Archive for the ‘Intentional Practice’ Category

In keeping with this year’s blog series about how my Intentional Practice has evolved over the last 10 years, I will be using the next seven months to present the seven principles of Intentional Practice.  The emergence of these principles was organic; I did not set out to identify these principles prior to embarking on this work—the list just came to me one day last summer.  In fact, I had forgotten that I had even written the list until I was cleaning up my Intentional Practice folder on my computer last week.  To my surprise and delight, there it was!  Suffice it to say, over the next seven months I will mull over the principles, which may shift or change as I clarify my thinking.  For that reason, I will share one per month.

#1: The organization wants to achieve something greater than itself (e.g., impact) among the audiences it serves.

 

The first principle is a prerequisite for Intentional Planning; and a museum cannot move forward in Intentional Practice if it isn’t interested in working for the common good.  Clarifying intended impact isn’t about the museum benefiting; it is about the public—the recipient of the museum’s work—benefiting.  Even the statement, “People become life-long museum visitors” doesn’t place the benefit solely on the museum visitor, as repeated visitation is a means to a greater end—for the visitor.  Achieving impact is about making a difference in people’s lives, which requires the full force of the museum behind it.  A museum that is insular, self-serving, or arrogant may not be able to pursue Intentional Planning.  Likewise, a museum with a relentless focus on the bottom line may thwart Intentional Practice work, not because it wants to but rather, persistent attention on the bottom line has a funny way of interfering with integrity and ingenuity.  People may inadvertently revert to traditional ways, which for some museums may mean looking inward rather than outward.  Fear might overtake confidence, risk-taking might disappear, and working on behalf of the bottom line might seem like the only survival strategy available on the horizon.  While organizations can balance bottom-line concerns with achieving something greater than themselves, more times than not, organizations create an either/or situation rather than an “and” situation.

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The New Museum by John Cotton Dana

The idea of a museum thinking outside of itself for the common good is an age-old idea in museums that holds value and importance today.  A century ago, John Cotton Dana said, “A museum is good only insofar it is of use”—a statement that is often quoted today by museum staff who want their museums to be viewed as convening places where people can gather to have important conversations about contemporary issues.  Dana’s many important writings are compiled in a book called The New Museum (1999) published by the Newark Museum, and they are worth reading.

Stephen Weil

Stephen Weil

And, in Making Museums Matter (2002), noted scholar and museum director Stephen Weil writes in the chapter “Can and do they make a difference” that: “If our museums are not being operated with the ultimate goal of improving people’s lives, on what alternative basis might we possibly ask for public support?”  In this piece and several others, Weil makes a case for museums to do their work to “make a positive difference in the quality of people’s lives,” which is how all of us at RK&A define impact.

In 1996, Harold Skramstad, former director of Henry Ford and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, MI, in a presentation during the 150th celebration of the Smithsonian, noted that mission statements, which museums like to use to demonstrate their purpose, do not answer the “so what?” question.  Museums spend a lot of time agonizing over their mission and visions statements (both of which are about the museum), when it might make more sense to use some of that time thinking about the impact they want to achieve on audiences.

The “so what” question is a running theme, at least implicitly, in Emlyn Koster’s writings; Emlyn, Executive Director of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, writes about “relevance” as the necessary element that museums in today’s world must boldly embrace.  For me, relevance is connected to the concept of achieving impact, as audiences will benefit from a museum that is relevant to their lives.  I suggest reading these two pieces by Koster, neither of which are available digitally for free: “In search of relevance: Science centers as innovators in the evolution of museums” in Daedalus, 1999; and “The Relevant Museum: A reflection on Sustainability” in Museum News, 2006. Both make a case for relevance as a necessary requirement for today’s museums. Emlyn also makes the point that sustainability of our planet is the relevant topic for science museums.  I believe he is right.

Relevance also is a viable approach to organizational sustainability for any museum, as maintaining the relevance of what your organization does for its audiences will keep your museum fresh, contemporary, and most important—purposeful and meaningful to your audiences.

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Ten years have passed since “The Case for Holistic Intentionality” appeared in Curator.  On the one hand, 10 years isn’t that long ago, but on the other hand, a lot has changed in how I think about intentionality.  The article (actually written 12 years ago) presents a concept about the characteristics of an intentional museum and makes a case for such organizations.  What the article had not benefited from—since it was only a concept rather than proof of concept—was my experience helping museums move towards intentional practice.

My colleague, Stephanie Downey, suggested I write 12 blog posts this year—one each month—to share the Intentional Practice strategies we developed and continue to hone and implement with museums.  She thought that this year of reflection and sharing would support the work I already will be doing as I spend this next year writing a book on Intentional Practice.  This undertaking has been in my mind for a while, and I’m excited that I have finally committed myself to this task.

Honestly, what is difficult about applying words to ideas is that the very nature of Intentional Practice presumes nothing is stationary.  Ideas are fluid, strategies are ever changing, the external environment is in constant flux, and learning is continuous.  Much like the law of physics that says everything is in constant motion, my ideas about intentionality and Intentional Practice are forever changing—not in big discernable ways (I might be the only one who notices), but in little ways.  My thinking changes almost daily, which isn’t a bad thing, except if I want to write about it!  At some point I will have to say the acronym, ELMO, “Enough, Let’s Move On”—something I learned from a museum professional who was in one of the first Intentional Practice workshops. ELMO comes in very handy, as you can imagine!

The Cycle of Intentional Practice, presented in a blog posted on January 2, 2013, has changed considerably, at least to me.  Ten years ago, Curator didn’t want to include the graphic in the article, and it is only now that I am grateful.  This is what it looked like in 2013:

Cycle of Intentional Practice

And this is what it looks like today:

 

The most significant shift (aside from its cleaner look) (thank you Amanda Krantz and Cathy Sigmond) is that there are quadrants. I always described the cycle as having quadrants but only recently does the cycle have them.  The order of the quadrants is also different, align now follows reflect instead of plan.  How odd it seems to me now that this wasn’t the original order.  Alignment makes sense after reflection—when you ask how you can align your actions to achieve impact—after reflecting on evaluation results.  Three concepts are unchanged: impact remains the centerpiece of the cycle; one can start anywhere on the cycle; and none of the quadrants are mutually exclusive, as one can reflect when planning, evaluating, and aligning.

While those ideas seem stationary today; what will I think tomorrow?  ELMO!

I look forward to the coming months when I will be sharing my thoughts about how my intentional practice work has evolved.

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We may not have it all together, but together we have it all”

Author unknown

The Cycle of Intentional Practice is proving to be a very useful framework for planning (see “Cycle of Intentional Practice” for more information).  We have applied the Cycle to many different projects—from planning global initiatives, to developing action plans for individual museum departments, to planning a museum’s future, to planning exhibitions.  While all of these projects are completely different, common to them is the museums’ intention for their work to make a difference in people’s lives, which is how we define “impact.”

 

The Cycle of Intentional Practice

The Cycle of Intentional Practice

When I reflect on our intentional planning work to identify the attributes that have made our approach successful, I land in a pretty simple place, which I have started to share during the workshops. “I don’t need to be here for you to do this kind of deep thinking,” I note during all of the workshops.  But I also realize that the one thing that makes intentional planning an invigorating and very useful process is the one thing that is hard for organizations to do—convene to talk about the work of the museum.  Our intentional planning process uses a workshop format because we believe that when staff work collaboratively to develop a common focus—a requirement for intentional thinking—the conversations, products, plans, and enthusiasm for their museum’s work are richer.

Another related necessity is that we ask that representatives of all departments participate in the workshops; while sometimes there is pushback (due to the unspoken hierarchy that may exist within an institution), we hold our ground because collaboration is a primary tenet of intentionality, and deep facilitated discussions are the only way people from different departments can find their common pursuit.  In nearly all of our intentional planning work, staff recognize the depth that emerges from hearing everyone’s perspective and having everyone working together towards a common end.  Clarifying language often becomes part of the conversation.  For example, we are working on an international initiative for a large art museum and everyone was talking about wanting visitors to experience “cross-cultural connections.” One brave staff member eventually asked what everyone means when they say that. A great question that took participants a while to ponder and judging from rich conversation that ensued, an exceedingly simple and crucial question to pose.  We are all guilty of using words/phrases without ever clarifying what they mean (my personal favorite, overused and now somewhat meaningless word is “engagement”).  When clarifying a museum’s intended impact, part of the conversation should include what people mean by the words they use to represent the results of their museum’s work.

Another primary tenet of intentional planning, in some ways as illustrated above, is inquiry.  For inquiry to work, though, people need to listen to understand (rather than to respond reactively).  Certainly, facilitating inclusive workshops and using inquiry are not new; many organizations use them at different times to do their work.  We think they are successful with our intentionality work because we are using these practices collectively within the context of the Cycle of Intentional Practice (see the diagram).  When used all together, they provide a massive dose of intentional thinking about the topic at hand—whether a strategic plan, a departmental plan, or a plan for an international initiative.  We have observed that bringing staff together for several hours creates an amazing feeling among those who gather—likely because it is a rare occurrence for people to take a moment to breathe and think about the interesting and thought-provoking questions we and others are asking. They are delighted to have a chance to reflect on their individual work and how it supports the collective work of their colleagues, and sometimes there is a Kumbaya moment where everyone feels like they are on the same wonderfully beautiful page.

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New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra poses at spring training in Florida, in an undated file photo. (AP Photo)

New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra poses at spring training in Florida, in an undated file photo. (AP Photo)

Yes, at first glance you might think that Yogi Berra and evaluation couldn’t be farther apart in ideology.  Not true.  By now everyone probably knows that Yogi Berra passed away last week at 90.  Most know Yogi because he was a great catcher, coach and manager for the game he loved.  My knowledge of and respect for Yogi are in two very divergent directions: I am a baseball fan and aware of Yogi’s greatness as a ball player; he is a Hall of Famer and was respected on and off the field, which is notable in today’s world.

The other way I know Mr. Berra is through his quotations.  I’m sure we all know a few, but I want to share one that I use very often: he said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up some place else.”  I recite that quotation during workshops when talking about the value of articulating outcomes for planning purposes and always pay homage to Yogi, saying, “I bet you didn’t know he was a museum planner and evaluator.”  Many people equate outcomes only with evaluation, but outcomes are also invaluable as guideposts for planning.  If you don’t have any outcomes for your exhibition, for example, then you can do whatever you want because it doesn’t matter where you end up.  But developing a program or exhibition without any place to go in particular might end up as a free-for-all—not a good idea for museums that want to make a difference in the quality of people’s lives.  Mr. Berra might be appalled to hear that museums might move forward without any particular direction in mind.  I supposed if those museums came upon a fork in the road, they might just take it!

If you are like Yogi and are interested in being intentional with your work by articulating outcomes for the purposes of planning, then you might be in interested in our next Twitter Chat (#RKAchat), on Thinking Critically about Outcomes.  We’ll be announcing the exact date and time soon.  Stay tuned!

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As RK&A’s first Research Fellow and a doctoral candidate in sociology at Northwestern University, I’m delighted to write the first of my Intentional Museum posts exploring the relationship of sociological research and museum evaluation. As it turns out, the timing of this writing is pretty fortuitous: I’m currently preparing a presentation for this year’s Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) Conference at the Kennedy Center, which has me thinking about how sociological research on museums can benefit practitioners. So I thought I’d start, as I’ll start in that presentation, with the big picture.

First things first: What do sociologists have to say about museums? In general, our research has spoken to three distinct themes. We’ve shown how visitor demographics in art museums reflect broader systems of social inequality by explaining how people’s education and class background shapes their familiarity with art. This helps explain patterns of visitor attendance, while also identifying the societal barriers that may leave some people out of the conversations museums try to foster.  We’ve shown how broader social changes (i.e. funding structures or political conditions) can impact what happens inside museums. This work illustrates how the environments in which organizations operate define what counts as legitimate operations, which in turn influences what museums do. Most recently, we’ve lifted the hood to look inside museums and focus on practice: what people do within these organizations, and how. Because museums offer a particularly apposite case for examining how people interact with objects, some of this work has examined how different objects and environments can structure interpretation and shape organizational goals.

Recently, I’ve grown increasingly curious about why so little has been said about the intersections of sociology and evaluation. In part this is because throughout my doctoral fieldwork on museum education, people regularly confused sociological research with evaluative practice. It was easy at the time to point out differences. Perhaps the most foundational one regards the role of theory. Sociologists study specific things to tell a more general story about the social world, entering museums to answer a theoretically-motivated question (for example, about inequality, legitimacy, or practice) that can speak beyond a single museum, exhibit, or program. In contrast, evaluators concentrate on how to help particular museums articulate their practical objectives (for exhibition development, for program assessment, and so forth), and then develop research designs to assess them. They may even make formal recommendations, which is not typically within the purview of sociology.

However, when reflecting – as I often do, and as I’ve been doing for LEAD – on what people in museums can do with broader sociological ideas, I inevitably find myself asking how, if at all, sociology and evaluation are akin in helping museum practitioners. For one, the best work in sociology and in evaluation rests on carefully prescribed methods. A sociologist’s ability to specify the method by which he or she arrives at a particular theory is what ensures it is sound. Evaluators, similarly, help museum practitioners identify their guiding questions at the outset of a project (just like sociologists must do for themselves) and select the methods (surveys, focus groups, observations, interviews) that will guide that client to results that are both reliable and useful, an important aim our Twitter chat explored on June 9th. In this way, both the sociologist and the evaluator practice with intention.

Perhaps most importantly, both professions can also aid museum practitioners in becoming more intentional. In assuaging museum educators that I was not doing program evaluation, I often explained that my research could instead give practitioners the language to talk about and reflect upon how they interpret the broader social conditions and institutional environments in which museums operate. Or, paraphrasing Max Weber – one of sociology’s founders – scientists can through their work promote clarity about choices by showing people the results of their actions. But now it seems false to me to distinguish this guiding philosophy too starkly from the aims of evaluation. High quality evaluations present museum staff with systematic research in efforts to help them make more informed choices about what they do, how they do it, and with what impact. This objective, I’ve come to understand, is central to how RK&A understands the role of evaluation in museum settings, and what we here call “intentional” practice.

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For many years now, I have attended the National Art Education Association annual conference, and for the same many years, I have attended the Museum Division pre-conference—a day-long event for art educators who teach from original works of art.  These days, I am usually one of the more senior people attending—but not only because I am getting older.  The conference is often about teaching in the galleries, where many art museum educators begin their career, and as they advance to department leaders and even museum directors, they attend other conferences that help them manage their new challenges.  This year’s focus was on leadership, so a good number of other seasoned folks were in attendance.  While still outnumbered, there was a decent mix of people spanning as many as 50 years, providing a rich exchange of conversation, and for me, reflection.

Seated harp player, ca. 2800–2700 B.C.; Early Cycladic I–II The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Seated harp player, ca. 2800–2700 B.C.; Early Cycladic I–II
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Attending such a focused conference provides a great opportunity to reflect on past years and changes that I have witnessed in the niche field of art museum education.  I have always felt a kinship with art museum educators; they are so passionate about their work (I am, too), they truly love what original works of art can do for people (the Cycladic sculpture at right is responsible for my very first deeply significant experience with a work of art when I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was 16), their stamina for intensely exploring ideas is commendable (and I am sometimes responsible for forcing the issue), and they seem to value intentionality (and I do, too).  In fact, during the pre-conference I heard the word “intentional” a lot—it seemed like everyone was talking about being intentional, which of course, delighted me.

In the preconference alone, I feel like I heard “intentional” or “intentionality” at least twice an hour—a whopping 16 times on that day alone, and because I attended museum division sessions, I heard it many times more throughout the larger conference.  So why were so many people talking about intentionality?   I’d like to think that my conference presentations over the last decade are starting to sink in (I have been discussing intentionality in every which way I can), but I suspect the somewhat recent issue of the Journal of Museum Education is mostly responsible—as it was titled, “Intentionality and the Twenty-First-Century Museum.”  I absolutely sense a shift taking place.  I think educators are starting to realize that often they try to do too much.  I realize sometime they are required to do too much—by their supervisors—but at least now, they are replying with a voice of reason as to why they may need to stop and take stock of what they are doing and why they are doing it.  They want their work to be purposeful and they want each and every action to support that purpose.

Simultaneously, they are also realizing that they just can’t continue doing more and more.  In order to manage their workloads (and we all know so many educators’ workloads are over the top), they are rethinking what they do and why they are doing it and this is where intentionality gains respect and momentum.  As with so many endeavors, the first step is recognizing that something needs to change.  I am so grateful to have experienced so many consecutive museum division pre-conferences; otherwise, I might not have witnessed this sea change.  Intentionality is hard, as our last post so noted.  I take a little bit of comfort in thinking that maybe RK&A can help by continuing to work with museums that want to become more intentional in their practice.  Maybe our blogging will help, or this article that I wrote in 2007.  I hope so—the future is looking brighter, thanks to art museum educators’ passion for wanting their work to make a difference!

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I know we promised you a new post in our Intentional Practice series today, but intentional thought takes time! Sorry for the delay – we promise to share a new Intentional Practice post soon!

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