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  • Ngaire Blankenberg

Soft Power for an NGO

An international NGO in the Philippines looks to embody its mission, amplify its message and inspire with a re-vamped visitor centre.

In my latest project with the International Rice Research Institute, (Los Banos, Laguna province, Philippines), we are exploring how to develop their outdated Riceworld Museum into a soft power destination that can cater to visitors and be a place on the campus where the scientists and staff can relax, convene, and host their guests.

Los Baños is a magical place and the IRRI campus feels like stepping into another world. Its single storey American modernist buildings ( with modular walls to ´´encourage an egalitarian office culture´´) are nestled within a 252-hectare experimental farm with views of the beautiful and legendary Mount Makiling. It is here, in offices whose decor has scarcely changed since the institute was founded in 1962 by the American Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, that some of the most cutting edge scientific research in agrifood and rice science is taking place. IRRI´s staff are working to make sure that rice can continue to feed half the world nutritiously, and despite climate change and its devastating knock-on effects. It´s gene bank (a glorious freezer we were lucky enough to enter) stores and protects the biggest collection of rice genetic diversity on the planet. IRRI headquarters are in Los Banos, but its more than 1000 staff are based in 14 countries in Asia and Africa, including China, India, Burundi, South Korea, and Bangladesh.

The challenges are manifold. Riceworld is situated at the entrance of the campus, and welcomes about 25,000 people every year- mainly school groups coming to learn about basic rice science. They view the didactic displays, including an ethnographic collection of rice farming implements, bequeathed by Harold C. Conklin, long-term curator of Anthropology at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University, perhaps tour the campus and leave. IRRI staff only enter the building to attend lectures in the auditorium and don´t see a huge value for them in the museum as it stands now. For the IRRI professional visitors consisting of funders, partners, scientists etc, the museum communicates an old-fashioned, tired approach at odds with the very innovative science being practised behind closed doors.

I am lucky to be working with Belen Ponferrada Thirkell, a Filipino museum educator with great vision and experience, who leads the project for IRRI . We kicked off our work with a series of visioning sessions with staff and it was clear that we needed to not only update the museum but re-think its role, its target audience and its positioning completely. What kind of physical place does a global organization need that can at once connect with where it is, but also provide value for others far away? How to both support the main organization´s mission and strategy whilst also welcoming a broader audience of local students (IRRI is on land provided by and adjacent to the University of Philippines, Los Baños campus)? How to create a vibrant, dynamic place that staff will feel proud of, but that won´t require unsustainable capital or operational funding or appear to divert funds away from their core work? How to amplify and enhance but not seek to replace the amazing experience of the ´real work´being done right next door?

All big questions we are excited to tackle. Stay tuned...

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