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.