RK&A at 30: Learning comes full circle, back to what matters

Last month I announced that 2019 marks RK&A’s 30-year anniversary, and I described the ways we have continually learned during that span of time.  I pointed out, that for me, the greatest learning happens from doing our work and promised that we would share some examples over the next 12 months.  I sat down to write about an example of my learning and honestly, I struggled.  Learning can be complicated, sometimes messy, and oftentimes difficult to detect because it happens so slowly.  These realities crystallized for me as I struggled writing the story in a clear and neat, linear and progressive way.  Nevertheless, the fact that I wanted to write about it here caused me to slow down and ponder.

My idea for this example began with a recent epiphany of sorts (not a true light-bulb moment, but one of those moments where I thought, “Huh?  When did that happen?”).  What I realized is that sometimes learning is circular, where you learn, change, and then find yourself back in a place that feels similar to where you may have started, but it is a deeper space, having made that journey around the circle, gaining perspective along the way.  This learning journey began with my decision to enter the world of museum evaluation.  I had followed my passion of anthropology, which was based on my interest in exploring the relationship between humans and culture.  What brought me to museums was similar—I was fascinated by the power of objects—whether art, artifact, or natural specimen—and their mysterious ability to affect humans by conjuring questions and curiosities and sparking imagination, all of which lead to deeper understandings about our world.  Yet, somehow, I found myself in a place where the relationship between people and objects seemed beside the point, as many museums were focused on wanting to achieve record-breaking attendance or increasing students’ test scores.

Case in point, a decade and longer ago, whenever I began a new evaluation project with a client and attempted to guide them through the process of identifying outcomes for their audiences, I was often met with puzzlement.  With some probing I was able to elicit outcomes, but they often felt off-base, such as “increased students’ standardized test scores,” “increased attendance to the museum,” or “more memberships to the museum.”  This process was difficult and left me feeling dissonance between what I felt was true and important about the unique nature of museums and these outcomes I was tasked with measuring.  However, I admit, I often fell into the trap of agreeing that these outcomes were important, presumably fueled by pressures from outside voices to demonstrate why museums mattered at all.  I experienced this struggle for years, and the whole time, I felt something was amiss.  It was often difficult to move past these numbers-based indicators that failed to capture what is truly distinct about a museum experience.

But recently I’ve noticed a shift in this process of articulating outcomes with clients.   I don’t think it was a sudden shift, but I noticed something was different.  What I realized lately is that this process is getting much easier.  By easier, I mean the outcomes that staff are generating are authentic and true to what is distinct about museums.  For instance, in a recent conversation with a client from an art museum about outcomes for their teen audience, she talked about what she desires for teens in this way— “using the museum for creative expression…making the galleries their own, using Instagram to post a sketch they have done here, some kind of ownership or inspiration that is communicated through each one of those postings/pieces.”  This isn’t quite an outcome yet, but demonstrates thinking about what the distinct qualities of their museum and their programs can do for teens.  These and other ideas emerged easily without anyone feeling the need to inflate what is possible or say something that is irrelevant to a personal museum experience.

I don’t know exactly when or how this shift happened.  Or maybe it was a slow-moving evolution.  Maybe over the years I’ve learned to help our clients get to this place more naturally, or maybe our clients have realized it’s important to stick with what is true and real to the museum experience.  Or maybe this shift is happening in the museum field at large.  It’s probably all three.  Messy, right?  And hard to pick apart.

I was partly inspired to write this post after reading a recent essay by Johanna Jones, a friend, former RK&A employee, and now the Associate Director, Evaluation and Visitor Insights at the Oakland Museum of California.  Johanna beautifully describes the circular learning path her museum experienced in its quest to define its social impact.  In the end, they circled back to the unique place in their city—the museum and the experiences it is uniquely equipped to provide its residents.  Sometimes the answer is right in front of us.

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