I have long lobbied for museums to avoid using numbers as indicators of their success. I note in Intentional Practice for Museums: A Guide for Maximizing Impact that when museums boast their success with numbers, such as the number of annual exhibits and programs they offer, the dollars they add to their local economy, and the number of visitors they welcomed, they are sending the wrong message to whomever might be listening. These numbers are devoid of the most important and vital element of the museum experience—the quality and meaningfulness of the experience to people (the wonderful story in the LA Times about Ben Barcelona, the devoted museum-goer, comes to mind). How would museums report their on-site numbers today (take a look at the title of this post)?  Online counts have the same problem as onsite counts—they, too, are devoid of meaningfulness—which brings me to my second point: shouldn’t museums seek measures that are useful when there isn’t a crisis and when we are amidst one? 

Numbers had their purpose (they are easily gathered and understood), but they have outlived their usefulness. The silver lining: with nary a visitor to count inside the building, is now not the perfect time to rethink and change how your museum measures success? How does a museum arrive at metrics that will stand the test of time?

Numbers floating through space.
Image credit: Shutterstock

First, imagine the canvas blank, the slate clean. Don’t worry if you continue to see numbers floating aimlessly in your mind; that’s fine. Consider that numbers may need companions. Honor the numbers, and then imagine suitable partners, as in “numbers and . . .”

There may be a few ways to begin this imagination process. Here are two—a free-form approach and a structured approach.


Free-form approach: If your museum is accustomed to having important conversations about the purpose of your museum, where everyone’s input is sought and respected, then a free-form conversation could work. If that is the case, schedule a conversation with your museum family about alternative measures of success. Request or invite someone to facilitate the conversation and another person take notes. Explore and debate the value of the museum in your lives, others’ lives, and in the lives of people in your local community. Through dialogue, you may come to know the qualitative value of the museum, which can lead to articulating qualitative measures. Because I have facilitated many such dialogues, I have come to expect this enormously popular question, “but how will we measure that?” which is sure to prohibit further conversation or create a defeatist feeling (and we don’t need that right now!)  If the question emerges, someone can say, “a quality may be hard to measure, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t measurable; let’s not worry about that now; let’s continue going deep with qualitative measures.”

With notes in hand, skip to step 5 below.

Structured approach:  If your museum is more comfortable using a structured conversation rather than a free-form approach, here are several steps you might take with your colleagues:

Step 1: Set ground rules for an open dialogue.  Here are ones I might establish:

  • Mutually agree on a facilitator who will initiate the dialogue using the questions below and maintain focus and fairness.
  • Apply active inquiry and listening without passing judgement.
  • Listen to first understand, then respond (if you need clarification, respectfully ask follow-up questions).
  • Seek to be understood (think before you speak and carefully select your words).
  • Accept that process is an art and a science, which could create a bumpy conversation at times.

Step 2: Select a note-taker—someone to record people’s thoughts so you have data.

Step 3: Break the ice.  Rather than approach the question directly, dance around the question of quality to reduce stress and encourage free thinking. You may only need a few questions to get the dialogue going; then it will take on a life of its own. Here are a few questions to consider:

Talk about yourselves—why you do what you do is an important variable:

What about your work is most important to you?
Why is that important?
Why is that important?
Why is that important?

(If the online platform you use has rooms, ask staff to self-organize into interdisciplinary groups so each group can respond to the above questions. Then reconvene and share a synthesis of the conversations.)

Step 4: Ask deeper questions:

What unique capabilities do you bring to your daily work? How do you apply those unique qualities to create quality museum experiences?

What are the qualities of your museum’s most impressive museum experience?

Imagine the visitor experience within that context: What do you see visitors doing? What do you hear visitors talking about? How do they describe the meaningfulness of that experience?  How would you describe the meaningfulness of that experience?

 (Set aside 2 hours for steps 1 – 4)

Step 5: Analyze the notes.  Ask the museum’s most analytical person to review the notes with the goal of identifying the qualities that staff discussed. Share the list of qualities prior to the next gathering (Step 6).

Step 6: Discuss those qualities.  The goal of this step is to: prioritize qualities because ultimately, you want 3 or 4 qualities.  Less is more! This is hard work. Don’t give up.

Whew!  With 3 or 4 qualitative indicators of how your museum affects people’s lives, you have completed the hardest part of this work! Now, if you want, feel free to start thinking about measuring. Lookout for future posts to help you with that task.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply