Posts Tagged ‘intentional practice’

At the start of this year, I started writing about the principles of intentional practice, and to date, I have shared three principles (#1, #2, and #3).  For this post, I feature the next two principles of intentional practice, and I present them together because they are both critically important for achieving the museum’s intended impact, and yet, they are very different in character.

#4. Staff know the impact the museum hopes to achieve on audiences served

Principle #4, “Staff know the impact the museum hopes to achieve on audiences served,” may seem like an unnecessary principle to state; after all, staff participated in the crafting of the impact statement, and certainly they know the museum’s heart-felt intentions.  Stating the obvious reinforces the important role staff have in the museum’s intentional practice.  Omitting it as a principle would be a serious oversight.  To “know” is not taken lightly among museum professionals.  In the context of intentional practice, to “know” leads staff to internalize the impact the museum hopes to achieve, and such knowing enables staff to carry out its work. Oddly, the principle also feels static, which is the antithesis of how work tends to happen in museums—where there is always an abundance of activity.  However static the statement feels, impact statements are never still, and neither is staff’s knowledge.

#5. Staff align its work to achieve its intended impact

Knowing the intended impact of the museum on audiences should affect and determine the work that staff do; however, realizing what one could do and carrying out those actions are two very different things.  Innumerable tensions unfold in museums, as museums pursue the 5th principle: “Staff align its work to achieve its intended impact.” Alignment is about exploring whether a museum’s processes and products can deliver the museum’s intended impact within the resources the museum has to expend (staff and dollars), and within that, alignment can be also about course-correcting work to strengthen alignment between a program and the museum’s intended impact.  Taken a step further, alignment can also become part of a strategy for reducing a museum’s workload if the museum is doing too much, as is often the case.

How can a museum use alignment to reduce its workload?  One approach might be to analyze various programs from two perspectives: 1) a program’s ability to achieve the museum’s intended impact; and 2) the amount of resources required to implement the program—in terms of staff time and dollars.

 

 

If, through discussion, staff ascertain that a program has relatively low impact (compared to other programs) and requires considerable resources, does it make sense to continue the program?  There are two options: a) the museum can change the program to strengthen alignment between the program and the museum’s intended impact and reduce the cost of the program to the museum; or, b) it can stop doing the program altogether, which could free up resources that the museum could put to better use.  However, some museum programs are sacred cows, such as a holiday program or other long-running public programs.  Sometimes programs become tradition, and they are the ones that are most threatened, in part because they were created before the museum started to pursue impact-driven planning.  Some programs continue year after year simply because the museum has always done them—and sometimes for no other reason.

When a museum chooses to engage in impact-driven planning, logic suggests that the museum wants to change in some sort of way.  If nothing changes during or after the planning process, something is afoot.  While the thought of changing is inspiring, change is extremely difficult to actualize.  For example, things could remain the same if someone becomes offended if their program’s effectiveness is being questioned or if those sacred cows are left intact.  Alignment analyses are intended to be honest reflections about whether a program achieves the museum’s intended impact and uses resources responsibly.  Without honesty, change is elusive and alignment is futile.  Knowing that honest analysis and discussion is vital to alignment, convene with your colleagues to discuss your museum’s programs and plot each one on the above graph to help you determine what your museum can improve or stop doing.  Regardless of where each program is placed on the grid, the objective is to have the conversation—which is the beginning of the alignment process.

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Much of Intentional Practice work is about process, and a significant part of process work requires that we talk with each other.  I realize that humans exchange ideas verbally all the time, although given we live in the screen age (computers, phones, and pads), perhaps people are conversing face-to-face less and less.  And perhaps, as well, we need practice convening and having productive conversations.  This third principle of the seven principles of Intentional Practice is staff using inquiry and active listening to understand and appreciate varying viewpoints; it is about having productive conversations that support the work of your museum.  It is a principle because open, productive conversations among staff are necessary if a museum is to achieve impact.

#3: Staff use inquiry and active listening to understand and appreciate varying viewpoints.

RK&A uses inquiry (e.g., ask open-ended questions) for several reasons:  1) inquiry, with a few ground rules, creates a neutralizing and democratizing atmosphere that invites and welcomes all viewpoints; 2) inquiry promotes others to ask questions, and it is through conversation and dialogue that social, professional, and personal learning emerges; and 3) inquiry allows staff to come to their own understanding about an issue or topic; and 4) asking well-articulated and purposeful questions allows everyone to explore their thoughts, come to know their perspectives and the perspectives of others in their group, and reach a collective appreciation for all ways of knowing.  I realize that my view of inquiry and active listening may sound Pollyannaish, but because I have seen such conversations reach useful and invigorating ends, I believe fully in the principle.  I realize, as well, that the four points above are complicated and deserve their own individual blog post, if not a chapter in a book (which is forthcoming by the way—in about 18 months if all goes as planned), but, for today’s post, I have chosen to focus on the ground rules, as without rules of engagement, conversations easily can go awry. 

Ground rule #1: Participate with authenticity
First, in workshops we invite and encourage all workshop participants to contribute with authenticity.  We ask all participants to respect all others in the gathering as well as the purpose of the gathering; authentic and genuine participation is essential to a successful planning process.  We want to hear everyone’s genuine thoughts about the ideas under discussion.

Ground rule #2:  Listen to first understand, then respond
Second, while we encourage everyone to be themselves, we also request that everyone be respectful as the conversation ensues.  To that end, we encourage listening to understand—not to respond, at least not right away.  We recommend allowing ample time to process and understand before responding, so as to avoid knee-jerk reactions to potentially unpopular positions.  We respect what all individuals bring to a situation, and we recognize that all bring a unique and valuable intellect, commitment, passion, and experience to the group conversation.  If someone does not fully understand what someone is saying, we support asking additional questions to clarify a point that may not have been clearly expressed initially.

Ground rule #3: Realize process work is an art and science

Finally, the Cycle of Intentional Practice work is iterative and process-oriented.  Process work can be messy, and it also can be uncomfortable for some.  While most of the gatherings (e.g., workshops) may have a defined agenda, framework, and theory to support the work, we cannot anticipate exactly what will unfold throughout the course of the workshop; if we knew, we would be dismissing the uniqueness of the institution and individuals’ contributions.  The art emerges as we all respond to each other’s thoughts and we end up in an unexpected place of understanding; the art also emerges, with a little bit of science, in how we ask the questions, ensuring that we and others are asking balanced, non-leading, and unbiased questions.

 

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As you may recall, for the next several months I will be highlighting the seven principles of Intentional Practice.  Last month I wrote about the principle #1: The organization wants to achieve something greater than itself (e.g., impact) among the audiences it serves, and this month I discuss the importance of collaboration to Intentional Practice.

#2: Staff work collaboratively across the organization.

Not too long ago in museum history, exhibitions were developed by a lone curator.  The idea to use interdisciplinary teams to develop exhibitions was instigated at the Field Museum in the early 1980s, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Although some museums still struggle to implement and maintain what has become known as “the team approach” to exhibition development, significant progress has been made in the last 30 years.  Initially, this shift in practice was in response to the national trend that was taking hold whereby museums were starting to embrace the public dimension of their work, recognizing that successful communication of complex ideas might require more than a subject matter specialist.

My belief in the necessity of collaboration grew from my experience conducting hundreds of evaluations over the last 30-plus years.  For an exhibition to be successful, for example, all the following stars would need to be aligned: the exhibition team would have a thesis (e.g., a one-sentence big idea), identify a few messages that support the thesis, have coherent interpretive text that communicates the thesis and messages, have tested interpretive elements (e.g., interactives, text) to ensure they communicate the thesis and messages, have adequate resources (time and dollars) to actualize the exhibition as intended, and have the right combination of expertise and skills to execute the exhibition as intended.  Hard, complicated, and messy work, indeed.

Puzzle graphic created by Davo Sime from the Noun Project

Applying my evaluation experience to intentionality, I realized that if a museum was to achieve a discernible impact among audiences, the entire museum would need to participate.  Achieving impact, which in the case of Intentional Practice means making a positive difference in the quality of people’s lives, might not happen if one person or one department bears all the responsibility; instead, achieving impact should be the collective effort of all staff working together towards an agreed-upon end.  To capitalize on the benefits of collaboration, we request our clients create working groups comprised of individuals from different departments when we facilitate Intentional Practice workshops; we seek interdisciplinary collaboration because we want people to problem solve with those whom they might not normally choose to work.  What is the result of people thinking alongside colleagues from other departments?  Increased appreciation for the unique perspectives and skills their colleagues offer!  They slowly recognize that their collective brain power and actions are stronger than any one individual’s work.

Cover of Forces for Good, by Leslie R. Crutchfield

Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant demonstrate the benefits of collaboration in their well-researched book Forces for Good.  They studied 12 high-impact nonprofits to understand what made these nonprofits successful, and yes, high-impact nonprofits collaborate with other nonprofits that have shared goals.  Their updated research appears in the 2012 edition of the book and in this article called “Local Forces for Good.”  They make the point that no one can or should do the work alone, and I agree.

As anyone who has experienced the team approach to exhibition development will know, process work can feel disorganized.  Museum leaders can mitigate confusion by clearly communicating who does what and modeling patience and trust.  From an Intentional Practice perspective, all staff are apt to benefit from working collaboratively, as collaboration increases the chance for an individual’s professional and personal learning.

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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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Foreword:

Our winning entry for our student blog competition reminded me that so many of us find our way into the museum field through other avenues, led by our passion for connecting people with art, science, history, you name it. For example, I started out studying non-human primate behavior which led to educating the public about non-human primates and now I study human primate behavior in museums and other informal learning environments! Intentionally following our passion for learning in and experiencing museums is often what unites us. Our student blogger, Kwasi, also reminded me of the passion that emerging museum professionals have for ensuring museums are accessible to many publics. Kwasi explains how he applied intentional practice—uniting his actions around the single goal of museum accessibility—to develop an app (www.thetravelsee.com) that helps people align their interests with cultural offerings in Cooperstown, NY. Read below for more about his journey.

Through your intentional practice, how do you help museums enrich the lives of others?IMG_3347

A few years ago, I ran a tour guide business in D.C. that focused on introducing visitors to the wonders of D.C.’s local museums. Every time I walked a tour group up to the entrance of a historic house or a national park site, someone in the group would always ask, “Can we really go inside?” I began to realize there was a disconnect between the way potential visitors viewed museums and how museums perceived themselves within communities.

I wanted to do something to help solve this issue and decided to close my tour guide business to pursue my masters in Museum Studies. A graduate course titled “Digital Technologies,” pushed me to think about how technology can be used to attract, engage and diversify museum audiences. The class spurred my intentional practice of creating a web application that redefines the way people engage with museums. I developed a prototype app called Travelsee which gives users an aggregate list of available cultural activities such as guided tours, seminars, or exhibitions in a given area based on the user’s keywords and GPS location.

Travelsee was formed by a need to show the general public that museums are fun and fascinating spaces. I decided to take a step outside of the museum advocate world, and I devised a simple way to use technology to strengthen the public’s awareness of museums and increase visitor engagement. I figured if I could come up with a way to gather all the local museum activities in one place, visitors would be able choose an activity based on their interests without any prior experience of visiting that specific museum.

I believe that museum activities should not be limited to a specific race, gender, class or any other social construct; unfortunately, most potential museum visitors look at museums as spaces for the elite. That is why redefining how museums engage potential visitors is important. As a museum advocate, I am using my web application Travelsee to engage new audiences. What methods are you using to engage new audiences?

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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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