Archive for April, 2014

25th Anniversary ButterflyLately I have been thinking about how intentional practice seeped into my consciousness. “Seeped” feels like the right verb for a concept that is still evolving and taking shape, admittedly at a slow but steady pace, gently nudging me along. I believe that almost all ideas are influenced by others’ ideas. At the time I was coming upon intentional practice, I had been conducting evaluations for many years, reading Stephen Weil’s and others’ articles and books, witnessing changes in how museums were behaving in response to outside pressures, and wondering why evaluation seemed to have seemingly little effect on museum practice. In this case, when I say “museum practice,” I actually mean the whole museum rather than an individual museum program or exhibition. The glass wasn’t completely half empty, but I was bothered by a few practices I was witnessing.

About 15 years ago I started to feel disturbed by the dangerous game that some museums were playing—ones that were so focused on bolstering attendance that they were hosting exhibitions just to bring in high volumes of visitors, regardless of whether the exhibitions reflected their core mission or purpose. For example, why would a history museum host Body Worlds other than to enjoy an uptick in visitor numbers? Or, why would an art museum host exhibitions featuring impressionism year after year? Perhaps the local community demanded that their museums host these exhibitions, but it is more likely that the museums were thinking about numbers—as in visitors and in dollars and cents. (Apparently this kind of thing is still present, as indicated by this week’s New York Times article about MoMA and its director where the reporter notes “. . . there have been complaints from veteran patrons that the museum has grown too fast and lost much of its soul in courting the crowd.”( Loss of soul well describes what I was witnessing and thinking a decade and a half ago.) Ideas about intentional practice were emerging (although I didn’t know it at the time), and I eventually wrote an article titled “Self Portrait: Know Thy Self then Serve your Public” that Museum News published. I make the point museums need to know and articulate their core values, assets (intellectual and otherwise), and passions so they can exude continuously them if visitors are to have personally meaningful experiences.


Know Thyself, from the Temple of Apollo

Know Thyself, from the Temple of Apollo

Around the same time I was starting to realize that the evaluation field was focused almost entirely on studying individual projects (exhibitions and programs) and it had not explored the effect of the whole museum experience. I observed that evaluation was conceived of and conducted in much the same way museums were managed—each department did its own thing and sometimes individuals did their own thing—without considering other parts of the museum or other colleagues. I recognized that evaluation, as a practice, was benefiting particular programs and exhibitions and even individuals, but I wondered if evaluation could be a more holistic endeavor organizationally, so it could benefit the whole museum. I thought about what might be missing from the practice of evaluation and in the ways museums were doing their work and quietly started to think about developing evaluative strategies that could more adequately serve the whole museum. I also wanted museums to regain focus on their soul and core purpose and I wanted to be able to study the difference museums were making in people’s lives. However, I learned through my evaluation practice that without a statement of intent, I really couldn’t study anything at all. I believe that museums must state their intentions—not just so evaluators can determine whether they have achieved them—but articulating intentions is an excellent planning strategy for museum practitioners; it keeps them focused on their desired end result, which helps them make decisions accordingly. After all this thinking I felt like I had arrived at a new place and passion; I wanted to develop strategies to help evaluators and museums approach their work more collaboratively, holistically, and intentionally.

My belief in the value of intentionality was steadfast, resulting from conducting museum evaluations—program by program, exhibition by exhibition—for over twenty years. I was transferring what I learned from exhibition and program evaluations—successful programs and exhibitions emerge from work that is focused on a core idea, deliberate in exemplifying that core idea, articulate in describing that core idea, and designing components that support the core idea. I also learned that if a museum does not have passion for the core idea, their work will be substandard, and visitors will know the difference. I believed in what I had learned—enough so that I wanted to apply the ideas to a larger entity—the whole museum, and thus was born our intentionality work with museums.

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25th Anniversary ButterflyAs evaluators, we work with museum professionals to collect data around problems they are facing, and not so surprisingly, museums often face similar problems.  In my six years with RK&A, I have definitely seen trends, and certainly in RK&A’s 25 years, the company has as well.  For this reason, I sometimes find myself wondering whether collecting more data around an issue is worthwhile.  As someone who considers herself a life-long learner, the instinct is to say, “No, we don’t know enough; there is always more to learn.”  But then I consider that, if there is enough existing and reliable information out there, our clients can save time and money but still make informed decisions.  This consideration gives me pause as my intention is for the work we do to help museums do their work better.

I was recently feeling this way while conducting focus groups with teachers about barriers to fieldtrips and their needs for teaching resources. We have worked on many evaluations of museum-school programs lately in which we collected data from teachers about museum programs and professional development, including for Kentucky Historical Society, the National Air and Space Museum, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Indeed, during the recent teacher focus groups, I heard a lot of familiar trends—cost of field trips, curriculum links, lack of time due to testing. But as I listened to these teachers, I gained a new appreciation for the phrase “the devil is in the details.” For, while some of the barriers were the same as those I was expecting, there were nuances and specifics unique to the context of the Museum and its community that make a familiar issue particularly challenging—which I have found to be true with every evaluation.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder The Seven Deadly Sins or the Seven Vices - Pride 1558

Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Seven Deadly Sins or the Seven Vices – Pride

So to the question, have we heard it all before when it comes to barriers to fieldtrip experiences? No. While there are certainly cases when existing research in the field can sufficiently answer a museum’s questions, more often than not, there are situational challenges unique to a museum and its community that are crucial to helping a museum address these challenges. Sometimes our work is about helping museums see the forest for the trees—identifying the big trends. But in the case of identifying barriers to fieldtrip experiences, I need to unpack every detail to help the Museum truly understand the barriers and identify recommendations.   Like this Bruegel painting, it can appear messy and confusing but inspecting each detail is necessary for making meaning.

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