By Randi Korn
From ASTC Dimensions
At museum conferences these days, people are talking about accountability, public impact, and relevance. These ideas are not new. A decade ago, in a 1997 keynote address for the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums’ 50th anniversary, the late Smithsonian scholar Stephen Weil spoke of the “in-your-face, bottom-line, hard-nosed questions”—the ones that museums often hope to keep under wraps: “Do museums really matter? Can and do museums make a difference?”In arguing that some museums do make a difference, and that all should strive to do so, Weil supported the notion that “the very things that make a museum good are its intent to make a ‘positive difference in the quality of people’s lives.’” He borrowed this last phrase from the United Way of America, which was then challenging its grantees to document the benefits a given program had made in their lives.
Today, museums face accountability questions from many directions. In response to the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993, U.S. federal agencies began to articulate the kinds of outcomes they expected grantees to document. Private foundations followed suit, reexamining their own evaluation practices, as well as those of grantees. The effort continues. The National Science Foundation recently published its Framework for Evaluating Impacts of Informal Science Education Projects, outlining five categories of impact it expects grantees to assess. And for those who object that “you can’t measure mission-centered work,” current United Way CEO Brian Gallagher, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, has a succinct reply: “You most certainly can. The question is, ‘Are you committed to do it?’ And then, ‘Are you committed to report on it?’”
As museums begin to grapple with their intent to make a positive difference, they can start by reexamining their museum’s mission. Weil believed, as many do still, that a mission is key to an institution’s success. A museum’s mission should be a declaration of its core purpose—clarifying what the museum values, reflecting what the museum embodies, and describing its intent to affect its public and community. Establishing a clear institutional purpose, Weil believed, is the first step to being able to assess effectiveness in achieving public impact.
From my own experience as an evaluator, I would add this observation: Museums do not, in and of themselves, value, reflect, or intend. People do.
An institution’s mission will not be within reach unless everyone who works in that institution is mission-focused and mission-driven. Before museums can assess their impact, staff must collectively clarify their intent. Public impact, relevance, and value grow from what I have called “intentional practice”—the willingness of everyone in the museum to examine all operational activities through three mission-based filters: clarity of intent, alignment of practice and resources, and reflective inquiry.
• Clarity of intent. Opportunities for all staff to come together to discuss the core values of their museum are vital. Colleagues should both encourage others to explore their passions and also challenge others’ thinking as a way of clarifying what is truly of importance.
In the spirit of thoughtful inquiry, why not ask a colleague to defend his or her position? Most people appreciate being asked to explain why they think the way they do. This kind of exploration allows practitioners to voice the passion behind their ideas and learn what they, as a group, really care about. Reexamining the essence of the museum together can reinvigorate the collaborative spirit, enabling staff to further their practice with intent.
• Alignment of practices and resources. Unless the work of the museum is aligned with its intent, staff may spend time and resources on activities that are good in themselves but may not support the museum’s intent. Perhaps staff should determine—through evaluation—which programs yield the highest impact, keep those programs, and either improve or discontinue those that do not deliver impact.
Aligning practice—the activities a museum does and how it does them—and resources so they support the museum’s intent requires thinking about what you should be doing and what you need not do any more. Conversations about realignment will deepen staff members’ understanding of the museum’s intent and the ways in which their work supports it.
• Reflective inquiry. As an evaluator, I frequently see front-end and formative evaluation being used effectively to shape a final visitor experience. The same cannot be said of summative evaluation. By the time a mandated final report is done, practitioners may have little time or motivation to review it. This is unfortunate because much can be learned through reflecting on past work.
I see a strong relationship between taking the time to think about the work you have done and learning from the work you have done. Practitioners who want to be intentional in their practice can use summative evaluation as a way to gain insight and knowledge about visitors’ perspectives and experiences. The outcome of such reflective inquiry is learning about the ways in which their museum is achieving impact. I would encourage all museums to routinely set aside time for staff to use inquiry as a reflection strategy and to discuss their practice in the context of the institution’s intent.
In conclusion, accountability questions are not likely to disappear, but even if they did, museum practitioners would still need to respond to the “To what end?” question. The sustainable health of the museum depends on it.
Most of the workers I encounter in museums are passionate about their work and want to make a positive difference in people’s lives. If practitioners begin collaborating with colleagues to clarify their museum’s intent, realign their practices and resources to support that intent, and engage in reflective inquiry to learn how they can improve their efforts, they will be on their way to achieving that goal.
Randi Korn is principal of Randi Korn & Associates Inc., a firm of museum evaluation and research specialists in Alexandria, Virginia.