Like me, you have probably seen dozens of friends and/or celebrities participating in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, may have participated yourself, or at least heard about it on the news. While the challenges have slowed since peaking about a week ago, they have reached broadly through my network. I was particularly surprised to see some of my non-American friends from the United Arab Emirates and Thailand participating just yesterday. An article from The Guardian noted in its headline, “The Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS is a gimmick—and it’s good.” The Challenge was intended to raise dollars for ALS research, and by all accounts, the ALS Challenge rings of success: as of August 26 date, the Challenge brought in 88.5 million dollars! True—raising dollars is an obvious output of the Challenge; however another is to raise awareness of ALS. The evaluator in me asks, “How much awareness has the Challenge actually raised (and how do we know)? Does raising awareness mean that people know the acronym ALS (but do they know what ALS stands for)? Does raising awareness mean that people know one fact about ALS? Do people know that it is a horrible disease that scientists are still trying to understand (and thus, that is why research dollars are needed)?
Raising awareness is often something museums desire as an end result for visitors who have seen an exhibition or attended a program. But raising awareness about something is an elusive concept—unless staff articulate what they mean by raising awareness. I have often heard museum professionals say that awareness is something that is hard to measure. But what I think is really difficult about measuring awareness is defining a realistic and appropriate lens through which to articulate awareness. For instance, if an exhibition wants to raise awareness of issues of social justice, is it successful in raising awareness only if everyone comes away with a thorough understanding of social justice issues in their community or strong feelings of advocacy for social justice issues? While I, curators, and exhibition designers may want to see everyone walk away from an exhibition about social justice take immediate action, it would be erroneous to say that is the only measure of success in raising awareness. I believe success is seeing any movement along a continuum from pre- to post-campaign, post-program, or post-exhibition. Certainly it is exciting and to see those big jumps across a continuum of awareness, but what I have learned along the way is that many people making little jumps or baby steps along a continuum are big successes.