Posts Tagged ‘mission’

25th Anniversary ButterflyLately I have been thinking about how intentional practice seeped into my consciousness. “Seeped” feels like the right verb for a concept that is still evolving and taking shape, admittedly at a slow but steady pace, gently nudging me along. I believe that almost all ideas are influenced by others’ ideas. At the time I was coming upon intentional practice, I had been conducting evaluations for many years, reading Stephen Weil’s and others’ articles and books, witnessing changes in how museums were behaving in response to outside pressures, and wondering why evaluation seemed to have seemingly little effect on museum practice. In this case, when I say “museum practice,” I actually mean the whole museum rather than an individual museum program or exhibition. The glass wasn’t completely half empty, but I was bothered by a few practices I was witnessing.

About 15 years ago I started to feel disturbed by the dangerous game that some museums were playing—ones that were so focused on bolstering attendance that they were hosting exhibitions just to bring in high volumes of visitors, regardless of whether the exhibitions reflected their core mission or purpose. For example, why would a history museum host Body Worlds other than to enjoy an uptick in visitor numbers? Or, why would an art museum host exhibitions featuring impressionism year after year? Perhaps the local community demanded that their museums host these exhibitions, but it is more likely that the museums were thinking about numbers—as in visitors and in dollars and cents. (Apparently this kind of thing is still present, as indicated by this week’s New York Times article about MoMA and its director where the reporter notes “. . . there have been complaints from veteran patrons that the museum has grown too fast and lost much of its soul in courting the crowd.”( Loss of soul well describes what I was witnessing and thinking a decade and a half ago.) Ideas about intentional practice were emerging (although I didn’t know it at the time), and I eventually wrote an article titled “Self Portrait: Know Thy Self then Serve your Public” that Museum News published. I make the point museums need to know and articulate their core values, assets (intellectual and otherwise), and passions so they can exude continuously them if visitors are to have personally meaningful experiences.


Know Thyself, from the Temple of Apollo

Know Thyself, from the Temple of Apollo

Around the same time I was starting to realize that the evaluation field was focused almost entirely on studying individual projects (exhibitions and programs) and it had not explored the effect of the whole museum experience. I observed that evaluation was conceived of and conducted in much the same way museums were managed—each department did its own thing and sometimes individuals did their own thing—without considering other parts of the museum or other colleagues. I recognized that evaluation, as a practice, was benefiting particular programs and exhibitions and even individuals, but I wondered if evaluation could be a more holistic endeavor organizationally, so it could benefit the whole museum. I thought about what might be missing from the practice of evaluation and in the ways museums were doing their work and quietly started to think about developing evaluative strategies that could more adequately serve the whole museum. I also wanted museums to regain focus on their soul and core purpose and I wanted to be able to study the difference museums were making in people’s lives. However, I learned through my evaluation practice that without a statement of intent, I really couldn’t study anything at all. I believe that museums must state their intentions—not just so evaluators can determine whether they have achieved them—but articulating intentions is an excellent planning strategy for museum practitioners; it keeps them focused on their desired end result, which helps them make decisions accordingly. After all this thinking I felt like I had arrived at a new place and passion; I wanted to develop strategies to help evaluators and museums approach their work more collaboratively, holistically, and intentionally.

My belief in the value of intentionality was steadfast, resulting from conducting museum evaluations—program by program, exhibition by exhibition—for over twenty years. I was transferring what I learned from exhibition and program evaluations—successful programs and exhibitions emerge from work that is focused on a core idea, deliberate in exemplifying that core idea, articulate in describing that core idea, and designing components that support the core idea. I also learned that if a museum does not have passion for the core idea, their work will be substandard, and visitors will know the difference. I believed in what I had learned—enough so that I wanted to apply the ideas to a larger entity—the whole museum, and thus was born our intentionality work with museums.

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In June, The Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) invited professionals to respond to these questions for an upcoming issue of Dimensions magazine: When are evaluation and other visitor feedback strategies the most useful for helping advance a science center’s mission?  When are such strategies less successful?  We pondered this at a staff meeting and decided that a small but important tweak may be needed to begin addressing the questions.  First, let’s clarify that mission describes what a museum does and impact describes the result of what a museum does—on the audiences it serves.  We believe that anything a museum does—collect, exhibit, educate—is meaningless unless it is done in the pursuit of impact.  So, when is evaluation most useful for advancing a science center’s tree_fallsmission?  When it is done to advance impact not mission.  It’s a little like that old adage: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?  With regard to mission and impact, we take a slightly different angle—if a museum does work or evaluation that does not lead to impact, are they really doing the work?

Evaluators are in the same boat as some museum practitioners.  Evaluation is a means to an end, just as a museum’s collections are a means to an end.  Unless evaluation is placed in a meaningful context, such as helping a museum pursue impact, evaluation doesn’t serve a purpose.  As an evaluator, I suppose I should say evaluation is always valuable.  But, that’s just not true.  I’m a self-proclaimed data nerd.  I love the minutia of evaluation—pouring over pages and pages of interview transcripts and pulling out those five key visitor trends.  I can get lost in data for days and find myself pulled in many seemingly fruitful directions.  “Oh, how interesting!” I will say to no one in particular.  I often find myself lost in the visitors’ world, chuckling to myself about a quirky response to an exhibit or wondering who someone is and why he or she responded to a museum experience in a particular way.  Getting lost in your work can be fun and, lucky me, happens to those of us who are passionate about what we do.  So, while pursuing tangents in evaluation data is fun for me, there is a flip side to this coin—a lack of focus that can be detrimental to the pursuit of a larger goal.  This is why we, as evaluators, push our clients to articulate what it is they want to achieve to keep us (and them) on track.

We consistently find museum practitioners to be among those most passionate about their work.  Thus, these moments of losing oneself in one’s work, whether researching or examining an object, designing an exhibition, or creating a program, are frequent occurrences.  When it comes to pursuing impact, this passion is both a joy and a burden.  It is a joy because most practitioners can easily articulate what they do for their audiences.  But, they often get lost in what they do and may not think about why they do what they do.  A practitioner articulating the “why” is similar to the entire museum articulating its intended impact.  Articulating impact provides a laser focus for all the work that museum practitioners do and helps keep them on track toward pursuing that larger goal.  So, our response to ASTC’s second question, When are evaluation strategies less successful in helping advance a science center’s mission?  When a science center and its collective staff have yet to articulate the impact they hope to achieve on the audiences they serve.  Otherwise, we can all do evaluation until we are blue in the face but those reports will continue to collect dust on hundreds of science centers’ shelves.  Of this I am certain—just like death and taxes.

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That’s right, you “app-ed” for it, a post about the intentional use of apps and mobile technology in museums.  I admit that I come to this post with a rather skewed perspective, for when my phone vibrates, it’s not a shiny wide-screened smart phone that I pick up, but my good ole’ 2008 vintage RAZR.  And though personally I’m a little terrified of the potential for a smart phone to replace my library-book reading time on the Metro and become the center of my world, professionally I’ve come to see how intentionally implemented mobile technology can be a “smart” option for enhancing the museum experience.

So you might ask, what’s going on with apps and museums?  Let’s start with a perspective most recently championed in Matthew Petrie’s controversial piece (see Nancy Proctor’s comments) in The Guardian.  He argues that there is a boom of museum visitors using smart phones, so why don’t museums do more to reach out to this built-in audience?  AAM’s Mobile in Museums Study makes a similar point, alluding to the many smart phone users visiting museums, who on average sport 29 apps on their phone!  In fact, AAM makes the case that apps are one of the top-three fastest-growing mobile interpretation methods in the museum world.  With stats like that, and the exciting selection of museum apps available, it’s hard not to get swept up in museum-app madness!

Museum Apps

But, if apps are the current wave of the future, how can we—museum practitioners and evaluators—think more intentionally about how apps might support visitors’ museum experiences?  While it may sound like common sense, museums may need to ensure visitors become more aware of their apps and mobile-support offerings.  In a recent RK&A study of app use in an art museum, about one-half of interviewees who were not using the app said they chose not to because they wanted a self-guided experience.  However, one-third of these interviewees  said they were unaware that the option to use an app existed.  Interviewees also were unaware of or had misconceptions about the availability of free wifi in the museum, their ability to borrow mobile devices, or that they could download the app for free.  A recent V&A study on visitors’ app use shows similar findings; most of their visitors were unaware of the museum’s free wifi connection.  So, in order for visitors to have meaningful app experiences, we need to improve the communication level and make app awareness a priority.

We may also want to think further about how apps are developed, particularly in terms of content and use.  To justify using apps as a new interpretive tool, museums can take advantage of the qualities that distinguish apps from other interpretive options (the ability for visitors to take pictures, share content, participate in a mobile community, etc.).  We also may need to consider whether an app is the best vehicle for the content a museum might want to feature.  These questions came up in the above RK&A study where we found that one-third of interviewees using the app only used it as an audio guide, ignoring or unaware of the app’s other distinct features.  This finding may have a familiar ring, as Koven Smith, a former professor of mine, notes in his article, “The Future of Mobile Interpretation,” a change in museum mentality may need to take place in order to elevate apps from glorified audio guides to interpretive tools that fully utilize their unique features.

The app currently under development for The British Postal Museum and Archive is really exciting in terms of how it utilizes app technology and fits with the mission of the museum.  A team of undergraduates from the Worchester Polytechnic Institute did the research on how to design the app and their paper is phenomenal.  Their app would introduce visitors to the museum’s collection through a stamp collecting activity.  Visitors can walk through the galleries snapping pictures of stamps and, thanks to the powers of image recognition, pull up more information about them.  The app design makes sense to me because it is activity-based (taking a picture), focused on the museum’s collection, and related to stamp collecting behavioral skills like observing details and curating a collection.  Another great aspect of the app is that, theoretically, it works outside the museum, too.  You can snap pictures of the stamps on your own mail, pull up information about them, and add them to your growing collection.

So, where do we, as museum practitioners and evaluators, go from here?  There is clearly great potential for what apps can do to enhance a museum experience, especially as museums lay the logistical groundwork to support visitors’ app use.  And though app designs still tend toward the didactic audio guide, museums are starting to experiment with new ways of thinking about and presenting their content as well as alternative ways visitors can interact with it.  As I think more about the evolution of museum apps, I return to the cycle of learning and the value that researching, reflecting, planning, and aligning has already had on museum-based apps and will continue to have on determining best practices.

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In celebration of the NAEA conference a few weeks ago, we tweeted out two articles about art museums.  The first, “The Power of a Masterwork,” was written by Brian Ferriso, Director of the Portland Museum of Art (see the March/April 2013 edition of Museum also shared at ).  When I read this article for the first time, I found myself nodding along with the article and almost audibly exclaiming “Yes!” (despite being in the designated quiet car on my train) as I read the second to last paragraph in which Ferriso poignantly notes: “The need for resources and relevance will continue to influence and affect the central mission of the art museum.  Nonetheless, the success of Portland’s Masterworks Series reinforces the notion that the foundational mission to bring together viewers and great works of art.  Moving too far away from this core can indeed lead the art museum into territory that will ultimately make it irrelevant rather than relevant.”

Art at the Core - Claes Oldenburg's Apple Core

Art at the Core
Claes Oldenburg’s Apple Core

Ferriso speaks directly to a concern of mine—that museums (not just art museums) are pandering to certain audiences in an effort to stay relevant rather than respecting the unique value that only they can offer to society and embracing that uniqueness wholeheartedly.  While these two concepts are not mutually exclusive, sometimes museums think they are.  I have seen evidence of pandering firsthand in our evaluation work.  For instance, a museum client may ask us to find out what visitors want from a museum exhibition or program.  This request is often met with a shudder on our part, as we explain that, as part of our philosophy of evaluation, we seek information that will help museum’s bridge the gap between their intentions and where visitors are (in terms of perceptions, knowledge, or skills).  Therefore, Ferriso’s suggestion that museums who move away from their core (which is what I see happening when a museum indulges an audience without regard to the museum’s intentions) are making themselves irrelevant resonated deeply with me.

A few days later, I came across another enthralling read.  That article was about Chris Dercon, Director of the Tate (see “Tate Director Chris Dercon: ‘Everything Can Change’.” at  From even a quick scan of the article, it is obvious that Dercon is a dynamic personality.  For instance, the article’s title touts Dercon’s idea that “everything can be changed” and describes him “radically rethink[ing] the role of the museum in the 21st century.”  Despite mention that the Tate director’s “risk-taking has not always paid off,” the article left me feeling invigorated by the idea that art museums can and should turn over a new leaf and change the way they do things.

Can these seemingly contrasting ideas—turning to the core versus radically rethinking the museum co-exist?  Is the idea of turning to your core a stodgy and outdated idea that is too conservative?  On the other hand, is the idea that museums must radically rethink their role too progressive and detached from the museum’s purpose?

I came to wonder whether these ideas were as dichotomous as they sound.  That is, when Dercon talks about radically rethinking the museum, it seems he may be rethinking the impact that the museum can have on its visitors, for as the article states, Dercon has a “conviction that art is a vital force for civic good and an integral element of democracy.”  Yet, this radical rethinking is centered around the idea of mixing up art presentations and provoking visitors through art, such as by “confront[ing] Germans with Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan’s kneeling sculpture of Adolf Hitler” at Haus der Kunst—the museum at which Dercon served as director (prior to the Tate), which happened to be built by Hitler in 1933.  Therefore, while the lexicon used to describe these two directorships may seem different, the fact of the matter is that experiences with art are undeniably at the core of their institutions, a seemingly simple idea that is quite laudable in this day and age.

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Several months ago, I came across the report about young people and volunteering (you can check out the report here).  Intrigued, I read it with a mind toward how museums might attract a piece of this teen-volunteering pie.  As we all know, volunteers are vital to museums.  The report and other articles I came across suggest that the face of volunteering and philanthropy are changing.  It may be time for museums to take a closer look.

A lot of information in the report is what I expected (e.g., reasons young people volunteer are not always altruistic; people who volunteer are happier), but the report also brings to light one important point: fundraising is the #1 way young people volunteer (38.5% of young people who volunteer have fundraised for charity) (p. 21).  This piqued my interest.  I realized that if this is true, perhaps there is a way for museums to use young people in roles outside of program presenters or “junior curators.”Robin Hood Funding Cartoon

The Center for the Future of Museums shared a Time magazine article titled “How Nonprofits Convince Millennials to Give: Customize the Cause” (you can read it here).  In a nutshell the article is about how Millennials want their charitable giving to be personal and local.  They want to feel like they are making a difference, but they don’t have deep pockets to write big checks.  However, these young potential donors aren’t shy about sharing their favorite causes through social media or about encouraging others to give to important initiatives.  In short, they excel at making their cause known and raising funds to support it.  Because Millennials participate in a fast-paced world, they expect to see the impact of their efforts—immediately, or at least more quickly than traditional donors.  They want precise details about how their donations are helping; they want evidence that their small donations, collectively, are making a big difference; and they want the ability to describe to others the effect their small donations are having.  In order to attract teens as potential donors or fundraisers, museums need to clarify the impact they hope to achieve and explain how teens’ donations will be used.  As my colleagues have pointed out many times in earlier blog posts, museums have to think concretely about the intended results of their work and then use this information as a starting point for all they do.

So, what do Museums do?

There are so many great teen and young adult programs at museums around the country.  Having perfected their teen programming strategy, perhaps museums are at a point where they can begin working with teens in new ways.  Museums, as organizations with deeply-held beliefs and passions, could use their passions to engage teens that have similar passions.  According to the report, the top five issues teens care about are animal welfare, hunger, homelessness, the environment, and the economy.  And yet, the very same report says, “young people tend not (emphasis added) to volunteer on animal issues.  The problem is they don’t know how to help, or haven’t been offered any good ways to help” (p. 18).  What does your museum care about?  Can you extend your fundraising efforts to teens that care about the same issues?

In our digitally-connected world, people have endless platforms for sharing causes about which they are passionate.  And teens are more connected than ever, with a 2010 Pew Internet & American Life Project report saying that 73% of wired American teens use social networking sites.  Museums can harness that power and use it to their benefit by developing campaigns that encourage small donations.  Create one-time volunteer events for young people rather than programs that require a long commitment, or encourage your committed older volunteers to bring a young friend or family member to the museum and seize the opportunity to showcase how all can be involved in the museum in big and small ways.  Do you already have a program for teens through the education department?  If so, why not collaborate with the development department to find a way to encourage teens to use their personal, digital platforms to share your institution’s cause?

At the very least, these young people can become a mass of loyal supporters who can take your message into the community and highlight your museum’s deep passion—and really, who wouldn’t want that?

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