In keeping with this year’s blog series about how my Intentional Practice has evolved over the last 10 years, I will be using the next seven months to present the seven principles of Intentional Practice. The emergence of these principles was organic; I did not set out to identify these principles prior to embarking on this work—the list just came to me one day last summer. In fact, I had forgotten that I had even written the list until I was cleaning up my Intentional Practice folder on my computer last week. To my surprise and delight, there it was! Suffice it to say, over the next seven months I will mull over the principles, which may shift or change as I clarify my thinking. For that reason, I will share one per month.
#1: The organization wants to achieve something greater than itself (e.g., impact) among the audiences it serves.
The first principle is a prerequisite for Intentional Planning; and a museum cannot move forward in Intentional Practice if it isn’t interested in working for the common good. Clarifying intended impact isn’t about the museum benefiting; it is about the public—the recipient of the museum’s work—benefiting. Even the statement, “People become life-long museum visitors” doesn’t place the benefit solely on the museum visitor, as repeated visitation is a means to a greater end—for the visitor. Achieving impact is about making a difference in people’s lives, which requires the full force of the museum behind it. A museum that is insular, self-serving, or arrogant may not be able to pursue Intentional Planning. Likewise, a museum with a relentless focus on the bottom line may thwart Intentional Practice work, not because it wants to but rather, persistent attention on the bottom line has a funny way of interfering with integrity and ingenuity. People may inadvertently revert to traditional ways, which for some museums may mean looking inward rather than outward. Fear might overtake confidence, risk-taking might disappear, and working on behalf of the bottom line might seem like the only survival strategy available on the horizon. While organizations can balance bottom-line concerns with achieving something greater than themselves, more times than not, organizations create an either/or situation rather than an “and” situation.
The idea of a museum thinking outside of itself for the common good is an age-old idea in museums that holds value and importance today. A century ago, John Cotton Dana said, “A museum is good only insofar it is of use”—a statement that is often quoted today by museum staff who want their museums to be viewed as convening places where people can gather to have important conversations about contemporary issues. Dana’s many important writings are compiled in a book called The New Museum (1999) published by the Newark Museum, and they are worth reading.
And, in Making Museums Matter (2002), noted scholar and museum director Stephen Weil writes in the chapter “Can and do they make a difference” that: “If our museums are not being operated with the ultimate goal of improving people’s lives, on what alternative basis might we possibly ask for public support?” In this piece and several others, Weil makes a case for museums to do their work to “make a positive difference in the quality of people’s lives,” which is how all of us at RK&A define impact.
In 1996, Harold Skramstad, former director of Henry Ford and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, MI, in a presentation during the 150th celebration of the Smithsonian, noted that mission statements, which museums like to use to demonstrate their purpose, do not answer the “so what?” question. Museums spend a lot of time agonizing over their mission and visions statements (both of which are about the museum), when it might make more sense to use some of that time thinking about the impact they want to achieve on audiences.
The “so what” question is a running theme, at least implicitly, in Emlyn Koster’s writings; Emlyn, Executive Director of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, writes about “relevance” as the necessary element that museums in today’s world must boldly embrace. For me, relevance is connected to the concept of achieving impact, as audiences will benefit from a museum that is relevant to their lives. I suggest reading these two pieces by Koster, neither of which are available digitally for free: “In search of relevance: Science centers as innovators in the evolution of museums” in Daedalus, 1999; and “The Relevant Museum: A reflection on Sustainability” in Museum News, 2006. Both make a case for relevance as a necessary requirement for today’s museums. Emlyn also makes the point that sustainability of our planet is the relevant topic for science museums. I believe he is right.
Relevance also is a viable approach to organizational sustainability for any museum, as maintaining the relevance of what your organization does for its audiences will keep your museum fresh, contemporary, and most important—purposeful and meaningful to your audiences.