For me, intentionality, a concept I view as essential to museum planning, emerged from two core experiences: results from hundreds of exhibition and program evaluations; and observing museum staff wanting to put too many concepts into an exhibition. Intuitively I knew there was a connection between exhibitions that didn’t fare too well (at least according to the evaluations) and staff not letting go of ideas that are near and dear to their hearts—regardless of whether those ideas supported the thesis of the exhibition.
When I have the good fortune to attend planning meetings, I always find myself thinking critically about what should be included in the exhibition under discussion and what could be saved for another time. My consideration always includes the big idea of the exhibition, what the museum would like to achieve with the exhibition vis-à-vis the public, humans’ capacity to process new ideas when in unfamiliar environments (like that of an exhibition hall), evaluation results from other projects that show what leads to quality visitor experiences and what might move visitors away from having quality experiences, and my utmost respect for scholars’ knowledge and passions. While passionate individuals love their subject matter (and really, I love their subject matter, too), one’s willingness to recognize that not all good ideas (or even great ones) belong in an exhibition and then exercising follow through are traits of intentional practice.
Embedded in intentional practice is the concept of alignment—ensuring that project concepts, components, and elements are present because they support the impact the team wants to achieve. If there are concepts, components, elements that do not contribute to the core idea of the exhibition and its potential impact on audiences, they need to be omitted. I certainly don’t mean to sound ruthless, but I am acutely aware of how easy it is to keep putting more and more into an exhibition plan and how painfully difficult it is to take anything away. I am also aware of how challenging it is to stay focused on the exhibition’s big idea and have the discipline to say no to ideas because they do not support the intended impact of the exhibition. Learning to say “no” is a necessary survival skill and saying “no” is deeply connected to intentional practice. When practitioners are intentional, they are focused on the impact they want to achieve; they exercise discipline and restraint when determining how to best move forward; and their decision making is egoless and for the sake of achieving the results the team envisions.
Intentional practice represents the culmination of my experiences to date, and my passion for it is directly is tied to my evaluation experience. Over the years I started to realize that when exhibitions tried to do too much, visitors’ experiences didn’t amount to much—from their perspective; their heads were full but descriptions of their experiences were nebulous. Sense-making seemed futile. Nudging me was my memory of exhibition development discussions and tensions about what to put in (everything) and what to take out (nothing). Clarifying the intent of the exhibition and then staying focused on the intent of the exhibition is hard work—not likely to end soon, which is okay. Seeking clarity—whether in thought or action—is a never-ending pursuit.