Posts Tagged ‘value’

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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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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Museums and Public ValueThis week we welcome our guest blogger Carol Ann Scott, editor of Museums and Public Value: Creating Sustainable Futures!

Randi Korn & Associates invited me to guest blog on a subject that has important links to intentionality. My passion is the value of museums- how we articulate that value, measure it and create it. So today, I am blogging about the third aspect- the value we create. With that in mind, I want to look at what Mark Moore’s theory of Public Value has to offer museums when we purposefully set out to create value.

Moore’s Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government (1995) may be familiar to many of you. In Moore’s view, publically funded organisations are charged with directing their assets to creating value with a strong focus on social change and improvement. This type of value is about more than visitor satisfaction. It is directed towards adding benefit to the public sphere and producing outcomes that are in the general public interest.

Public Value does not occur of its own accord. It is purposeful, intentional, and requires planning to achieve a particular end result.  It confirms a museum’s ‘agency’- its capacity to direct its resources to make a positive difference. When Public Value is embedded in the organisation as a whole, museums move from creating one-off projects to investing in longer term impact.

I am fascinated that there is a strong relationship between the essence of Public Value and a persistent idea in museums—co-production.  Public Value is fundamentally about co-production. If we are planning to make a difference that will affect the lives of others, then the ‘others’ need to be involved. Moore recognises the public as co-producers in the value that, together, we create.

So, what do Public Value programs in museums look like?

Here are some examples: (a) an exhibition co-curated by a museum and members of the local Afro -Caribbean community to explore the history of the TransAtlantic slave trade and interrogate its living legacy in modern Britain;  (b) a youth program aimed at ensuring that a new generation takes forward the lessons of moral responsibility learned from the Holocaust and adopts a commitment to pursue democratic civic engagement, and (c) a museum education program that is playing its part in Hawaiian language revival

Why should museums adopt a Public Value approach in their planning and programs? Well, perhaps most importantly, we are accountable to the public, policy makers, and funders. All of these groups invest in museums whether through their taxes, their time, or funding provision. An investment seeks a return, and in the not- for- profit sector that return is the value we create. Increasingly, a museum’s value is measured by the contributions we make to benefit the public sphere—a major criterion for measuring museums’ worth as a sector.

The late Stephen Weil challenged museums to look searchingly at their ‘claims to worthiness’. Embedding Public Value into our thinking and planning can result in enhancing the life of citizens-  and that is worthy.

Carol Scott is the editor of Museums and Public Value: creating sustainable futures published by Ashgate in May 2013. More on the three examples cited in this blog can be found in these chapters of the book:

  1. The Public as Co-producers: making the London, Sugar and Slavery gallery, Museum of London Docklands (David Spence, Tom Wareham, Caroline Bressey, June Bam-Hutchison, Annette Day)
  2. Evaluating Public Value: Strategy and Practice (Mary Ellen Munley)
  3. Creating Public Value through Museum Education (Ben Garcia)

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A few weeks ago, Randi blogged about the lack of emphasis grantors place on professional learning as a valuable outcome of projects they have funded.  The fear of failure I sense from practitioners when planning an evaluation is often palpable, as practitioners often think about evaluation as a judgment tool and fear the possibility of failure (especially in the eyes of the funder).  The innovation-obsessed culture of the non-profit sector exacerbates the situation: be the best; make a discernible difference in people’s lives; be innovative; don’t make a mistake; and if you do err, certainly don’t tell anyone about it.  Understandably, the possibility of failure creates a stress level that can override people’s professional sensibilities of what is really important.  Yet, I personally feel refreshed when I hear museum practitioners reflect on their failures during a conference presentation; not because I want to see people fail but because mistakes often lead to learning.  And, as an evaluator, it is my job to help museum practitioners wade through evaluation results and reflect on what did not work and why in the spirit of learning.  My job is to help people value and use evaluation as a learning tool.

Failure CartoonI recently had the pleasure of working on a project with the Science Museum of Virginia (SMV) in Richmond.  The Museum, like many others, received funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to develop programming for Science on a Sphere® (SoS).  And, the Museum, like many others, had high hopes of creating a compelling program—one that uses inquiry to engage visitors in the science behind the timely issue of climate change.  Inquiry can be elegant in its simplicity but it is also incredibly difficult to master under even the best of circumstances.  Staff quickly realized that creating and implementing such a program was a challenging endeavor for a whole host of reasons—some of which were unique to the Museum’s particular installation of SoS.  The challenges staff faced are well documented in the evaluation reports they have shared on NOAA’s web site ( as well as (  Yet, the specific challenges are not important; what is important is that they reflected on and grappled with their challenges throughout the project in the spirit of furthering everyone’s professional learning.  They discussed what worked well and addressed elements that did not work as well.  They invited colleagues from a partner institution to reflect on their struggles with them—something we all might find a bit scary and uncomfortable but, for them, proved invaluable.  In the end, they emerged from the process with a clearer idea of what to do next, and they realized how far they had come.

SMV staff recognized that their program may not be unique and that other museums may have done or may be doing something similar.  But each and every time staff members (from any museum) reflect on the lessons learned from a project, their experience is unique because learning always emerges, even if it is subtle and nuanced.  The notion that every museum program has to be innovative, groundbreaking, or unique is an inappropriate standard, and, frankly, unrealistic.  In fact, when museums embrace innovation as a goal, they too, must embrace and feel comfortable with the idea of failure, especially if they want to affect the audiences they serve.  Grantmakers for Effective Organizations share this sentiment ( when defining practices that support non-profit success.  The organization states that “[embracing] failure” is one way we will know that “grantmakers have embraced evaluation as a learning and improvement mechanism.”  An ideal first step would be for all of us—institutions, evaluators, and funders—to proudly share our failures and lessons learned with others.

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RecFLOWently, I and my RK&A colleagues finished a project for the Indianapolis Museum of Art looking at the effects of Mary Miss’ public art installation FLOW: Can You See the River?FLOW was conceptualized around the idea that the White River is underappreciated and even ignored by Indianapolis residents who do not fully understand the importance of the White River to the city (see for more information on the project).  I was thrilled to work on such an interesting project, and the evaluation results were mostly positive (see for evaluation results).  It is rare for me to have internal struggles with projects we work on, so when I felt a tension with this project, I thought it worthy of exploration.

As part of our work we examined people’s engagement with the installation.  But if I were to honestly answer the question, “Would I engage with the FLOW installation?” (imagining that I lived in the Indianapolis area), my answer would be no.  In fact, when I consider the amount of public art that I have engaged with in the last year, it is fairly limited, and not for lack of exposure.  My realization is confounding because I am what some may consider the expected audience for public art installations.  I have degrees in art history and art education and I am absolutely an “art person.”  I love seeing museum exhibitions and collections of late 19th and early 20th century painting and enjoy attending biennials and triennials to keep up with what new things are happening in the art world.  So why don’t I engage with more public art?  In reflecting on that question, I have tried to think about the few public art pieces that have given me pause in the last year and the incidents surrounding them.  Here are the experiences that stand out to me in order from what I would deem the least profound experience to the most profound experience:

Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.  I stopped here this past spring during an excursion to the Walker Art Center during the AAM conference.  As such, it was a planned trip in a time slot I had already allocated for art viewing.  I was also on a pilgrimage to see Claes Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen’s Spoonbridge and Cherry—an iconic image of public art.  The James Turrell that I happened upon was a bonus (thank you sculpture garden brochure for pointing it out!).  While technically my experience was a public art experience, I would say that it was more aligned with a traditional museum experience than a public art experience.  I was on a scheduled trip to a museum in a city I was visiting that allowed me to see several artworks in a single location, including one on my must-see list.

Kat Healey’s Coming Home. My interest in public art in airports is hit or miss, but this work at the Philly airport caught my eye one day, and I have stopped at it multiple times since (of course, never when I am on my way home).  I wouldn’t consider this piece to be something that would naturally capture my attention, but the title “Coming Home” caught my eye.  Something about the poignant contrast of the words “coming home” when I was getting ready to leave home for a trip struck me enough to slow me down.  I can’t remember if I read the identification label first or took in the whole work, which is fairly large and detailed, but either way, the image of the work has stayed with me.  Who knows if I would have paid it any attention had the artwork been titled otherwise (see for more on the installation).

Charles Ray, Boy with a Frog

Charles Ray, Boy with a Frog

Charles Ray’s Boy with a Frog.  I was immediately enamored with this piece when I came across it in Venice.  I had spent three months in Venice almost five years ago and loved coming to the Punta della Dogana for a beautiful view of the city.  I was surprised by this new statue in a familiar place and also struck by how the newness and bright whiteness of the statue was in stark contrast with the city, which is known for its history, lack of change, and beautiful decay.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any information on the piece nearby and had to wait to get back to my hotel to Google it.  While I wasn’t particularly taken by the explanation of the work and don’t fully understand its intentions, I still find the piece to be extremely striking and perfectly located (see for more on the sculpture).

So how do these experiences explain my gut instinct that I probably wouldn’t engage with FLOW?  First, I can’t see myself scheduling a visit to FLOW like I had for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden since Spoonbridge and Cherry has a special iconic gravitas, which FLOW does not.  And secondly, in my experiences with Coming Home and Boy with a Frog there was some sort of “contrast” that hooked me—in one case a contrast to my feelings and in the other the aesthetic contrast of the work and its setting.  “Contrast,” however, is not a word that I would use to describe a FLOW experience (revealing, informative, about a relevant problem, and subtly surprising are more apt words for FLOW).  Yet, two of the three experiences recounted above (2 ½ if you count my unexpected James Turrell encounter at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden) were highly serendipitous encounters, and maybe, had I happened upon FLOW I would have had a different response.  Once I looked at FLOW through a rationalized, evaluative lens, I couldn’t turn back.  If reflecting upon these experiences has shown me anything though, it is that you never know what type of public art may catch your eye and offer a bit of unexpected meaningfulness—I suppose that’s the true value and beauty of public art.

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