austin

Earlier this month, I hopped on a plane down to Austin to attend the American Association for State and Local History conference (AASLH)—my first time attending this conference.  I had a great time presenting at a poster session, eating more than my fair share of breakfast tacos, and attending a lot of interesting sessions around the conference theme, “I AM history,” which focused on making history relevant to many different types of people with diverse backgrounds and experiences.  One of the sessions that stood out to me was a Current Issues Forum moderated by Conny Graft (Conny Graft Research and Evaluation) and Kate Betz (Bullock Texas State History Museum) that grew out of the History Relevance Campaign.  The session featured a conversation with a panel of three leaders of local nonprofits who do not frequently visit history museums or historical sites.  Session moderators asked the panel questions about what “history” means to them and how, if at all, history and history museums feel relevant to their lives (or not).  The conversations reminded me how all museums, not just history museums, are on a quest for relevance—but figuring out how to be relevant is difficult and often a focus in our evaluation work.

In my experience, visitors find relevance when a museum helps them “see themselves” in the exhibition, which can be challenging considering the range of experiences and perspectives visitors bring with them to the museum.  However, I think history museums have a distinct advantage because history itself is about telling human stories.  This is one of the reasons I love history—learning about the vast range of human experiences across time and space.  In graduate school, I wrote my master’s thesis on early interactions between Euro-American fur traders and Native people in the Northern Rocky Mountains in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  I know this topic sounds narrow and boring to some, and may be a surprising topic of research to those who know me because so many aspects of this topic are far-removed from my own life.  So, what drew me into this research?  The idea of negotiation and compromise—two groups working together to find a “middle ground” based on a changing array of real and perceived needs.  We have all been in situations where we have to make tough decisions and compromises—this was a hook to help me begin to understand the past and its relevance to my life.  To remain relevant, I think museums have to find that broad entry point that gives visitors something relatable to latch on to.  I’m sure the session moderators and participants would agree finding that hook is certainly easier said than done, but well worth the effort if it can spark deeper exploration of history.

At the start of this year, I started writing about the principles of intentional practice, and to date, I have shared three principles (#1, #2, and #3).  For this post, I feature the next two principles of intentional practice, and I present them together because they are both critically important for achieving the museum’s intended impact, and yet, they are very different in character.

#4. Staff know the impact the museum hopes to achieve on audiences served

Principle #4, “Staff know the impact the museum hopes to achieve on audiences served,” may seem like an unnecessary principle to state; after all, staff participated in the crafting of the impact statement, and certainly they know the museum’s heart-felt intentions.  Stating the obvious reinforces the important role staff have in the museum’s intentional practice.  Omitting it as a principle would be a serious oversight.  To “know” is not taken lightly among museum professionals.  In the context of intentional practice, to “know” leads staff to internalize the impact the museum hopes to achieve, and such knowing enables staff to carry out its work. Oddly, the principle also feels static, which is the antithesis of how work tends to happen in museums—where there is always an abundance of activity.  However static the statement feels, impact statements are never still, and neither is staff’s knowledge.

#5. Staff align its work to achieve its intended impact

Knowing the intended impact of the museum on audiences should affect and determine the work that staff do; however, realizing what one could do and carrying out those actions are two very different things.  Innumerable tensions unfold in museums, as museums pursue the 5th principle: “Staff align its work to achieve its intended impact.” Alignment is about exploring whether a museum’s processes and products can deliver the museum’s intended impact within the resources the museum has to expend (staff and dollars), and within that, alignment can be also about course-correcting work to strengthen alignment between a program and the museum’s intended impact.  Taken a step further, alignment can also become part of a strategy for reducing a museum’s workload if the museum is doing too much, as is often the case.

How can a museum use alignment to reduce its workload?  One approach might be to analyze various programs from two perspectives: 1) a program’s ability to achieve the museum’s intended impact; and 2) the amount of resources required to implement the program—in terms of staff time and dollars.

 

 

If, through discussion, staff ascertain that a program has relatively low impact (compared to other programs) and requires considerable resources, does it make sense to continue the program?  There are two options: a) the museum can change the program to strengthen alignment between the program and the museum’s intended impact and reduce the cost of the program to the museum; or, b) it can stop doing the program altogether, which could free up resources that the museum could put to better use.  However, some museum programs are sacred cows, such as a holiday program or other long-running public programs.  Sometimes programs become tradition, and they are the ones that are most threatened, in part because they were created before the museum started to pursue impact-driven planning.  Some programs continue year after year simply because the museum has always done them—and sometimes for no other reason.

When a museum chooses to engage in impact-driven planning, logic suggests that the museum wants to change in some sort of way.  If nothing changes during or after the planning process, something is afoot.  While the thought of changing is inspiring, change is extremely difficult to actualize.  For example, things could remain the same if someone becomes offended if their program’s effectiveness is being questioned or if those sacred cows are left intact.  Alignment analyses are intended to be honest reflections about whether a program achieves the museum’s intended impact and uses resources responsibly.  Without honesty, change is elusive and alignment is futile.  Knowing that honest analysis and discussion is vital to alignment, convene with your colleagues to discuss your museum’s programs and plot each one on the above graph to help you determine what your museum can improve or stop doing.  Regardless of where each program is placed on the grid, the objective is to have the conversation—which is the beginning of the alignment process.

Coffee Break IconLast month, we discussed “The Lost Art of Urban Tracking,” an excerpt from The Urban Bestiary by nature writer Lyanda Lynn Haupt. In this chapter, Haupt describes observation as a practice which “requires in equal measure contemplation, curiosity, art, wonder, poetry, play, and love.” Looking at the word’s Latin roots, ob- and servare, Haupt suggests “observation can be more than watching,” as servare means “to attend,” which “implies…a graced allowing, a room for the movement of the observed in its own sphere – a sphere that, as attendants, we are invited to enter.” Haupt also thinks observers must recognize a certain amount of responsibility in allowing the observed “to have a presence, to speak for itself.”

I first read The Urban Bestiary while traveling to conduct my second of three observations of the Social Stories Spectrum Project at theNAT in San Diego. As an avid birdwatcher, I’d packed my binoculars and birding guide to occupy my downtime. Birding put me in just the right mindset to observe a 4-hour museum program. Integrating observation into daily practice is useful for developing a skill set that I can flex when it matters most – kind of like practicing a sport or an instrument. As Haupt writes, “with practice, our attendance deepens, becomes more astute, and also easier, more natural, part of our lives, our days, our intellects, our bodies.” Observing the world, and especially its animal life, is a hobby, survival skill, and a means of tuning in—to the life around us. With practice, observation prepares our minds to evaluate museum programs with natural attention.

 

Coffee Break IconWhen consulting statistician Margaret Menninger shared with us “How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next,” I read the article voraciously and immediately began sharing it.  I have always enjoyed numbers and the ability to use statistics to reveal patterns and trends.  However, I know that others are not as enamored with statistics as I am.  My perception, though, was that statistical adversaries were often propelled by lack of confidence in their own mathematical understanding and abilities.  The idea of statistics as “insulting or arrogant” for reasons including “reducing social and economic issues to numerical aggregates and averages,” had not fully resonated with me until reading this article.  From my perspective, stats and their utilization by the Census Bureau and other institutions is democratizing.  Reading this article made me think about other themes in my recent work:

  • Trying new methods to communicate statistical results clearly, accessibly, and accurately
  • Working with the National Art Education Association’s mixed methods working group, which advocate for research designs that include complementary quantitative and qualitative data
  • Preparing for an upcoming roundtable on methodological pitfalls at the Visitor Studies Association that was inspired by musings over polling errors resulting in the “post-truth” political climate

Maybe statistics don’t factor into your life as regularly as they do mine, so I leave you with the author’s concluding comment, which I think speaks to why this issue matters to everyone:

“A post-statistical society is a potentially frightening proposition, not because it would lack any forms of truth or expertise altogether, but because it would drastically privatise them. Statistics are one of many pillars of liberalism, indeed of Enlightenment. The experts who produce and use them have become painted as arrogant and oblivious to the emotional and local dimensions of politics. No doubt there are ways in which data collection could be adapted to reflect lived experiences better. But the battle that will need to be waged in the long term is not between an elite-led politics of facts versus a populist politics of feeling. It is between those still committed to public knowledge and public argument and those who profit from the ongoing disintegration of those things.”

Much of Intentional Practice work is about process, and a significant part of process work requires that we talk with each other.  I realize that humans exchange ideas verbally all the time, although given we live in the screen age (computers, phones, and pads), perhaps people are conversing face-to-face less and less.  And perhaps, as well, we need practice convening and having productive conversations.  This third principle of the seven principles of Intentional Practice is staff using inquiry and active listening to understand and appreciate varying viewpoints; it is about having productive conversations that support the work of your museum.  It is a principle because open, productive conversations among staff are necessary if a museum is to achieve impact.

#3: Staff use inquiry and active listening to understand and appreciate varying viewpoints.

RK&A uses inquiry (e.g., ask open-ended questions) for several reasons:  1) inquiry, with a few ground rules, creates a neutralizing and democratizing atmosphere that invites and welcomes all viewpoints; 2) inquiry promotes others to ask questions, and it is through conversation and dialogue that social, professional, and personal learning emerges; and 3) inquiry allows staff to come to their own understanding about an issue or topic; and 4) asking well-articulated and purposeful questions allows everyone to explore their thoughts, come to know their perspectives and the perspectives of others in their group, and reach a collective appreciation for all ways of knowing.  I realize that my view of inquiry and active listening may sound Pollyannaish, but because I have seen such conversations reach useful and invigorating ends, I believe fully in the principle.  I realize, as well, that the four points above are complicated and deserve their own individual blog post, if not a chapter in a book (which is forthcoming by the way—in about 18 months if all goes as planned), but, for today’s post, I have chosen to focus on the ground rules, as without rules of engagement, conversations easily can go awry. 

Ground rule #1: Participate with authenticity
First, in workshops we invite and encourage all workshop participants to contribute with authenticity.  We ask all participants to respect all others in the gathering as well as the purpose of the gathering; authentic and genuine participation is essential to a successful planning process.  We want to hear everyone’s genuine thoughts about the ideas under discussion.

Ground rule #2:  Listen to first understand, then respond
Second, while we encourage everyone to be themselves, we also request that everyone be respectful as the conversation ensues.  To that end, we encourage listening to understand—not to respond, at least not right away.  We recommend allowing ample time to process and understand before responding, so as to avoid knee-jerk reactions to potentially unpopular positions.  We respect what all individuals bring to a situation, and we recognize that all bring a unique and valuable intellect, commitment, passion, and experience to the group conversation.  If someone does not fully understand what someone is saying, we support asking additional questions to clarify a point that may not have been clearly expressed initially.

Ground rule #3: Realize process work is an art and science

Finally, the Cycle of Intentional Practice work is iterative and process-oriented.  Process work can be messy, and it also can be uncomfortable for some.  While most of the gatherings (e.g., workshops) may have a defined agenda, framework, and theory to support the work, we cannot anticipate exactly what will unfold throughout the course of the workshop; if we knew, we would be dismissing the uniqueness of the institution and individuals’ contributions.  The art emerges as we all respond to each other’s thoughts and we end up in an unexpected place of understanding; the art also emerges, with a little bit of science, in how we ask the questions, ensuring that we and others are asking balanced, non-leading, and unbiased questions.

 

Coffee Break Icon

Recently at RK&A, we’ve started gathering as an office for a bimonthly “Coffee Break” to discuss current issues and recent developments in the field.  For each Coffee Break, we select a current article, blog post, or other publication for everyone to read and reflect on.  So far, topics have ranged from data visualization to the role of museums as social innovators, and it has been fascinating to reflect on the museum field and our place in it with my colleagues.  We would like to invite you to learn along with us as we explore current topics and trends in the field in our “Coffee Break” blog series.

Last week, we discussed John Wetenhall’s article “Why Not to Run Your Museum ‘More Like a Business’” in AAM’s recent Museum issue (May/June 2017).  In the article, Wetenhall considers the increasing pressure some museums feel to run “more like a business.”  Business models value growth and often operate with the perspective that “bigger is better.”  When applied to museums, “bigger” takes many forms—growing attendance, membership, collections, and buildings—and as we discussed the article, we wondered along with Wetenhall, “But where does this lead?”  When a museum’s annual report presents its achievements through numbers, square footage, and the like, they do not reflect the museum’s deeper mission and purpose.

What resonated most with my work, as an evaluator, was Wetenhall’s call to action to “temper measures of quantity with the matrices of quality and impact.”  The “endless quest for more…weakens our institutions in the long run” because museums lose sight of their true mission—to make a difference in the lives of their visitors.  We work with museums and other informal learning institutions to help them articulate and achieve their intended impact on visitors, whatever that may be—whether to inspire, to enrich, to explore, or to teach.   The quantitative and qualitative data generated through evaluation can provide a metric of value that speaks more directly to a museum’s mission and impact on visitors than, for example, program attendance.  We hope our work helps museums focus on impact, improve the quality of visitor experiences, and demonstrate their public value in meaningful ways.

As you may recall, for the next several months I will be highlighting the seven principles of Intentional Practice.  Last month I wrote about the principle #1: The organization wants to achieve something greater than itself (e.g., impact) among the audiences it serves, and this month I discuss the importance of collaboration to Intentional Practice.

#2: Staff work collaboratively across the organization.

Not too long ago in museum history, exhibitions were developed by a lone curator.  The idea to use interdisciplinary teams to develop exhibitions was instigated at the Field Museum in the early 1980s, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Although some museums still struggle to implement and maintain what has become known as “the team approach” to exhibition development, significant progress has been made in the last 30 years.  Initially, this shift in practice was in response to the national trend that was taking hold whereby museums were starting to embrace the public dimension of their work, recognizing that successful communication of complex ideas might require more than a subject matter specialist.

My belief in the necessity of collaboration grew from my experience conducting hundreds of evaluations over the last 30-plus years.  For an exhibition to be successful, for example, all the following stars would need to be aligned: the exhibition team would have a thesis (e.g., a one-sentence big idea), identify a few messages that support the thesis, have coherent interpretive text that communicates the thesis and messages, have tested interpretive elements (e.g., interactives, text) to ensure they communicate the thesis and messages, have adequate resources (time and dollars) to actualize the exhibition as intended, and have the right combination of expertise and skills to execute the exhibition as intended.  Hard, complicated, and messy work, indeed.

Puzzle graphic created by Davo Sime from the Noun Project

Applying my evaluation experience to intentionality, I realized that if a museum was to achieve a discernible impact among audiences, the entire museum would need to participate.  Achieving impact, which in the case of Intentional Practice means making a positive difference in the quality of people’s lives, might not happen if one person or one department bears all the responsibility; instead, achieving impact should be the collective effort of all staff working together towards an agreed-upon end.  To capitalize on the benefits of collaboration, we request our clients create working groups comprised of individuals from different departments when we facilitate Intentional Practice workshops; we seek interdisciplinary collaboration because we want people to problem solve with those whom they might not normally choose to work.  What is the result of people thinking alongside colleagues from other departments?  Increased appreciation for the unique perspectives and skills their colleagues offer!  They slowly recognize that their collective brain power and actions are stronger than any one individual’s work.

Cover of Forces for Good, by Leslie R. Crutchfield

Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant demonstrate the benefits of collaboration in their well-researched book Forces for Good.  They studied 12 high-impact nonprofits to understand what made these nonprofits successful, and yes, high-impact nonprofits collaborate with other nonprofits that have shared goals.  Their updated research appears in the 2012 edition of the book and in this article called “Local Forces for Good.”  They make the point that no one can or should do the work alone, and I agree.

As anyone who has experienced the team approach to exhibition development will know, process work can feel disorganized.  Museum leaders can mitigate confusion by clearly communicating who does what and modeling patience and trust.  From an Intentional Practice perspective, all staff are apt to benefit from working collaboratively, as collaboration increases the chance for an individual’s professional and personal learning.