INTENTIONAL MUSEUM BLOG

Reflection 6: Big Learning: What Goes Around Comes Around

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.”( http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/21/arts/momas-expansion-and-director-draw-critics.html?src=me&_r=0) 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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