunity to engage a whole new audience.”  The interactive nature of Flickr™ also offered opportunities for visitors to add their own comments to the images to add to the richness of this resource.

Finding ways to sustain the program is part of the collaborative’s work as it enters into the third year.  Successful fundraising efforts added another $1.2 million to the original $3 million three-year start-up grant provided by the Legler Benbough Foundation.  Plans for ongoing funding sources to sustain the collaborative are in the works including earned income, grants, foundation funding and individual giving.  To learn more about BPOC go to www.bpoc.org.