January came and went quickly.  At RK&A, we kicked off the year with a retreat.  Our main goal was to spend time together in one physical location–a rarity for our small office of seven.  We needed some bonding time… Thus, we participated in the personal response “tour.” My first experience with the “tour” was back in 2010 after reading Ray Williams’ article “Honoring the Personal Response: A Strategy for Serving the Public Hunger for Connection” in the Journal of Museum Education.  Williams describes a “tour” experience in which participants draw a question from a box populated by the “tour” guide and are “invited to look around a designated suite of galleries for about fifteen minutes to find a work that resonates with their guiding question” (page 95).  With two of my colleagues, we tried out the “tour” on a visit to the Phillips Collection.  It is one of my most memorable museum experiences.  

My prompt was to “Find a work of art that makes you feel proud,” and I really struggled with it.  Pride holds many negative connotations for me, which led me to pick a photograph of a train with a huge plume of steam rising from the engine.  I shared that pride makes me think of boastful people who are “full of hot air” or “blowing smoke.”  The work of art also made me think about how American pride in building a national railway blinded people to the atrocities incurred by laborers.  My colleague who had written the prompt said that she would never have connected that photograph to pride.  When she wrote the prompt, she was thinking about pride in her heritage and how it motivates her to be a better person.  Her reflection on my same question revealed to me how different our thinking is—but not in a bad way.  It just reminded me that we are all driven by different experiences and beliefs that shape who we are and how we act.  In that way, I think the exercise strengthened our working relationship because I could empathize with her more and understand her better as a person with unique experiences different from my own.  

I was eager to try out a personal response “tour” with my colleagues on our recent retreat.  Unfortunately, illness prevented me from sharing in the experience this time, but I was excited that they found it enriching, too.  For this “tour,” everyone responded to the same three questions or prompts, which included “Find a work of art that represents what excites you about working at RK&A.”  Get to know our staff by checking out their responses below!  

Embrace, by John D. Graham. 1887-1961.

Embrace, by John D. Graham. 1887-1961.


“Embrace” by John D. Graham immediately stood out as the work of art that represents what excites me about working at RK&A.  It makes me think about how we all work together– embracing one another’s ideas, concerns, and supporting each other during (some very) busy times!  I love knowing that I work with such a smart, dedicated, and supportive team; one that embraces any and every opportunity to learn something new (from museum visitors, our clients, and each other).  Plus, the word “embrace” reminds me so much of another part of our work which I love–helping our clients welcome data with open arms.  When I look at this work of art, I see RK&A and our clients “embracing the messiness” and stepping forward into the unknown together, ready to absorb and learn from whatever comes our way.


music-room philips

The Music Room, Phillips House


We were standing in the Music Room of the Phillips House when asked to consider this question. and my answer occurred to me immediately. The house itself, an elaborate Georgian Revival home, is a work of art, and it contains the means to inspiration and learning for visitors. I think of RK&A in a similar light. RK&A is the container within which we not only support museums to achieve their desired impact with visitors, but through our work, we are also always learning and often feel inspired.


Dein blondes Haar, Margarethe, by Anselm Kiefer.

Dein blondes Haar, Margarethe, by Anselm Kiefer.


I selected Anslem Kiefer’s “Dein blondes Haar, Margarethe” as the work of art that makes me think about what excites me to work at RK&A.  At first glance, it may seem an odd choice; it’s a dark, brooding, abstract piece and not a piece of art I would normally stop to take a deeper look at. However, since I started at RK&A, I have found myself pushing to dig deeper and reflect on both my own practice in evaluation and how I can help our museum partners achieve meaningful impact. This means stopping and taking the time to reflect on things we might have otherwise overlooked and to tease out the details of a messy idea.  Look more closely at Kiefer’s piece and you will start to see some details missed at first glance—two eyes, a nose, a mouth, and strands of blonde hair hidden beneath the streaks of black paint. What more can we find with a pause for deeper reflection? 


The Little Machine Shop, by Jacques Villon. 1875-1963.

The Little Machine Shop, by Jacques Villon. 1875-1963.


I chose “Little Machine Shop” to represent what excites me about working at RK&A. What first struck me were the colors; the blues and greens reminded me of the colors in our logo and documents. Then after reading the title and looking closer, I realized that RK&A is a little machine shop. In order for us to get out work done, we must work together and work together well. As a new team member, the idea of being a part of a small highly functioning team excites me.  And with words like “intentional” and “systematic” floating around my head from the previous day’s retreat exercises, I felt that the geometric shapes that make up the work and the idea of a machine resonated.


Efflorescence by Paul Klee. 1879-1940.

Efflorescence by Paul Klee. 1879-1940.


I chose Paul Klee’s Efflorescence as the work of art that most reminds me of my work at RK&A because of two qualities it possesses (for me): surprise and delight.  I was first surprised by the piece as I exited a gallery full of what I considered rather dull art; something compelled me to turn around and look back, and there was Efflorescence, a small work on an adjoining wall in a corridor. I was then delighted by the pulsating colors and delicate composition which seemed to vibrate with liveliness.  Even after 16 years with RK&A I am continuously surprised and delighted by my work.  Sometimes it’s the interaction with a client who has an ah-ha moment based on results of a study, and sometimes it’s my own ah-ha as something emerges from the data.  Other times it’s an encounter with a curator or scientist who shares their passions about an esoteric idea.  And oftentimes, it’s simply knowing that here I am again in another sacred, significant, or historic space that houses and cares for precious objects;  I am honored to be a part of that.


As you can see, the RK&A team is smart, thoughtful, sensitive, and courageous.  Selecting works that seem scary or prompt one to dig deeper is akin to having a curious mind and feeling secure enough within this container that we call the RK&A office to move forward methodically and systematically into our learning zones.  As evidenced from people’s descriptions, learning is at the heart of what we do.


Thank you to the Phillips Collection for being such an inspiring place!  All images are from the Phillips Collection

All Together Now

We may not have it all together, but together we have it all”

Author unknown

The Cycle of Intentional Practice is proving to be a very useful framework for planning (see “Cycle of Intentional Practice” for more information).  We have applied the Cycle to many different projects—from planning global initiatives, to developing action plans for individual museum departments, to planning a museum’s future, to planning exhibitions.  While all of these projects are completely different, common to them is the museums’ intention for their work to make a difference in people’s lives, which is how we define “impact.”


The Cycle of Intentional Practice

The Cycle of Intentional Practice

When I reflect on our intentional planning work to identify the attributes that have made our approach successful, I land in a pretty simple place, which I have started to share during the workshops. “I don’t need to be here for you to do this kind of deep thinking,” I note during all of the workshops.  But I also realize that the one thing that makes intentional planning an invigorating and very useful process is the one thing that is hard for organizations to do—convene to talk about the work of the museum.  Our intentional planning process uses a workshop format because we believe that when staff work collaboratively to develop a common focus—a requirement for intentional thinking—the conversations, products, plans, and enthusiasm for their museum’s work are richer.

Another related necessity is that we ask that representatives of all departments participate in the workshops; while sometimes there is pushback (due to the unspoken hierarchy that may exist within an institution), we hold our ground because collaboration is a primary tenet of intentionality, and deep facilitated discussions are the only way people from different departments can find their common pursuit.  In nearly all of our intentional planning work, staff recognize the depth that emerges from hearing everyone’s perspective and having everyone working together towards a common end.  Clarifying language often becomes part of the conversation.  For example, we are working on an international initiative for a large art museum and everyone was talking about wanting visitors to experience “cross-cultural connections.” One brave staff member eventually asked what everyone means when they say that. A great question that took participants a while to ponder and judging from rich conversation that ensued, an exceedingly simple and crucial question to pose.  We are all guilty of using words/phrases without ever clarifying what they mean (my personal favorite, overused and now somewhat meaningless word is “engagement”).  When clarifying a museum’s intended impact, part of the conversation should include what people mean by the words they use to represent the results of their museum’s work.

Another primary tenet of intentional planning, in some ways as illustrated above, is inquiry.  For inquiry to work, though, people need to listen to understand (rather than to respond reactively).  Certainly, facilitating inclusive workshops and using inquiry are not new; many organizations use them at different times to do their work.  We think they are successful with our intentionality work because we are using these practices collectively within the context of the Cycle of Intentional Practice (see the diagram).  When used all together, they provide a massive dose of intentional thinking about the topic at hand—whether a strategic plan, a departmental plan, or a plan for an international initiative.  We have observed that bringing staff together for several hours creates an amazing feeling among those who gather—likely because it is a rare occurrence for people to take a moment to breathe and think about the interesting and thought-provoking questions we and others are asking. They are delighted to have a chance to reflect on their individual work and how it supports the collective work of their colleagues, and sometimes there is a Kumbaya moment where everyone feels like they are on the same wonderfully beautiful page.

Last week I attended the MCN (Museum Computer Network) conference in Minneapolis.  It was an awesome experience—one that on the whole didn’t feel nearly as focused on technology as you might expect for a conference hosted by an organization with the word “computer” in its name.  Rather, the complexities of our relationships—with objects, spaces, and other people—seemed to be on everyone’s mind.  My head is still swimming with post-conference ideas along these lines, so I thought I’d share a few things I’ve been mulling over since returning to DC.

In her riveting keynote speech, Liz Ogbu, founder and principal of Studio O (a multidisciplinary design and innovation firm), challenged us to remember our own humanity when working to create change in our communities.  One thing she said particularly struck me in thinking about my work as an evaluator.  Liz spent three weeks living with and talking to women in Tanzania for a project intended to encourage more people to use cookstoves.  In describing this work she talked about rethinking the data collection process so it is less of a “transaction” and more of a relationship-building process with evaluator and participants on equal ground.  We must not simply come in and “extract” data from participants, Liz argued.  Rather, we need to make them feel like we are “in it” with them.  That difference, she argued, helps builds trust and makes people more willing to share the deep, detailed information she needs to be able to build the best solution.  For Liz, that meant conducting multiple in-depth interviews with women about how they use (or don’t use) cookstoves.  But it also meant getting down on her hands and knees and cooking with Tanzanian women to discover things they may not have thought to tell her but that are nonetheless important for understanding how they decide to feed their families.  In my work in museums, I doubt I’ll ever have the chance to immerse myself so fully in visitors’ “home” environments.  But Liz’s speech did make me wonder how I might work to incorporate more of my own humanity into data collection and establish a deeper sense of trust with visitors that I observe or interview.  Of course, there are still many advantages to taking a more hands-off approach—“staying neutral,” if you will.  But I want to challenge myself in the future to reconsider this as a default.   I think there might be times where it would do me and our museum clients good to approach the data collection process in a way that focuses first and foremost on developing a sense of trust and understanding between evaluator and visitor, so we can ultimately better understand the complexities of the issues at hand.

I wondered too about the implications of collecting data in museum spaces—namely, whether our own comfort in these spaces means we sometimes forget that these are not necessarily places where visitors feel equally comfortable, and how this might affect data collection.  Lack of time and resources certainly makes it difficult to do interviews with and observations of visitors/users in their “home” environments, but I can imagine times when it might be really advantageous to do so.  Take, for example, a museum that wants to learn how teachers use their online resources/collections.  I’m willing to bet the data would be a million times richer if we could go out and conduct interviews with teachers in the their own classrooms and see first-hand how they use those resources, rather than if we tried to learn about their experiences by conducting a phone interview (where we can’t see how what they describe aligns with their practice, and we have to rely entirely on what they tell us when there may also be important factors they don’t think to share).  Sometime we are lucky enough to be able to do this, like in our ongoing evaluation of citizen science programs for the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico.  Unfortunately, a lack of resources or a desire for large sample sizes often make this approach challenging.

As I chatted about these ideas with others throughout the conference, I became even more convinced of the immense value of doing rigorous, thorough qualitative research.  In my conference presentation on this topic, I shared a few “key competencies” for doing good qualitative research that I hope anyone seeking to understand visitors’ experiences will keep in mind:

Key competencies for doing qualitative research

Key competencies for doing qualitative research

Overall, my biggest takeaway this year is that designing and understanding experiences is never about the technology—it’s about the people.  Having a “digital” mindset towards museum work really just means embracing the many ways that technology allows us to find and tell stories, build and enhance relationships, and discover connections we never knew existed.  Human problems and relationships are at the heart of the “digital transformation” that MCN hopes to advance in the cultural sector.

I look forward to exploring this line of thinking more next year at MCN2016 in New Orleans!

On Wednesday, October 7th from 2-3pm EDT, RK&A’s Randi Korn, Amanda Krantz, and Cathy Sigmond will host RK&A’s second Twitter chat on thinking critically about outcomes, using the hashtag #RKAchat.  To join the conversation make sure your tweets include this hashtag. 

Why this topic?

Last week, Randi wrote a blog about the usefulness of outcomes in museum practitioner’s planning—highlighting that outcomes aren’t just for evaluation as some may assume. In the post, she posits why practitioners may shy from using outcomes more frequently in their work even though their identification and clarification are critical to achieving success (for exhibitions, programs, and otherwise). We would like to hear your take on outcomes, including what value you see in them and the challenges to using them in your work.

Twitter Chat Questions

During the Twitter chat, @IntentionalMuse will tweet numbered questions (for example, “Q1: How do you (or your museum) use outcomes in your work? #RKAchat”).  Your response tweet should reference the question (for example, “A1: We write learning objectives for school programs but not family or public programs. #RKAchat”).

Q1: How do you (or your museum) use outcomes in your work?

Q2: What do you find most useful about outcomes for your work?

Q3: What are the barriers to using outcomes in your work?

Q4:How might you use outcomes for planning your work?

How to Participate

If you do not already have one, create a Twitter account.  On Wednesday, October 7thfrom 2-3pm EDT, tweet using the hashtag #RKAchat.  You can monitor the tweets related to the chat by searching for #RKAchat on Twitter.

Roadmap to Success

When evaluators are called in to evaluate a program, exhibition, or museum, the first question they ask is, “Who is your primary audience?”  After fully addressing the “who” question, the next question is usually, “What are you hoping to achieve among [insert primary audience]?”  This question is code for “What are your intended outcomes?”  While most people associate outcomes with the evaluation process, what many don’t realize is that outcomes are even more vital to the planning process!  As such, it is disconcerting to witness museum practitioners avoiding clarifying outcomes and exuding that they fear doing so.  I have a few ideas as to why some might fear clarifying outcomes.  First, it is very scary for a museum to put itself out there and boldly say, “This is what our museum wants to achieve.”  Fear of failure starts to quickly emerge and squelch the possibility of articulating intentions with any kind of specificity.

Second, some practitioners believe that evaluators should just leave people alone; let them experience whatever, because museums can’t control people anyway.  True, museums can’t control people’s experiences, but they can provide opportunities to affect people’s experiences.  Museum experiences are two-way streets and both parties (the museum and the visitor) play a role and take liberties. Why wouldn’t a museum want to clarify what it wants people to experience and create an environment that purposefully aligns with those intentions?

Third, clarifying outcomes is a difficult process that takes considerable time, thought, deliberation, and prioritization.  If museums want to make a difference in the quality of people’s lives, then all staff will need decide together on the work of the museum and align their actions with intended outcomes.  The first step to planning is articulating results in the form of clear, measurable outcomes.  Articulating results is not an exercise in futility as those results can be used to plan subsequent work!

I appreciate outcomes for two reasons—the first reason is a prerequisite for the second reason:  First and foremost, outcomes provide an excellent roadmap for planning—whether for a program, exhibition, and an entire museum.  Yes, outcomes are a planning tool!  I know it sounds odd because evaluators champion them, but they are most useful for planning.  They clarify what practitioners want to achieve, after which they might ask, “Okay, this is where we want to go, so what do we need to do to get there?”  Outcomes can be used to make decisions about what one needs to do, what one can stop doing, and what one might need to change moving forward.   Oh, and the second reason: outcomes provide evaluators with a gauge for examining evaluation data; without outcomes, evaluation is moot.  However, if I were asked which is more important, using outcomes for planning or using them as a gauge for evaluation, I would say, using them for planning!  When good intentioned outcomes are used regularly to guide a museum’s work, the result is generally a “successful” exhibition, program, or museum experience.  By contrast, when outcomes are only used for evaluation, the evaluation often indicates that outcomes should have been considered in planning and throughout development to achieve a successful exhibition, program, or museum experience.  It sounds like a catch-22, and that is because it is.

If you’re interested in talking more about outcomes, be sure to participate in our next #RKAChat— “Thinking Critically About Outcomes”– on Wednesday, October 7th from 2-3pm EDT.  We look forward to chatting with you!


New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra poses at spring training in Florida, in an undated file photo. (AP Photo)

New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra poses at spring training in Florida, in an undated file photo. (AP Photo)

Yes, at first glance you might think that Yogi Berra and evaluation couldn’t be farther apart in ideology.  Not true.  By now everyone probably knows that Yogi Berra passed away last week at 90.  Most know Yogi because he was a great catcher, coach and manager for the game he loved.  My knowledge of and respect for Yogi are in two very divergent directions: I am a baseball fan and aware of Yogi’s greatness as a ball player; he is a Hall of Famer and was respected on and off the field, which is notable in today’s world.

The other way I know Mr. Berra is through his quotations.  I’m sure we all know a few, but I want to share one that I use very often: he said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up some place else.”  I recite that quotation during workshops when talking about the value of articulating outcomes for planning purposes and always pay homage to Yogi, saying, “I bet you didn’t know he was a museum planner and evaluator.”  Many people equate outcomes only with evaluation, but outcomes are also invaluable as guideposts for planning.  If you don’t have any outcomes for your exhibition, for example, then you can do whatever you want because it doesn’t matter where you end up.  But developing a program or exhibition without any place to go in particular might end up as a free-for-all—not a good idea for museums that want to make a difference in the quality of people’s lives.  Mr. Berra might be appalled to hear that museums might move forward without any particular direction in mind.  I supposed if those museums came upon a fork in the road, they might just take it!

If you are like Yogi and are interested in being intentional with your work by articulating outcomes for the purposes of planning, then you might be in interested in our next Twitter Chat (#RKAchat), on Thinking Critically about Outcomes.  We’ll be announcing the exact date and time soon.  Stay tuned!

It has been a busy summer!  We are feeling a little bit like Carmen Sandiego with our small staff travelling all across the United States for work and fun but appearing very little on our blog.  Check out our travel map and see just what in the world we have been up to from Memorial Day to Labor Day!   Use this travel map link for optimum functionality (versus through the embedded image below).


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 191 other followers