Recently, Christine Castle asked readers of her Museum Education Monitor for their “words to live by”—pithy phrases and bon mots that help [them] make it through the museum education day. This got me thinking about the words I live by as a museum evaluator. Three little words easily popped into my mind—less is more. These words epitomize themselves; they are beautiful in their simplicity yet they embody our whole philosophy as an evaluation firm and my own personal approach to evaluation. What is so interesting to me about the concept of “less is more” is how incredibly hard it is to achieve. Doing less seems so simple; but to truly live by those words is extraordinarily difficult.
Let me give an example. We often facilitate planning workshops for our clients. As we have probably said in many a blog post, planning and evaluation are inextricably linked. Evaluators are true believers in planning with the end in mind. Otherwise, how are we going to know that our clients have achieved the effect they desire on the audiences they serve? The ultimate goal of these planning workshops is to help our clients articulate their desired public impact. They can use the end result—an Impact Planning Framework—to guide their decision making, and we can use it to guide audience research and evaluation. In these workshops, we facilitate exercises for museum staff, and one of the exercises asks staff to select a finite number of audiences for which they will envision impact. You may not be surprised, but often a key sticking point for museum staff is the very notion of limiting the number of target audiences. At times, it almost feels like we have asked them to remove an appendage; the resistance can be palpable.
It’s touching on many levels that it is so difficult for museum staff to prioritize their audiences. It speaks volumes about the passion they have for the public dimension of the work they do. However, and this is a big however, museums cannot be everything to everyone. It’s just not possible no matter how hard museums try. I do not say this to sound negative or glass half empty. I want museums to succeed in achieving their desired impact. But, here’s the thing. Impact is really hard to achieve (we know this from countless evaluations). The rationale for prioritizing audiences is to help the museum focus resources and actions towards achieving results on those audiences. Trying to be everything to everyone may result in the opposite of what a museum is striving for—nothing meaningful for anyone. And, while difficult to believe, focusing one’s efforts and resources on a few doesn’t usually lead to others feeling excluded. So often, what a museum might do for a few will have meaning for so many more.
The beauty of “less is more” is that if you try, you will feel liberated. Focusing one’s efforts to achieve impact on three or four audiences (instead of “everyone”) is scary, but once a museum bites the bullet, staff may feel like they just received a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. Finally, staff will have an excuse to focus their efforts on those few audiences where they feel they can make a difference. Pursuing “less is more” is an ongoing process, which means that it takes a while to embrace it, and, once you do, you have to continue to work at living by those words because everything around us screams “more.” It’s not easy, but worthwhile pursuits never are. For me, knowing that doing less will actually help our clients achieve more is worth it in the end. So, that’s why “less is more” are my words to live by.