Reigniting The Museum Experience With Annie Lundsten

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What does it take to make one’s museum experience more meaningful and impactful? These places preserve history for posterity’s sake, but are we actually immersing in it or simply touring one? Tony Martignetti sits down with arts and administration innovator Annie Lundsten who uses engaging storytelling approaches to elevate the museum experience. She explains how museums can establish the identity they are working for, find the best partners to collaborate with, and constantly evolve their strategies to connect with more people. Annie also talks about the inception of The Experience Alchemist, an innovative company focusing on crafting strategies and storytelling techniques for imaginative businesses.


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Reigniting The Museum Experience With Annie Lundsten

It is my honor to introduce you to my guest, Annie Lundsten. Annie is a Cofounder and Principal at The Experience Alchemist, a small experience design company that works with and for creative organizations in the realms of strategy and storytelling. As a public benefit corporation, the experienced alchemists seek to raise all the boats by partnering with artists and other creative professionals to deliver transformative experiences to clients that support, inspire, and educate their audiences.

Annie is an innovator in arts and administration, a connector of interdisciplinary dots, and a builder of extraordinary teams having spent many years in the development, management, and implementation of creative projects and their associated content across a diverse range of public and private cultural institutions and art organizations. Amazing, Annie. I’m so thrilled to have you on. Welcome to the show.

Thanks for having me.

Reading your bio and helping to bring you into the room, I’m amazed at all the things you’ve accomplished. It’s going to be powerful to share with the audience what is the work that you’re doing and how do you bring it to life. Before we get there, I like to share on the show what was the journey that got you doing this work. We’re going to do that through what we call flashpoints. These are the points in your journey that have ignited your gifts in the world. Since storytelling is a big part of what you do, I want to turn the table on you to share your story. With that, Annie, are you ready to share your flashpoints?

I can certainly try.

Let’s do it. As you’re sharing your flashpoint, start wherever you’d like and along the way, we’ll stop and see what themes are showing up and we’ll go from there. Take it away.

What I often tell people out in the world is that I have a lot of good dinner party stories. What I mean by that, is to your point about storytelling, I do tend to think about my life and my professional landscape in a narrative way. Flashpoints are perhaps a good mechanism to think about them. Flashpoint equals dinner party story.

With that, I will try to think about the more fun things in addition to the more technical things. I graduated from a small liberal arts college in New England with a degree in History and Religious Studies. Everyone thought that I would go become a history professor or possibly a lawyer because that’s what history majors tend to do.

Neither of those things was of particular interest to me. As I was wrapping up my senior year, which included a pretty detailed thesis document. I was at a museum in Washington DC, the Freer Gallery of Art, which is the Smithsonian Asian Art Museum. I was looking at an object that ended up being important to my senior thesis. That started me thinking about history as expressed through material culture and objects.

Rather than text, which is the bread and butter of every historian. I got curious about how history and stories get told through things rather than words. That was an important moment for me. When I left college, I had a thousand jobs, as many young people do. I did all kinds of boring things like sling coffee but while I did that, I also did internships at museums and preservation societies.

I have a lot of good dinner party stories from a stint that I did at an auction house for a number of months, which attracted all kinds of different interesting people after all different kinds of interesting things. The point was to sample the buffet of types of jobs and work that might relate to material culture and objects. That ultimately brought me to museums back where I had started my senior year of college. If you fast forward from that, the fates are interesting because my first solid museum job ended up being at the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington DC, where I had seen that object several years before. That was a funny and interesting turn.

I’m sure the security guards are aware you might eventually steal that piece of o that object and take it home with you. I want to take a moment here, first of all, the pursuit of a degree in history and religion then finding yourself in this path of working in museums. A lot of the people who don’t understand this path immediately go like, “How could you do this? This seems like a very foolish and almost irresponsible path.” What were people who were on the outside looking in, telling you like, “You should get a real job or you should find a different path?” Were there any naysayers along the way and how did you deal with that, especially early days?

I’m not sure that anyone did think it was particularly foolish. There was a general acknowledgment that I’d never make any money because any of us who end up in the world of nonprofits has to drink that particular Kool-Aid or at least have that foundational understanding, which is grounded in reality, unfortunately.

It’s gotten better over time but certainly, in the late ‘90s, early aughts, as I was young and coming into the world. Going to work for nonprofits was a zero-sum game in terms of being able to support yourself. I came from a family that put a lot of stock in intellectual capital. The museum world was not so strange to them. The intellectual capital was more important to them than the financial capital. If anything at that time and still, people have a particular association with museums, art, and nonprofits. That tends to be a little bit glamorous. Sometimes, in a way that is not at all realistic, in fact. There was not a lot of naysaying. There was a question of, “Are you going to be able to pay your rent?”

The inner turmoil that people don’t see is that there is the passionate, the glamorous part but there’s also the underlying part which is you still have the challenges that everyone else has. We still have to have make a living and we have to do things. I love what you shared because it’s a sense of knowing that even though they were not naysayers, you are grounded in reality but driven by passion.

I think that’s true. As I look back on it now, I know an awful lot more than I did when I was 23. There were many ways in which I was very naive at that time. Despite the fact that I have always felt that I’ve got a pretty good head on my shoulders, there was a lot I didn’t know, so I had to go find out.

In some ways, that’s the best way to go is not to have it all figured out and allow yourself to take one step at a time and allow it to unfold.

For sure. As I said before, I was quite interested in sampling all across the universe in which I found myself. By sampling, I understood the universe better. Ultimately, that’s probably what I’ve continued to do all throughout. It is to take a little bite of this and that in order to understand how this or that tastes and decide if I like it or not.

By taking a little bite of what the world has to offer, you can understand the universe even better.

That’s great advice in its own right. For the people reading, there’s a sense of like, “Do a lot of sampling.” I often talk about curating, in terms of in our careers and in our lives. Curate along the path of your life. It’s the same thing around sampling. Take little things, test them out and see what happens. See if there’s something you want to go deeper into here to explore. I love that you went there.

Am I continuing my journey?

Yes, you sure are. Interruptions by me.

That’s quite all right. I spent a few years at the Smithsonian. One of the things that I took away from that particular period was that very large governmental organizations are quite hard to move. They’re big, bureaucratic and they offer a lot of very attractive safety in terms of irregular paycheck and benefits and all of that good stuff.

At the time and I would say still, I was not willing to sacrifice the expansion and the learning process that I felt like I was in and that I still feel like I’m in, for that safety. I understood why other people chose to do that but that was not what I wanted to do. I did leave the Smithsonian after about four years and interestingly, I went next door to the Holocaust Museum.

The reason that I went there was that I wanted to sample a history museum, a straight-up history museum. I’d spent some time in this big art museum and I wanted to see what history was given the fact that I had this history degree. Not at all related to World War II or the Holocaust but that was a world that I wanted to poke my head into.

I was also curious about how that particular story, which is a very painful one. Manifested that museum is by all accounts, a very successful museum in terms of its impact and its reach. I wanted to have a better look at that in order to understand that the museum was about ten years old at that time. It was an interesting time to be there because they were thinking a lot about the ten years that they had existed and what were their next 10 or 20 years going to be like.

They were telling this story. For anyone who’s been there, you know that the museum is very static. It’s a permanently installed space. It’s very prescribed. You have a very specific path that you go on and it doesn’t change. Having visited it with my own kids, it is still that way. That is a particular challenge for an organization of that ilk. The identity piece was interesting to me, “Who do you want to be as an organization? You’ve done this thing, which has been very successful and what are you going to do now?”

It’s interesting that you bring this up because these stories are at the core of all of this but there’s a sense of you go into an organization like the Holocaust Museum and you say, “I’m immersing myself in the story of the Holocaust.” You’re also immersing yourself in the story of the museum and how it evolve. It’s not just a static thing or at least, hopefully, it’s not a static thing. It has to evolve in its own way because if it continues to show the same things over and over again in the same way, then what happens is it becomes, I don’t if I want to call it irrelevant but it falls in the background. People start to feel like there’s a need for something else. Another part of the story to be shared.

It’s a perpetual challenge for museums, in general. It can be quite difficult to change physical spaces. It’s expensive. It takes time and people. It’s a conundrum that a lot of organizations space, for sure. I spend some time there, I then left that organization and I went up to Baltimore, to the Walters Art Museum, which is a small art museum right in the heart of Baltimore.

That was interesting because Baltimore is a very different place from Washington DC. Despite the fact that they are close neighbors. If you have been to either one of those cities or both of them, you probably have a sense of what I’m talking about. The Walters was a very jewel box of an art museum. It was an organization that was created on the back of a collection that was created by a father and son right around the turn of the century throughout the late 19th Century and into the early 20th.

The Walters family has an interesting story grounded in the City of Baltimore. Again, the identity piece of what the Walters wanted to be within the City of Baltimore, which is a challenged city. There is a thread of identity that runs through my interests across all of the places that I’ve worked with and for over the years. Who are they? How do they think about themselves? Who do they want to serve?

The backdrop of museums comes with a lot of baggage. Museums are historically thought of as quite stodgy. They are, as I say, sometimes thought of rather unfairly as glamorous, snobby, or exclusive. This is a trope that continues to be an issue now. As demographics shift and museums understand that they do need to welcome all kinds of different people but they still struggle with how to do that. A lot of that is wrapped up in their identity and issues around their identity and how they think about themselves.

VCP 211 | Museum Experience

I can see we’re heading towards the work you’re doing now, which is amazing. What you’re sharing is so powerful to the sense that every museum has an identity, their why. Why do we exist and for who? Identifying those things and getting clear and also making sure that it resonates with all involved and that story, that identity is communicated well. It’s no different than any company that’s out there in the world where we want to make sure that who we serve is very clear to the people who are going to consume our products.

One of my oldest closest friends works a lot in corporate accountability and conflict resolution and peacebuilding. We have a very long-running conversation about how that plays out in museums and other arts and cultural organizations. The thing about museums, particularly the largest museums in the United States and abroad as well, is that they’re very old. They’re old organizations. They have existed for a long time. Many of them are associated with old families or old money.

The museums themselves, any museum that is older or more traditionally based will tell you that they are their collection. Their collections are often very old as well and/or have been assembled over a long period of time. These organizations have an enormous amount of wonderful things that come with that age and experience and foundation but they also have a lot of baggage. They have a lot of things to unpack when it comes to their identity, how their collections got assembled by who, when, where did the money come from and who was impacted by the assembly of those collections? This is work that a lot of organizations have only begun to touch the iceberg on.

It’s so interesting you’re sharing this because I can think of so many examples like this but one that came to mind almost immediately is the Stackler family from Purdue Pharma. The sense that the collection is amazing but the name has now tarnished that museum and that collection because of the fact that there’s a sense of this is connected to that family and now it’s caused a lot of issues.

That is one very prominent example. I would argue again that this is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The money that goes into not just the foundation of these organizations but that continues to make them go. All of these organizations have large and powerful boards and those boards make their money in all kinds of different ways. That’s a thing and it’s a real thing that impacts the values and social functioning of these organizations. Many of them are not all that interested in people asking questions about those things.

Shift the conversation to another place. That’s what we’ll do now because I want to get back into your story. I want to hear what happened next because here you are doing this amazing work inside of the museum system, I’ll call it. What happens now in your journey that became the next flashpoint?

I’ll say that what I was doing all along in these organizations was what a Mountain States Administration work. I spent my entire institutional career in the exhibitions departments. What that practically related to was managing, developing, and implementing large special exhibition projects. Large exhibitions are the thing that does change in these organizations. They typically change every few months.

Large special exhibition projects are the thing that change in museum. They are the bread and butter of getting in new and different audiences.

They’re the bread and butter of getting in new and different audiences. They’re the biggest, most expensive products that these types of organizations do. They often involve a lot of partnerships with other organizations or artists. They also often have a lot of logistical things associated with them because they travel. They get packed into crates and shipped off to other organizations. That is a lot of what I was doing over the course of these years.

I was developing the ideas behind these exhibitions, so working with teams across my institution to think about what they wanted these projects to be about. The kinds of objects that would get included in these exhibitions and help the team develop their ideas around the audience-facing experience. Again, all of the very logistical things of budgeting, scheduling, and touring. From the very beginning, I wore what I often call the hard and the soft hats.

The hard hats being the numbers and the time and all of that logistical stuff. The soft hat being the team building and getting my colleagues to get in the sandbox and play nicely together in order to come up with a project that was going to be impactful for audiences. To lay that groundwork, those are all the skills that I was developing over the course of these years.

True leadership skills. Things that we need people to be able to tap into, to run an organization, be able to be grounded in the sense that, how do we know operationally what’s happening but also how do we get people on board and working together and collaborating? Well done.

I’ll say too, though, that in the chairs that I sat in, I did all of those things quite quietly. I was not in the C-suite. I was a worker B and there were a lot of ways in which I spent a lot of time thinking about how to make these projects run better. I’m very interested in the process and how things work and how people work together and what are all of the dominoes and what is the order in which the dominoes have to fall in order to get the thing done. Part of all of that is a quiet little humming in the background.

It’s setting other people up to succeed, to get the product that you want, in this case, an exhibition. It’s leadership but it’s very quiet and supportive leadership. It’s almost like a propping up of others without them noticing. I learned very early on that rather than wag fingers at people and tell them what to do. It was much better to take a tack of let me help you do your job better. That’s an interesting and important distinction to make and one that I found to be much more effective over time.

Rather than waging fingers at people and telling them what to do, it is much better to take a tack of “Let me help you do your job better.”

I love that you mentioned this because there’s a sense that we’re in a world now where we’re starting to realize that we don’t have to be loud leaders to get results. We can be quiet and as long as it’s aligned with who we are as a person and it’s authentic. I know that’s an overused term but if it’s authentically who we are and we are leading in that way, it can get great results. It’s beautiful.

There’s always the Jerry McGuire scene with Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding Jr, help me help you. That’s where it’s at. I spent a few years at the Walters. When I left there, I left there in order to wrangle two little kids for a couple of years then I moved up to New England for family and personal reasons. I went to work at the Peabody Essex Museum, which is in Salem, Massachusetts.

The Peabody Essex at the time was exploding in size and scope and ambition. A whole slew of us were hired around the same time to tackle that ambition. That happens to be where I met my now two business partners, Jim Olson and Ed Bradley, with whom I now co-run the experience on this. Out of that came a real, I would say, blurry of creativity and ideation around how we do our work. Certainly, the three of us, among others, had other colleagues and friends, who we worked closely with during those years.

Together, we developed a lot of thoughts about how we wanted to do our work and how we didn’t want to do our work. Ultimately, we wanted to do our work in a way that was not congruous with that organization. I credit that organization again with many excellent projects. There are many very good people who worked there at the time and who still work there now. Some of us outgrew what was happening at that place and wanted to go on to do other more expansive things and to push envelopes that we could not push within institutional work, frankly, a large museum.

I’d love to take this opportunity because first of all, I love what you shared and Peabody Essex Museum is one of my favorites, at least, locally. There’s one particular piece there that all the flowers are for me like one of my favorite pieces there. It’s like an entire room that is amazing. I want to be clear for people who are reading, what is Experience Alchemists? At its core, what made it something that was energizing for you and for the people who are now experiencing it? You don’t have to go into a massive depth but at the core, what is it?

I would say that The Experience Alchemist or TEA, as we fondly call ourselves because The Experience Alchemist is quite a handful or a mouthful. I would say that TEA was a lot of things born from COVID. I had left the Peabody Essex Museum a couple of years before COVID and was doing independent consulting work.

Around the time that COVID hit, myself and many of my friends and colleagues within the cultural and museum space were watching all of our organizations close their doors. We were watching all of the work dry up. We were sitting in this pile of ashes wondering what the hell had happened and what was going to happen next. I and others, including Jim and Ed, began to think of COVID as, but I constantly was referring to it as the portal.

The portal was a reference to an essay written by this wonderful writer whose name I’m forgetting in this moment. I can share it with you after. There was this concept of this moment as a portal and what did you want to leave on the backside of the portal and what did you want to bring through to the other side? A number of us started this conversation.

I started to convene some of these friends and colleagues to talk about this question within the context of our work. Out of those conversations, I would say, ultimately, emerged The Experience Alchemist. As I say, within institutional work, we did not feel like we could expand that conversation in the way that we wanted to. I will say that what began or what was foundational to The Experience Alchemist was this idea of lifting up all the boats, which you mentioned in my bio.

We were thinking a lot about not just the institutions themselves but all of the many creative people who support them, including a lot of artists and other kinds of creative entrepreneurs. What would it be like to think about that broader community in a way that was connective, inclusive, community-driven and we had a lot of early thinking about guilds and guild culture and how work communities get built.

We started with that idea and that blew out into the actual creation of the company, which is a benefit corporation, which was important to us as a foundational principle to exist as a for-profit company but one that was values based. We have a lot of specific ideas and public statements around our values as a company, which have a lot to do with environmental impact, accessibility, diversity, equity, inclusion, and other odds and ends like a living wage, which is where we started. You’re asking about naysayers and the fact that it can be hard to make a living wage in this world.

I love how you share this. I have a book coming out that is about some of the lessons I’ve learned through this show. One of the chapters is about fighting for what you believe in. When you believe in the fact that there are a lot of people out there who have real conviction but you have to fight for those people sometimes because they don’t have advocates. In some ways, you’re fighting for those people who don’t have advocates for themselves and it’s nice for doing that.

That’s certainly one way of putting it. We were fighting for them. We were fighting for ourselves as well. What the experience is we describe ourselves as an experience design company and that is generally two lines of work. One of them and the other is project-based work. Strategy and consulting have to do with helping cultural organizations think about who they want to be and how they want to work, how they do their projects and how they connect with audiences. That is often related to interpretive planning work or digital strategy work.

VCP 211 | Museum Experience

There are lots of great products that we’ve done over the couple of years that we’ve existed in that realm that have been fascinating. I call it the look under the hood and that’s super fun. The project-based work is making things, essentially. We all have a long grounding in exhibition work. If you go to an exhibition, you know that you encounter objects but you also encounter all kinds of different, supports that help you access those objects. You encounter sometimes films or interactives or various things to play with or manipulate. Those are the sorts of things that we make for a client in order to support a particular set of interpretive goals or messages. That’s the simple answer.

One of the things that this opens the door for is that people who are reading are going to say, “I haven’t thought about the people behind all of those things that I experienced in the world.” Now, they’re going to be walking into exhibits and walking into places and thinking, “Somebody thought about this. Somebody imagined how will I experience this?”

If they’re lucky.

If they’ve got you behind that. I want to shift gears a little bit and ask, what have been some lessons that you’ve learned about yourself along this journey? This is amazing. I love what you’ve been on, this path of evolving into this place of knowing how you can best make an impact in the world. What I want to know about your personal journey is what have you learned about yourself.

Tony, we need an extra three hours.

The highlights.

I’ve learned endless things about myself. I have learned that I am exceedingly curious and that I need a lot of variety in my work. My curiosity tends to drive me into all different sorts of corners. Some of which are useful to me and so I’m sure less helpful to me. I have learned that I can’t ever separate my personal life from my professional life. We bring ourselves to work every day. Whatever is going on with us, emotionally or with our families or our friends, shows up. We have to give ourselves a lot of license to be with that.

Perhaps, I’ve said to you in the past, Tony, that all three of us think a lot about how we bring love to our work. There’s a lot of stigma around bringing emotion to work and professional projects but we try to embrace that rather than shy away from it and encourage that and our clients and our work with our clients too. That’s been a big lesson. Over the years, I have certainly learned that I have a fairly low tolerance for small-mindedness, intolerance, and bullying. That’s been important to find out to chive under those things and/or to feel protective of others who I see it happening too. Those are a couple of highlights.

VCP 211 | Museum Experience

Amazing. Every one of them is a gift that you offered and it’s brilliant that you shared that. I’m honored that you did, so thank you.

You’re welcome.

Now we shift to the last question that I often ask every guest and I can’t wait to hear what you have to offer. That is, what are 1 or 2 books that have had an impact on you and why?

I am an avid literary fiction reader. That is my bread and butter when it comes to books. I do very little comprehensive reading about my work landscape. That’s where my heart and my head tend to be. It is in narrative and fiction. As it happens, I am rereading now Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which I tend to read every few years.

To your question, it’s obviously the fact that I reread it every few years means that it has a staying power and an impact. One of the things that is lovely about it is that it’s deeply meditative. It’s a very calming read. I find it very grounding and it’s a lovely reminder of the beauty of details. I love details. I think about them a lot. I notice them a lot. That book is essentially a series of thoughts. It’s almost like a journal, like reading someone’s journal. It’s like a big piece of poetry but it’s infused with a lot of love and very small details and the fact that the small can be very big.

I’m blown away by that. First of all, this is the first time that the book has been mentioned in this show in over 200 episodes. It is beautiful that this is added to the mix. It’s great because a book like that is something that there are a lot of lessons to be learned from it that are hidden under the prose, under the poetry that we can pull out. I love the way you described it. Thank you.

I hope you read it.

I have not but I’m aware of it. Annie, we’re coming to a close and I have to tell you, this has been a brilliant conversation. I’m so thrilled and honored to have you on the show.

Thanks so much for having me, Tony. It was a pleasure.

I’m looking forward to sharing this with the audience. One of the things I wanted to make sure is that they know that they can do as they can reach out to you. What’s the best place to find you?

We would love to hear from anyone who happens to encounter this little conversation. You can find us at It’s the quickest and easiest way. Again, remember the spelling. It’s a little tricky but if you Google The Experience Alchemist or go to, you’ll find us. You can also always, get in touch via email. Our email is

You had to make it a little bit easier, so hello is nice and simple. Thank you again. I know everyone is leaving here with some great insights and maybe a different perspective that they didn’t have before. Thanks to readers for coming on the journey with us and that’s a wrap.

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