Archive for the ‘Coffee Break Series’ Category

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.

 

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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.”

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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.

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