A change of heart, maybe for good

So, I was going along, almost ready to upload my most recent thoughts, when I acknowledged the nagging feeling that the post was…well, it was bitchy. This should not come as a shock to most of you, and while in the post I admitted to the huge chip on my shoulder that I can not seem to escape, I didn’t feel right putting it all out there. Again.

I had wanted to highlight some of the differences I have experienced between different types of leaders withing the museum field. I went on and on about how most CEOs are so out of touch with what happens in the rest of the museum, and yet they have both the power and the tendency to make huge, sweeping decisions with enormous impact. Sadly, these decisions are often based on ignorance, or worse yet, numbers alone.

So you can imagine where I was headed with that. I’ve had some personal experience and many axes to grind, but that’s neither productive nor professional, so let’s focus on looking ahead rather than looking back, shall we?

Is it because we’re three days away from a Happy New Year? Ehhh, probably not. I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, mostly because I either don’t keep them, or they’re things that I should have committed to back on July 14th or some other—any other—day. So while it’s nice to think I’m making a fresh new start with my positive, kind-hearted outlook on life, it’s really not that.

Whatever it is, let’s hope it sticks. Let’s hope I can focus my insight and thoughts on making myself and my outlook better. That usually proves much more useful than complaining and lamenting. I am a museum educator. I have to find the balance between being extremely sensitive to the needs of others (be they visitors or colleagues) and being extremely thick-skinned (in order to withstand interactions with visitors and colleagues). The whining, while necessary on occasion, doesn’t do much good beyond one or two teeth-gnashing, hair pulling sessions. Then it’s time to keep calm and carry on.

Here is my attempt at finding the bright points in working in the museum field. For me, it’s a bright point every time I get to go to a museum as a visitor. Being on the inside is a different story. But it helps to remember that I am here to make the visitors’ experiences better, and when I go to a museum as a visitor, I have those educators there to thank for their hard work as well. So go ahead and count my head as I pass through the door, and may I boost your attendance numbers so that they influence programmatic decisions at your institution in a positive way!

I recently had the chance to sit in on a staff meeting of museum interpreters. Their CEO was in attendance, and after all the smaller housekeeping-type details had been covered, he took the floor and proceeded to praise the staff for the work they have been doing. He mentioned people by name and by the precise area in which they worked. He named specific examples of good performance, provided suggestions for improvement and constructive criticisms in a way that was motivational, gentle, and not critical.

How could he do this? He’s the CEO! He’s not supposed to know about these things! And yet, he was so knowledgeable about the programming and the people because he routinely goes through his institution and observes his staff. He tours donors through the galleries so they can see educational programming at work. He knows what his staff does, and he can describe it to someone else in detail that he has learned firsthand by watching it himself.

He finished out this staff meeting by reading two letters of praise. One letter was from someone at a pretty important museum organization, thanking this particular CEO for the tour, and mentioning in detail some of the more meaningful aspects of his tour and visit. You know what that says? It says that these educators and interpreters did such a stellar job that they created a lasting, positive memory for someone who probably visits hundreds (if not thousands) of museums every year.

While my original intent on sharing that story was to emphasize what a good leader does in contrast to what bad leaders do, I’ll just follow this particular museum leader did and focus on what was done right and what things can be done to be even better. You know why? Because from now on, I’m go to try very hard to make it so there’s no crying. There’s no crying in museums.

Why do you ask?

Why do we ask people for their advice? If you’re me, you already have your mind made up (even if you don’t realize it) before you ask. I know that nine times out of ten, when I ask my husband to weigh in on something, I usually go with whatever is precisely the opposite of what he says. Even though he almost always is wrong when I ask him something (bless his heart), he really is helpful, since his wrong answer only confirms that I am, indeed, right in my thinking.

I’m not talking about the kind of “Does this make me look fat?” kind of advice. I’m talking about issues that run deeper than “What should we have for dinner tonight?” or “Don’t you think it’s a good idea to get new kitchen cabinets?” I’m talking about things that really matter, whose outcomes have the potential to really impact your life and how you live it.

Museums have always been known as the guardians of information, experts telling you what it most important about all their stuff. Most museums are traditionally in the business of telling, and not asking. This (most fortunately) is changing, though. Evaluation, visitor studies, assessment…call it what you want, but the practice of asking questions about visitors and of visitors is becoming a far more common practice than it ever has been.

Some museums are great at evaluation. For some, it’s ingrained in the institutional culture to ask, to evaluate, to re-do (if necessary) or to be proactive. There are some museums that (swoon!) even have full-time staff members dedicated to evaluation. Alas, there are also places that still consider themselves to be The Holders Of All That Needs To Be Known, and don’t really care what visitors think.

I will never forget a conversation I had several years ago with my supervisor. We were discussing ideas for potential new exhibits, and when I suggested asking visitors about what they’d like to see (though Heaven forbid we “cater” to our public), his response was—and I quote: “The public doesn’t know what it wants.” Wait, what?

I can completely agree that it’s not productive to give someone a blank slate and say, “Have at it!” That’s how you end up sifting through requests that could never be met. But I’m pretty sure that if you asked someone what they’d like to see at a particular institution, they could take the context of their setting and be able to give you a fairly reasonable response. Visitors aren’t stupid…well, most visitors aren’t stupid. Some are.

To assume that your visitor doesn’t know enough to be able to make a suggestion is insulting. To assume that you, as a museum employee, are the only one capable of making an intelligent decision about what your public wants…that’s just ignorant and egotistical.

Now let me be clear: I give full credit to those in museums who are content area experts. To experts who write labels (notice I didn’t single out curators this time around), I have much respect for the depth of your knowledge. To the folks who design exhibits, I admire the passion for which you approach your work. To the educators who run classes and lectures and programs for the public, way to spread the word and engage the public. But museums aren’t here just for you. They’re here for the 850 million people who visit museums across the country each year. They might have something to say, too.

So here’s the real kicker. If you invest the resources and commit the time to do evaluation, you’re just wasting your time unless you actually do something with it. All those people you spent hours watching? All the times you lurked in the shadows with a clipboard and a thumb cramp from hitting the stopwatch so many times? All the interviews you conducted and free stickers you handed out (you know, as a reward for participation) and spreadsheets in which you compiled data? It’s not worth a thing unless you’re ready to accept the responses you get and results you find and put them into practice. Don’t ask the questions if you’re not ready to listen to the answers.

I’ve witnessed many cases where an institution will survey their visitors on some topic or another and end up with responses they don’t particularly like and weren’t necessarily expecting. Rather than taking this into consideration and heeding the suggestions of their test subjects, some museums ignore the results, assure themselves that it’s the visitors who are mistaken and uninformed and don’t understand, and carry on as before.

If you ask me (and I know you didn’t) evaluation ought to permeate every aspect of a museum’s operation. Before you stage an exhibit, test out the design and the label text to make sure readers can understand it and they know what they’re supposed to do with interactive elements. Once it’s open, see how visitors are actually using and responding to the exhibit. After it’s closed, tally your numbers, assess what worked and what tanked, and be willing to make changes next time around.

A good museums has goals and objectives for its exhibits; how else would you ever know if those goals are met if you don’t evaluate? How would you ever determine if visitors had a quality experience?  You can’t judge success solely by the number of people through the door, no matter how proud museums are of announcing their numbers.

And surely, with millions of people passing through museum doors every year, at least one of them ought to know what they want.

I see you. And I’m writing down your every move.