As RK&A’s first Research Fellow and a doctoral candidate in sociology at Northwestern University, I’m delighted to write the first of my Intentional Museum posts exploring the relationship of sociological research and museum evaluation. As it turns out, the timing of this writing is pretty fortuitous: I’m currently preparing a presentation for this year’s Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) Conference at the Kennedy Center, which has me thinking about how sociological research on museums can benefit practitioners. So I thought I’d start, as I’ll start in that presentation, with the big picture.

First things first: What do sociologists have to say about museums? In general, our research has spoken to three distinct themes. We’ve shown how visitor demographics in art museums reflect broader systems of social inequality by explaining how people’s education and class background shapes their familiarity with art. This helps explain patterns of visitor attendance, while also identifying the societal barriers that may leave some people out of the conversations museums try to foster.  We’ve shown how broader social changes (i.e. funding structures or political conditions) can impact what happens inside museums. This work illustrates how the environments in which organizations operate define what counts as legitimate operations, which in turn influences what museums do. Most recently, we’ve lifted the hood to look inside museums and focus on practice: what people do within these organizations, and how. Because museums offer a particularly apposite case for examining how people interact with objects, some of this work has examined how different objects and environments can structure interpretation and shape organizational goals.

Recently, I’ve grown increasingly curious about why so little has been said about the intersections of sociology and evaluation. In part this is because throughout my doctoral fieldwork on museum education, people regularly confused sociological research with evaluative practice. It was easy at the time to point out differences. Perhaps the most foundational one regards the role of theory. Sociologists study specific things to tell a more general story about the social world, entering museums to answer a theoretically-motivated question (for example, about inequality, legitimacy, or practice) that can speak beyond a single museum, exhibit, or program. In contrast, evaluators concentrate on how to help particular museums articulate their practical objectives (for exhibition development, for program assessment, and so forth), and then develop research designs to assess them. They may even make formal recommendations, which is not typically within the purview of sociology.

However, when reflecting – as I often do, and as I’ve been doing for LEAD – on what people in museums can do with broader sociological ideas, I inevitably find myself asking how, if at all, sociology and evaluation are akin in helping museum practitioners. For one, the best work in sociology and in evaluation rests on carefully prescribed methods. A sociologist’s ability to specify the method by which he or she arrives at a particular theory is what ensures it is sound. Evaluators, similarly, help museum practitioners identify their guiding questions at the outset of a project (just like sociologists must do for themselves) and select the methods (surveys, focus groups, observations, interviews) that will guide that client to results that are both reliable and useful, an important aim our Twitter chat explored on June 9th. In this way, both the sociologist and the evaluator practice with intention.

Perhaps most importantly, both professions can also aid museum practitioners in becoming more intentional. In assuaging museum educators that I was not doing program evaluation, I often explained that my research could instead give practitioners the language to talk about and reflect upon how they interpret the broader social conditions and institutional environments in which museums operate. Or, paraphrasing Max Weber – one of sociology’s founders – scientists can through their work promote clarity about choices by showing people the results of their actions. But now it seems false to me to distinguish this guiding philosophy too starkly from the aims of evaluation. High quality evaluations present museum staff with systematic research in efforts to help them make more informed choices about what they do, how they do it, and with what impact. This objective, I’ve come to understand, is central to how RK&A understands the role of evaluation in museum settings, and what we here call “intentional” practice.

Last week, Stephanie wrote a thoughtful piece about the recent upswing in museum professionals who are conducting evaluation and the importance of thinking critically about evaluation. Among other things, she asked “how can the field be sure the results produced are reliable and useful?” You can read the full post here. In an effort to open up discussion and conversation on thinking critically about evaluation, we’re excited to announce RK&A’s first Twitter chat. We hope you will join us!

Join the Conversation

From 2-3pm EDT on Tuesday, June 9th, RK&A’s Stephanie Downey, Amanda Krantz, and Cathy Sigmond will host RK&A’s first Twitter chat on thinking critically about evaluation, using the hashtag #RKAchat.  To join the conversation make sure your tweets include this hashtag. 

Why this topic?

Many museum professionals are enthusiastic advocates for evaluation and view it as essential to their work.  As evaluators, we’re ecstatic about this! But for an evaluation to be truly useful, museum professionals need to think evaluatively about evaluation.  In other words, museum professionals must think critically about how evaluations are planned and conducted to fully make sense of evaluation results within the context of the reliability and validity of the study.

To that end, we’re hosting a discussion on thinking critically about evaluation.  We’ll pose some questions so we can hear your thoughts and experiences, and we will share our thoughts on how museum professionals can position themselves to be critical consumers of evaluation.

Twitter Chat Questions

During the Twitter chat, @IntentionalMuse will tweet numbered questions (for example, “Q1: What do you evaluate, and how? #RKAchat”).  Your response tweet should reference the question (for example, “A1: We talk to visitors about what they took away from an exhibition to evaluate the exhibition’s learning goals #RKAchat”).

Q1: What do you evaluate, and how?

Q2: What do you think characterizes a “good” quality evaluation?

Q3: What characterizes a “bad” quality evaluation?

Q4: What are the challenges in conducting high quality evaluation that will provide meaningful results?

Q5: With quality in mind, what is one way you might think about or approach evaluation differently in the future?

How to Participate

If you do not already have one, create a Twitter account.  On Tuesday, June 9th from 2-3pm EDT, tweet using the hashtag #RKAchat.  You can monitor the tweets related to the chat by searching for #RKAchat on Twitter.

As a staff, we have noticed the slow by steady upswing in the number of museums doing and requesting evaluation over the years.  While evaluation was uncommon in the museum world 15 or 20 years ago, today many, many museum professionals are enthusiastic advocates for evaluation and view it as essential to their work.  Ultimately, we are thrilled about this trend because we truly believe that evaluation can be used as a learning tool to reflect on and improve practice.  This has to be good for the museum world, right?  But, there is a part of me that worries about this trend.   As someone who values quality, how can the field be sure the results produced are reliable and useful?  Just because someone says they are doing evaluation, should we take at face value that the evaluation they are doing is “good evaluation?”   No, like most things in the world, there is a continuum of quality when it comes to evaluation—there are ways of doing evaluation that will lead to results you can feel confident about and make decisions from and there are ways of doing evaluation that lack purpose and will result in piles of data that are meaningless and therefore never acted upon.

All of this hit home for me recently when I worked with a museum’s education department to build staff capacity for evaluation.  The education department in this museum had been doing evaluation on their own for years, and while much of it had been useful, they felt they were sometimes collecting data for the sake of collecting data and not quite able to make decisions about what to evaluate and what not to evaluate.  None of them are trained in evaluation, but they all have a great respect for it and wanted to learn how to do it better.  Thus, I step in.  Gulp.  I was honored that they wanted me to teach them about evaluation.  As a trained evaluator with many, many years of experience, it should be easy, right?  I quickly realized that teaching others how to do what you do is anything but easy.  And in the process of preparing my teaching materials I did something I hadn’t done in awhile.  I looked very critically at what I do as my chosen profession and asked myself how I do it—I broke down what I do everyday into pieces that I could explain and teach.  And in the process I came to a new appreciation for how hard it is to do evaluation well unless you truly have the training and the experience.  I have to admit, I feel really good about what I have been able to teach the education department of this museum about evaluation, but it hasn’t been easy by any means.

All this is to say, that we would like to start a conversation about how to conduct high-quality evaluation so that evaluation efforts will result in findings you can feel confident about and use.  High quality isn’t about size—good evaluation can be a very small evaluation study (with small sample sizes) done in-house or a large evaluation study with mixed methods and complex analysis strategies.  Quality evaluation hinges mostly on having a purpose when planning and staying true to that purpose when implementing a study.  As a result of all this thinking we have been doing, we are planning to host our first Twitter Chat, where we will invite museum professionals to think critically about evaluation through a series of questions we will pose. Stay tuned for more details!

I recently had the pleasure of participating in an online forum called Interactive Café, sponsored by the National Art Education Association (NAEA) Research Commission.  For a week, I exchanged ideas virtually with my co-hosts, Olga Hubard of Teachers College Columbia University, Michelle Grohe of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and Benjamin Tellie of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, about assessing students’ responses to works of art.  Olga began the forum by posing the provocative question, “What is worth assessing in students’ responses to works of art?”  For me, the answer lies in another question: “For what purpose are you assessing students?” As a professional evaluator, the purpose is usually to help a museum understand the impact it has on the students it serves.  As Olga noted, there are many possible outcomes or benefits for students when they look at and respond to works of art, and it is my job to help a museum articulate its unique intentions for students.  Is the program designed to increase students’ critical thinking skills, curiosity or creativity, personal connections, or something else?  Once I truly understand a museum’s intent, the work of developing the assessment can begin.   In this post, I describe my work with one museum to illustrate intentionality in the process of developing a student assessment.

For the last eight months I have been working with the Katonah Museum of Art in Westchester County, New York, to assess the impact that the program, ArteJuntos /ArtTogether, has on the bilingual preschool students it serves.  The program is a partnership with a nearby local preschool that serves immigrant families.  Staff from the Museum visit the children (and their parents) at their school once a week to look at, talk about (through inquiry), and make art; the program also includes two visits to the Museum and parent training (an important part of the program that I have to leave out here for the sake of brevity).  I feel honored to be working with such a unique program and with people who understand that quality assessment takes time.  Fortunately, a full year of assessment (and other program activities) was generously funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.  As mentioned previously, I began by asking the very basic question, “How is your program designed to affect students?” and we continued from there.  To illustrate the intentional approach we took to developing the assessment, below I outline and explain the steps we have taken thus far.

  • The Museum described its intent for students primarily around literacy, especially emergent literacy. Remember these children are very young (on average 3 years old).  Museum staff believed (and had witnessed) that through facilitated, inquiry-based discussions about works of art, students have the unique opportunity to use and develop rich, descriptive language. Furthermore, they had heard from Pre-K teachers of students who had participated in ArteJuntos in previous years that these students seemed more verbal and better prepared for Pre-K.  The staff was eager to find out what was happening.
  • To hone and better understand the idea of literacy as it manifests in the context of ArteJuntos, we assembled a team of experts including Museum staff, teachers from the preschool, school administrators, and representatives from another community organization to talk about what literacy looks like for these young bilingual children and how the program affects their literacy. By the end of the day, I had a list of key indicators that would serve as evidence of students’ literacy in relation to looking at and talking about art.
  • I refined and honed the list of student outcomes and indicators and drafted a rubric that would be used to assess students’ literacy. The draft rubric included relatively simple indicators such as “The child names shapes (triangles, circles) to describe the work of art” and “The child names colors to describe the work of art” as well as more complex indicators like, “The child names two objects that are similar and/or two that are different and accurately describes similarities or differences.”  Museum staff, preschool teachers, and the principal reviewed the rubric and provided feedback.
  • I developed a protocol for the assessment.  In this protocol, each student sits one-on-one with a bilingual educator and a reproduction of a work of art (see the work of art by Carmen Lomas Garza below) and is asked a series of open-ended and close-ended questions that closely mirror the kinds of questions they are asked in the program.  For examples, questions include: “What do you see in this picture?” “What can you tell me about that?” and “What colors can you find in this picture?”
"Oranges" by Carmen Lomas Garza

“Oranges” by Carmen Lomas Garza

  • We tested the protocol by trying it out with some of the Museum staff’s children. As a result, we identified problem areas in the line of questioning and revised it as necessary.
  • In early fall, before ArteJuntos began, we did the first set of one-on-one student assessments with 12 children who would participate in the program that year.  These assessments serve as the pre-program assessment.  We videotaped the assessments, as shown here in this still clip from one of the videos:

Video still clip

  • Museum staff, preschool teachers, and I watched the videos together, discussing the emerging literacy we saw from the children. As a result of that meeting I revised the rubric. It remains focused on literacy, but now more closely aligns with what we saw happening among students.

We are about three-quarters of the way finished with the project.  This spring, once ArteJuntos ends, we will do a second round of assessments with the same children.  These will represent the post-program assessments.  At that point, we will score all of the videotaped children using the rubric, compare and contrast the pre- and the post-program assessments, and draw some preliminary conclusions about the way ArteJuntos impacts students’ literacy.  Our sample is small and we realize there are problems inherent in comparing pre-school children from pre- to post given how rapidly they develop; nevertheless, given our intentional process of developing the assessment tool, we feel confident that we will capture an accurate measure of students’ responses to works of art in the context of this unique program, and we hope that the assessment can continue to be utilized in years to come.

Foreword:

Our winning entry for our student blog competition reminded me that so many of us find our way into the museum field through other avenues, led by our passion for connecting people with art, science, history, you name it. For example, I started out studying non-human primate behavior which led to educating the public about non-human primates and now I study human primate behavior in museums and other informal learning environments! Intentionally following our passion for learning in and experiencing museums is often what unites us. Our student blogger, Kwasi, also reminded me of the passion that emerging museum professionals have for ensuring museums are accessible to many publics. Kwasi explains how he applied intentional practice—uniting his actions around the single goal of museum accessibility—to develop an app (www.thetravelsee.com) that helps people align their interests with cultural offerings in Cooperstown, NY. Read below for more about his journey.

Through your intentional practice, how do you help museums enrich the lives of others?IMG_3347

A few years ago, I ran a tour guide business in D.C. that focused on introducing visitors to the wonders of D.C.’s local museums. Every time I walked a tour group up to the entrance of a historic house or a national park site, someone in the group would always ask, “Can we really go inside?” I began to realize there was a disconnect between the way potential visitors viewed museums and how museums perceived themselves within communities.

I wanted to do something to help solve this issue and decided to close my tour guide business to pursue my masters in Museum Studies. A graduate course titled “Digital Technologies,” pushed me to think about how technology can be used to attract, engage and diversify museum audiences. The class spurred my intentional practice of creating a web application that redefines the way people engage with museums. I developed a prototype app called Travelsee which gives users an aggregate list of available cultural activities such as guided tours, seminars, or exhibitions in a given area based on the user’s keywords and GPS location.

Travelsee was formed by a need to show the general public that museums are fun and fascinating spaces. I decided to take a step outside of the museum advocate world, and I devised a simple way to use technology to strengthen the public’s awareness of museums and increase visitor engagement. I figured if I could come up with a way to gather all the local museum activities in one place, visitors would be able choose an activity based on their interests without any prior experience of visiting that specific museum.

I believe that museum activities should not be limited to a specific race, gender, class or any other social construct; unfortunately, most potential museum visitors look at museums as spaces for the elite. That is why redefining how museums engage potential visitors is important. As a museum advocate, I am using my web application Travelsee to engage new audiences. What methods are you using to engage new audiences?

For many years now, I have attended the National Art Education Association annual conference, and for the same many years, I have attended the Museum Division pre-conference—a day-long event for art educators who teach from original works of art.  These days, I am usually one of the more senior people attending—but not only because I am getting older.  The conference is often about teaching in the galleries, where many art museum educators begin their career, and as they advance to department leaders and even museum directors, they attend other conferences that help them manage their new challenges.  This year’s focus was on leadership, so a good number of other seasoned folks were in attendance.  While still outnumbered, there was a decent mix of people spanning as many as 50 years, providing a rich exchange of conversation, and for me, reflection.

Seated harp player, ca. 2800–2700 B.C.; Early Cycladic I–II The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Seated harp player, ca. 2800–2700 B.C.; Early Cycladic I–II
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Attending such a focused conference provides a great opportunity to reflect on past years and changes that I have witnessed in the niche field of art museum education.  I have always felt a kinship with art museum educators; they are so passionate about their work (I am, too), they truly love what original works of art can do for people (the Cycladic sculpture at right is responsible for my very first deeply significant experience with a work of art when I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was 16), their stamina for intensely exploring ideas is commendable (and I am sometimes responsible for forcing the issue), and they seem to value intentionality (and I do, too).  In fact, during the pre-conference I heard the word “intentional” a lot—it seemed like everyone was talking about being intentional, which of course, delighted me.

In the preconference alone, I feel like I heard “intentional” or “intentionality” at least twice an hour—a whopping 16 times on that day alone, and because I attended museum division sessions, I heard it many times more throughout the larger conference.  So why were so many people talking about intentionality?   I’d like to think that my conference presentations over the last decade are starting to sink in (I have been discussing intentionality in every which way I can), but I suspect the somewhat recent issue of the Journal of Museum Education is mostly responsible—as it was titled, “Intentionality and the Twenty-First-Century Museum.”  I absolutely sense a shift taking place.  I think educators are starting to realize that often they try to do too much.  I realize sometime they are required to do too much—by their supervisors—but at least now, they are replying with a voice of reason as to why they may need to stop and take stock of what they are doing and why they are doing it.  They want their work to be purposeful and they want each and every action to support that purpose.

Simultaneously, they are also realizing that they just can’t continue doing more and more.  In order to manage their workloads (and we all know so many educators’ workloads are over the top), they are rethinking what they do and why they are doing it and this is where intentionality gains respect and momentum.  As with so many endeavors, the first step is recognizing that something needs to change.  I am so grateful to have experienced so many consecutive museum division pre-conferences; otherwise, I might not have witnessed this sea change.  Intentionality is hard, as our last post so noted.  I take a little bit of comfort in thinking that maybe RK&A can help by continuing to work with museums that want to become more intentional in their practice.  Maybe our blogging will help, or this article that I wrote in 2007.  I hope so—the future is looking brighter, thanks to art museum educators’ passion for wanting their work to make a difference!

Let’s not sugarcoat it—intentional practice is hard. It is not something you conquer, or something you do once and then pat yourself on the back for a job well done. It is a process not an end result and, here’s the honest truth, it never ends. So, why do it at all? Well, at RK&A we believe that informal learning organizations, like museums, want to make a difference in the quality of people’s lives, the way we define impact (as Randi wrote in her blog introducing our monthly series of writing about intentional practice). To make a difference in the quality of people’s lives, we believe organizations will need to be intentional in their practice—including consulting firms! Once people start down this path, they embark on a sort of journey, at least from our perspective. I’d like to describe a journey we had (and continue to have) with one of our clients.

We received an RFP from a botanic garden to conduct a summative evaluation of a permanent exhibition. As is typical, RFPs don’t always capture the essence of what our clients need. Instead, their needs become more apparent and transparent in the initial meeting for a project. During the initial meeting for this project, it quickly became clear that the organization would benefit from thinking about its permanent exhibition in the context of the whole visitor experience rather than as an isolated experience. It is common for organizations to think about each experience they offer as distinct but we know from years of conducting audience research and evaluation that visitors do not necessarily see such distinctions. Further, because achieving impact is so difficult, an organization really does need to align all its efforts around impact; and this is where intentional practice comes in.

Our suggested deviations from the RFP were fairly significant, but to this organization’s credit, it was open to a new approach—openness to new ideas or a new way of working is a key factor in embracing something like intentional practice. Not only were staff at various levels open to us significantly restructuring the scope of work, the director was on board as well, which is hugely important if intentional practice is to be a successful planning strategy. The new scope included intentional planning workshops to define the organization’s intended impact paired with an audience research study to assess the visitor experience in the context of this clarified definition of impact. The study maintained a focus on the permanent exhibition space and did so by exploring the space within the broader visitor experience.

After the first planning workshop, staff were invigorated by the idea of intentional practice but the journey had only really just begun—for us and for them. I want to make two main points about this type of journey: (1) it can be a little messy, even under the best of circumstances, and (2) it is ongoing (and somebody needs to be driving the bus or it doesn’t really happen). To illustrate the first point, we tried something during our second planning workshop that fell flat. We asked staff to do something that we, as evaluators, are quite comfortable doing on the spot—synthesizing (or detecting patterns among) ideas that emerged from a brainstorming session—but, really, such work is hard for others to do on the spot. We’ve since removed this exercise from subsequent iterations of this workshop and added others, as part of what makes this continuous process so effective (albeit considerably messy), is customizing and experimenting with ideas to help our clients practice intentionality.

To illustrate the second point, since the completion of the first project, we have worked with this client on several other occasions. We are not always afforded this luxury, but this organization has allowed us to support its intentional practice; we are now driving the bus together with each subsequent project. And, each time we work together, we incorporate the original intentional practice work into the current aspect of the visitor experience we are exploring; and, each time we do this, staff’s ideas for impact evolve and change and so does their practice. For instance, staff is currently focused on how one particular aspect of the impact statement—demonstrating its living collections’ connection to people—can be actualized in the garden’s interpretation. This is what I mean when I say that intentional practice is an ongoing process or pursuit. It truly never ends, but worthy pursuits rarely do.

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