At RK&A, we think a lot about intentional practice and we encourage our clients to do the same. In planning meetings and reflection workshops, we ask clients to think about which elements of their work align with their institutional mission and vision (check out Randi’s blog post for more about the challenges of alignment). We push them to consider who might be the right audience for their program or exhibition, and we ask them to talk about the intended outcomes for their projects. Posing these kinds of questions is much easier for an “outsider” to do because we don’t have institutional baggage or a personal connection to a problem project. As consultants, we aren’t beholden to the way things have always been done. I get it – it can be hard to let go; but seeing clients seek information to make informed decisions is a powerful, exciting process. These clients want more information. They are willing to try new things, to change old (and sometimes new) programs to see if they can improve upon the results. These are museum professionals who want the very best experiences for their visitors.
We recently completed a project with a history museum and the results were, well, not as rosy as one might hope. After explaining the challenges of changing students’ perspectives in a short, one-time museum visit, we started talking about what could be done to increase the effectiveness of the program. One of our suggestions was to increase the time allotted for the program and rather than spending that extra time in the exhibition, use that time to facilitate a discussion with students so they can process and reflect on what they had seen. Changing a program’s format and duration is a difficult task for the museum to undertake – it may require extra staff and certainly a different schedule – but it could make a difference. A few days later, our client asked us if there are any studies that show that longer programs are more effective. After failing to come up with any examples (if you know of any such studies, please leave a comment), the client asked for another study to see if a longer program leads to a different outcome.
As an evaluator, I want to support museums as they change the way they do their work. Evaluation can provide the necessary information to see if new ideas work. It can give clients the data-based push they need to let go of the way things have always been done and to try something new. If nothing else, the evaluation process can be a forum to remind people that even when you are changing course, there is a place for you on the Cycle of Intentional Practice: Plan, Align, Evaluate, Reflect.