Posts Tagged ‘passion’

25th Anniversary ButterflyI would like to dedicate this post to Alan Friedman, who passed away on Sunday. I wrote this blog post last week before I heard the news of Alan’s illness. In retrospect, it seems absolutely fitting that I honor him by telling the story of how I went from someone ambivalent about science to someone who now sees science as part of my everyday experience. I’m quite certain that what I describe below is at least partially the result of all the work Alan did in the field of informal science education, for which I am deeply grateful. 


As an evaluator, I am typically working with a museum around the idea of outcomes—the results they intend for their visitors. Sometimes, through the research process, we discover a museum has achieved outcomes it didn’t necessarily intend, but is delighted to have done so nonetheless. These are usually referred to “unanticipated outcomes.” In life, unanticipated outcomes happen all the time for lots of people in all kinds of circumstances.


I’ve experienced my own unanticipated outcome through my work at RK&A. As a consultant, I have the privilege of working with all types of museums all over the country. A typical result of my work is learning something new in the areas of art, history, or science. Over the years, I have learned the mostly unknown story of the hospitals at Ellis Island, how the book The Little Prince was written, and what a watershed is. These are just three of hundreds of examples. I guarantee, if it weren’t for my work, I wouldn’t have these learning opportunities. These examples are isolated and discreet, but one big unanticipated outcome has slowly become a part of me and how I see and experience the world—I have acquired an appreciation and understanding of science, especially the scientific process, that I didn’t have before and maybe never would have had, had I not pursued a career in museum evaluation and research.


It isn’t that I disliked or wasn’t curious about science before becoming a museum evaluator. My primary interests Stephblog7were more in the area of art, history, and culture. Prior to becoming a museum evaluator, I visited art museums and historical sites, not science centers or science museums. Science just wasn’t part of my everyday life. Thus, I’ll never forget my first project working for RK&A—I was to do a front-end evaluation for an exhibition about materials science, which I quickly learned involved concepts like atomic structure! I remember I stopped at Barnes and Noble on my way home that night and gave myself a crash course on atoms and how they affect the properties of different materials (this was in the Internet’s infancy, so I couldn’t simply Google “atomic structure and material science”). Through my preparation of the interview guide and activities, conducting interviews with visitors, and analysis of data, I learned more about atomic structure than I may have ever learned in school. I gained a true appreciation, based on understanding, for why certain materials are brittle and others are flexible, for instance. More than anything, and simply put, my work on various science projects over the years has sparked and nurtured a curiosity in observing the physical world around me and asking, “Why is that the way it is?”


The other day, I had a conversation with my nine-year old daughter that helped me realize that, over time, this unanticipated outcome has become deeply embedded with who I am today and has carried over to others in my life. I was telling my daughter about a new project at a natural history museum and casually asked her if she knows why scientists study fossils. She provided me with a pretty accurate and relatively complex response, saying that fossils are clues to the past and help us understand what happened thousands of years ago.   I was kind of blown away and asked with genuine curiosity, “How on earth do you know so much?” Her response: “Because I have a mommy who works with museums, of course.” I realized then that my (new) interest in science had become so much a part of who I am that it had, of course, rubbed off on my daughter (and my son too, actually). I now have two kids who beg me to stay up late Sunday nights to watch Cosmos. I’m sure they were probably born with an interest in science, but I am fairly certain their interest wouldn’t have been nurtured to the extent that it has if it weren’t for my own unanticipated outcome working as a museum evaluator.

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25th Anniversary Butterfly

So often we evaluators are asked to measure outcomes or results, which of course align with our expectations.  When we conduct an evaluation and the results are positive, an organization can wave its flag; and ideally the whole museum field benefits from learning why a particular exhibition or program is so successful at achieving its outcomes.  During my time as an evaluator, I have learned that there is enormous value in walking before running.  Because measuring results sounds compelling to museums and their funders, museums often jump over important evaluation processes and rush into measuring results.  Accordingly, staff, in a moment of passion, forgo front-end and formative evaluation—those early stages of concept testing, prototyping, and piloting a program—that help staff understand the gaps between the intended outcomes for their audience and the successes and challenges of implementing a new project. 

So, when we are asked to measure results, we always ask the client if the project has ever been evaluated.  Even then, we may pull the reins to help slow down our clients enough to consider the benefits of first understanding what is and is not working about a particular program or exhibition.  More often than not, slowing down and using front-end and formative evaluation to improve the visitor experience increases the likelihood that staff will be rewarded with positive results when they measure outcomes later.  In fact, when an organization’s evaluation resources are limited, we often advocate for conducting a front-end and/or formative evaluation because we believe that is where all of us will learn the most.  It is human nature to want to jump right in to the good stuff and eat our dessert first.  We, too, get excited by our clients’ passion and have to remind ourselves of the value of taking baby steps.  So, one of the many lessons I’ve learned (and am still learning) is that when it comes to evaluation, encouraging practitioners to walk before they run (or test before they measure) is key to a successful project and their own personal learning.

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25th Anniversary ButterflyThe quarter-century mark feels like the right time to take stock of where RK&A is, and at the very least, think about what we have learned along the way.  Reflecting on the past is a task that feels comfortable; we know where we have been, and we are familiar with the present.  Making sense of the past and forging new ideas from the past is far more difficult—yet, as a staff, that is what we have decided to do for our 25th anniversary celebration—which will take the entire year!  As some of you know, we have been blogging for exactly a year—at  What better platform is there to share what we have learned over the last quarter century?

Evaluation, visitor studies, audience research—that is the work I set out to do and it remains our traditional work.  RK&A has carefully grown to seven people, including a small satellite office in NY.  Along the way all of us have learned so much—about visitors, about cultural organizations, and about the relationship between the two.  As a staff that has always strived for excellence, we try hard to apply new knowledge to our practice.

About 10 years ago I gravitated towards the notion of intentionality as a concept I wanted to explore.  Conducting evaluations had shown me that it would be worthwhile to figure out a way to help cultural organizations focus their passions, skills, and resources towards their vision of impact.  Helping organizations determine what impact they wanted to achieve seemed like the first step, and so was born our intentional practice workshops (which took about two years of R&D).  Achieving impact with audiences is harder than one thinks, so in order for cultural organizations to achieve impact, they need to be intentional in how they carry out their work.

The demand for our intentional practice workshops continues to grow, and because our intentionality work emerged from our evaluation work, it was only a matter of time until we would begin to weave what we have learned back into our evaluation practice.  We now offer intentionality-like workshops as part of our evaluation services to help staff understand and apply evaluation data to their planning.  Rarely do staff from across the organization get together to discuss and debate their visitors and work, but when they do, the results are inspiring.

However, inspiration doesn’t always lead to action.  While most people and organizations want to change, saying so is easier than doing so.  I have learned the virtue of taking baby steps towards change, and sometimes baby steps give people time to learn and internalize a new way of thinking and working.  It’s that way at RK&A. Sometimes our intentionality work feels organic and sometimes we need to be more deliberate and forthright in our decision making in order to sustain a change in our practice.  It is human nature to gravitate to old ways of doing things until new ways become comfortable; it takes conviction and focus to continue to move forward.  To sustain our learning and help RK&A maintain its momentum with our new intentionality work and traditional evaluation practice, we will share 25 years of learning with you over the next 25 blog posts.  We hope our 25th year celebration of RK&A’s learning inspires you to learn along with us.

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Recently, Christine Castle asked readers of her Museum Education Monitor for their “words to live by”—pithy phrases and bon mots that help [them] make it through the museum education day.  This got me thinking about the words I live by as a museum evaluator.  Three little words easily popped into my mind—less is more.  These words epitomize themselves; they are beautiful in their simplicity yet they embody our whole philosophy as an evaluation firm and my own personal approach to evaluation.  What is so interesting to me about the concept of “less is more” is how incredibly hard it is to achieve.  Doing less seems so simple; but to truly live by those words is extraordinarily difficult.

Less is MoreLet me give an example.  We often facilitate planning workshops for our clients.  As we have probably said in many a blog post, planning and evaluation are inextricably linked.  Evaluators are true believers in planning with the end in mind.  Otherwise, how are we going to know that our clients have achieved the effect they desire on the audiences they serve?  The ultimate goal of these planning workshops is to help our clients articulate their desired public impact.  They can use the end result—an Impact Planning Framework—to guide their decision making, and we can use it to guide audience research and evaluation.  In these workshops, we facilitate exercises for museum staff, and one of the exercises asks staff to select a finite number of audiences for which they will envision impact.  You may not be surprised, but often a key sticking point for museum staff is the very notion of limiting the number of target audiences.  At times, it almost feels like we have asked them to remove an appendage; the resistance can be palpable.

It’s touching on many levels that it is so difficult for museum staff to prioritize their audiences.  It speaks volumes about the passion they have for the public dimension of the work they do.  However, and this is a big however, museums cannot be everything to everyone.  It’s just not possible no matter how hard museums try.  I do not say this to sound negative or glass half empty.  I want museums to succeed in achieving their desired impact.  But, here’s the thing.  Impact is really hard to achieve (we know this from countless evaluations).  The rationale for prioritizing audiences is to help the museum focus resources and actions towards achieving results on those audiences.  Trying to be everything to everyone may result in the opposite of what a museum is striving for—nothing meaningful for anyone.  And, while difficult to believe, focusing one’s efforts and resources on a few doesn’t usually lead to others feeling excluded.  So often, what a museum might do for a few will have meaning for so many more.

The beauty of “less is more” is that if you try, you will feel liberated.  Focusing one’s efforts to achieve impact on three or four audiences (instead of “everyone”) is scary, but once a museum bites the bullet, staff may feel like they just received a “get-out-of-jail-free” card.  Finally, staff will have an excuse to focus their efforts on those few audiences where they feel they can make a difference.  Pursuing “less is more” is an ongoing process, which means that it takes a while to embrace it, and, once you do, you have to continue to work at living by those words because everything around us screams “more.”  It’s not easy, but worthwhile pursuits never are.  For me, knowing that doing less will actually help our clients achieve more is worth it in the end.  So, that’s why “less is more” are my words to live by.

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Every day I am reminded how much power passion has—for those who feel it—we are driven to do what we love; for those who have the pleasure of hearing others talk about their passion—we are struck by the depth of their love for something—whether contemporary art, medieval manuscripts, or organic chemistry.  Last night I attended a “Senate of Scientists” dinner and lecture at the National Museum of Natural History.  These events are not open to the public, and I am lucky to have attended so many of these events over the years because my husband is a scientist at the museum.  I always enjoy myself.  Oh yes, the lectures are wonderful, and I always learn something new—that’s one reason why I enjoy attending.  What I realized last night (I’m not sure what took me so long) is that part of what makes the experience special is the people who attend.  All have a passion that they pursue, and while their passion may be different from the passion of the guest speaker, all are engaged in the evening’s topic.  When different passions fill a room, the questions that follow the presentation are always bold, owning to people’s differing perceptions and ways of viewing the world.  Discourse has always been friendly, even when a challenge is put forth.

Last night’s experience stands out.  While the speaker, a female scientist from Stanford, was inspiring, my evening was invigorating for another reason.  Just as I was about to sit down with my plate of food, a young woman (16 years) came over to me with her grandmother (whom I recognized) and said, “My name is Sahara, like the desert; may we sit with you?”  So, when young people attend these lectures, they stand out—there may be one or two other teens who attend with their parents, but essentially they are sitting with adults who are their parents’ or grandparents’ ages.  I thought I had seen this girl before, but I wasn’t sure, so I started asking questions.  Within less than 30 seconds, I learned that Sahara was passionate about chemistry.  She couldn’t wait to share with anyone who would listen that she wanted to be a chemical engineer because she “has to”; she has no choice!  Her passion was so strong that there just wasn’t anything else that she could possibly do in life.  As I was talking with her, I realized that I had met her some years earlier; she was a girl then, and now she was a young woman who was going after her dream.  She told me that she wanted to attend the lecture because the speaker is from Stanford and she will find out on December 16th if she has been accepted to Stanford—her number one choice.  She said she was trying hard to not get her hopes up, but when I asked her about her GPA (4.2) and scores (SAT: 2200/2400; ACT 32/36), I just smiled.  I thought it was good that she was a little worried, showing her humility and recognition that there are many smart people in the world.

Sahara like the desert (which is how she introduced herself to everyone she met) will do just fine in life, and I hope she will attend future lectures when she visits her mother and grandmother during school breaks from Stanford.  Her passion will pull her through (along with her charm and delightful manner) any hard times she may encounter.  Sahara like the desert made my evening memorable, and she warmed my heart.   I suspect we all know remarkable young men and women who are following their passions; I just wanted you to meet Sahara.  She is special and I suspect she will be an amazing chemical engineer.

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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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Mission ImpactIn my last post, I refrained from sharing examples of impact statements because I wanted readers to ponder the idea for themselves (always a very useful activity) but promised I would delve into what comprises an impact statement and provide examples in future posts.  I believe museums need impact statements because if they aren’t clear about what they want to achieve, how will they make decisions to get there?  Museums need impact statements to guide their planning and decision making, but more importantly, they need to clarify (to themselves and stakeholders) why their work has value—public value.

Simon Sinek states with enormous clarity the importance of understanding why an organization does what it does in this Ted Talk:  ( He makes the distinction between what organizations do and why they do their work.  He notes that people care about the why much more than they care about the what.  While all of his examples are from the business world, his point is clear, well articulated, and relevant to museums and other non profits. I see a clear connection between answering the why question and articulating intended impact, as impact describes how the museum will make a difference in the quality of people’s lives, and presumably, that quality is of tremendous public value.

There are three ingredients or building blocks to creating an impact statement:

  1. Passion: discovering the collective passions of staff—why you do what you do.  What about your work are you most passionate, and why that work is important (ask the why question three times to arrive at people’s deepest passions)?  As Sinek notes, talking about the why behind your work will help others know why they should care.
  2. Distinctiveness: identifying a museum’s distinctiveness—what does your museum do better than any other organization for the people in your community?  Distinctiveness is of vital importance because if you can describe what is distinct about your museum, you begin to suggest your museum’s value—its public value.
  3. Relevance: is about exploring the intersection among staff passions, the museum’s strengths and greatest assets—both of which suggest its distinctiveness, and what is relevant to the public. What the museum presents and how it presents it must be responsive to the museum, stakeholders, and the public.

In our last post Amanda was writing about the director at the Tate who believes “that art is a vital force for civic good . . .” ( The concept—for the civic good—comes close to what an impact statement might embody, although some unpacking may be required to fully understand what he means by those words.

Here are a few museum mission and impact statements—both statements work together to convey what the museum does and the result of what the museum does on audiences served:


The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture creates a better understanding of the world and our place in it. The Museum is responsible for Washington State collections of natural and cultural heritage and sharing the knowledge that makes them meaningful. The Burke welcomes a broad and diverse audience and provides a community gathering place that nurtures life-long learning and encourages respect, responsibility and reflection.

Vision (the Burke calls its impact statement its vision statement):

People value their connection with all life—and act accordingly


The Baltimore Museum of Art seeks innovation and excellence in an artistic program that focuses on art of the modern era, from the 19th century to the present.  The Museum is committed to creating an environment that inspires creativity, encourages learning, and fosters human understanding in a place where everyone feels welcome as a place for personal learning and civic engagement.


Visitors will expand their creative thinking, deepen their understanding of human experiences, and value the museum as a place for personal learning and civic engagement.


The mission of Mid-America Science Museum is to stimulate interest in science, to promote public understanding of the sciences, and to encourage life-long science education through interactive exhibits and programs. The Museum also serves as a premier tourism attraction in Arkansas.


Inspired by discovery, visitors are encouraged to investigate the world around them and realize science impacts everyone and everything.

As you and your staff explore their passions, the museum’s distinctiveness, and what is relevant to the public, you will begin conceptualizing an impact statement. With passion and focused attention on what you do best—in other words, playing to your strengths—and a deep understanding of your public, your value will be felt by all who experience your museum’s work.

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