Over the course of my career — first as exhibition designer and then as an evaluator and now as an intentional practice leader — I have always placed the visitor experience at the center of my thinking. Whether I am tasked with communicating a concept or solving a problem (as a designer), helping staff clarify intended outcomes of a museum project (as an evaluator), or facilitating staff discussions about the intended impact of a museum on visitors (as an intentional practice leader), I remain grounded in knowing that museum visitors are the primary recipients of my work with museums. That said, the only way to affect museum visitors is through the intentional practice of museum staff, so my intentional practice work is focused on supporting staff. I help them shift from thinking about what they do to thinking about the result of what they do — on audiences.
To support my work, I created series of process-based strategies that I facilitate in workshops with museum staff and stakeholders. The diagram below, called “The Cycle of Intentional Practice,” is a visualization of the basic theory that supports the work. The Cycle has changed over time to reflect what I have processed and learned from each new experience, as the essence of intentional practice for any person and any organization (not just museums), is learning. Albert Einstein said “Once you stop learning, you start dying,” and while he was referring to humans, organizations are comprised of many humans who can push themselves, and by extension their organization, into the learning zone — if they remain focused and continually intentional in their practice.
Before I deconstruct the Cycle of Intentional Practice, I’ll share how the concept emerged. It grew slowly and organically from a few realizations that seeped into my consciousness, starting about 15 years ago: 1) I, along with many others, recognized there was a dearth of hard evidence about the value of museums to individuals and communities; 2) staff in most museums were not able to articulate a unified purpose; and 3) while there were thousands of evaluation reports, all of them were about individual museum projects and none reported the impact of the whole museum. I wanted to respond to these deficits by designing strategies and methodologies that would include the whole museum — not just part of it. I wanted to help museums clarify their purpose by facilitating staff-wide discussions about their museum’s intended impact. Because museums are not often considered part of the larger learning environment, I wanted to help advance the larger purpose of museums.
The Cycle of Intentional Practice
The first step in pursuit of intentional work is to create an impact statement to guide actions. In the Cycle of Intentional Practice, impact is in the center with the question, “What impact do you want to achieve?” Intentional practice presumes that museums want to achieve impact, which I define in the same way as Stephen Weil: making a “positive difference in the quality of people’s lives.” In his 1997 keynote address at the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums conference, and in a chapter “Can and do they make a difference?” published in his book Making Museums Matter (2002, pp. 55–74), Weil requested that museums articulate the outcomes they wanted their programs to achieve. (See the Impact Pyramid below to show the relationship between impact and outcomes.) While evaluators have been asking program developers to do the very same thing for years, people didn’t start listening until Stephen Weil’s request.
My request is similar; however, I ask that staff articulate intended impact for the whole museum.
Most museums have mission statements, and they describe what museums do using verbs such as collect, inspire, educate, etc. Few museums have impact statements; that is, they do not have a single-sentence statement that describes the result of what they do — on audiences. What does a museum afford a community? What is its intended effect? What do we see in our communities that demonstrates that museums make a positive difference to those who frequent them? To what greater end do museum staff do their work? More than 100 years ago, John Cotton Dana, founding director of the Newark Museum, said “A museum is good only insofar it is of use” (1999, pp. 65 & 102). He believed then, as do I now, that useful museums are ones that consider their community as their raison d’etre. Before a museum can serve its community, I believe it must first articulate the ways in which it will do so; as without clarity about the museum’s intended impact, the museum may not be able to devise a plan to achieve those ends. In other words, to quote baseball’s wise man, Yogi Berra: “If you don’t know where you are going, you will end up someplace else.”
An impact statement is the soul of the museum and it balances staff’s aspiration with reality; intentionality is moot without an impact statement because the statement is a guidepost for all planning decisions across the museum. As noted earlier, the first step for any museum interested in achieving impact is to go to the center of the Cycle and develop an impact statement. The center of the Cycle is like the hub of a wheel; without it, the wheel will fall apart. Without an impact statement, the museum’s work is without focus and purpose. I envision that staff across the museum will use the Cycle of Intentional Practice to first determine the impact it would like to achieve and then plan its work and use of resources accordingly. Achieving impact requires the full power and force of the whole museum — all staff and all resources working towards a singular end.
The four quadrants around impact -- Plan, Evaluate, Reflect, and Align -- play a role in an organization’s intentional practice by posing questions to spur thinking and deliberate planning. The “Plan” quadrant asks, “Does this program support the impact we want to achieve?” If staff, at this early stage of development, doesn’t think it does, then the organization would be squandering resources if it moved forward. The “Evaluate” quadrant will provide the evidence further along in the planning process; it asks, “In what ways have we achieved our intended impact?” Posed another way, “In what ways do the project/program outcomes support the impact we want our museum to achieve?” While often viewed as a judgement tool, evaluation is best when used as a learning tool, as evident in the “Reflect” quadrant, which asks two questions: “What have we learned?” and “How can we do better?” The intention behind the reflect quadrant is that staff slow down and take time to process and think about the implications of evaluation data. If the museum does not have evaluation data, I suggest convening an interdisciplinary group of staff to examine museum practices through conversation and inquiry. Reflecting on everyone’s practice in a group with people from different departments can lead to deep and unexpected conversations.
The “Align” quadrant is the most difficult quadrant to address, and it is usually the one that museums want to ignore. It asks, “How do we align our actions to achieve our intended impact?” Museums shy away from alignment because the question suggests that staff may need to change its actions, or more problematic, it may need to stop doing certain things all together, as not all actions lead to impact — a very difficult truth to swallow.
Intentional practice requires steadfast organizational commitment, as distractions lurk around every corner waiting to derail the process. As many of us may have experienced, it is easier to revert back to old ways of doing things than it is to continue forging ahead on unknown paths, which can be scary. RK&A have been brought into a variety of situations: 1) the museum director wants the whole staff to participate in the process; 2) a department director wants to strengthen his or her department and sees intentional practice as a strategy; 3) a project manager wants to improve internal processes for a museum-wide initiative; and 4) a museum wants to plan for its future. In situations where the request comes from the middle of the organization (such as an education department), we suggest inviting staff from other departments (e.g., curatorial, marketing, the museum director) to participate in the workshops, as I believe that departments need to work together to achieve impact. Collaboration across the museum is an important ingredient of intentional practice. Often staff from other departments appreciate the invitation, and interdepartmental relationships improve from that simple gesture. Sometimes the director’s office experiences the Cycle of Intentional Practice and realizes that the whole museum needs intentional planning, even after rejecting the process months earlier. Inclusion often results in eventual buy in.
The Morgan Museum and Library in New York City applied all four parts of the Cycle amidst many transitions — first the museum director moved on, and then the acting director left. Even so, staff remained focused and committed to improving the museum’s work. The impact statement — developed by staff through facilitated discussions — is a lovely statement that speaks to the essence of the extraordinary collection of the museum and library, and it forged the museum’s path forward: “Visitors feel intimately engaged with creative expression and the history of ideas.”
The next step included identifying outcomes for audiences of different programs areas — including public programs, exhibitions, and school programs. All three program areas were then evaluated. For the exhibition evaluation, select staff, guided by RK&A, conducted and analyzed interviews with visitors to one exhibition to understand the visitor experience; their analysis explored connections between visitors’ experiences and intended outcomes. Next, the education and public programs department applied intentional practice differently — flexibility is an inherent quality of intentional practice. RK&A was invited to conduct an expansive and in-depth evaluation of the department’s educational programs. Staff used the results to inform a new strategic plan for education. Throughout the Cycle of Intentional Practice, the impact statement and experience outcomes were driving forces for discussion, evaluation, reflection, and alignment. Staff was open-minded, eager to learn about their practice, and gracious throughout the whole process. Staff used the impact statement and associated outcomes in the best way possible — as a guidepost for planning and reminder of their intended results.
Linden Chubin, Director of Education and Public Programs, participated in the full process. For this piece, I asked him to talk about the process — trials and tribulations. The planning process provided support for Linden and his department; he shared that his staff is now harmonious, cohesive, and working more as a team. He spoke of improved communication across program areas (lectures, music performances, school programs), including that staff members were now “bouncing ideas off each other.” The planning process was inclusive in that staff from up and down and across the museum participated in the workshops — that is, even though the planning work focused on education and public programs, staff from other departments were invited to contribute to and support their colleagues’ work. Intentional practice is a holistic approach to museum planning, and therefore, interdepartmental collaboration is a necessary component to its success.
Linden integrated intentional practice into his department’s daily work by helping his team focus on intended outcomes and impact while supporting reflection, specifically on evaluation data and their education practice. Given the feedback from the peer review and other evaluations, the department chose to phase out a module that wasn’t working effectively, thereby freeing up time and resources to focus on the ones that do work. Sometimes intentional practice requires letting go, which is very difficult for everyone. They decided that if a program isn’t telling a story that ties back to the Morgan’s collection, then they will not do it. He also re-evaluated job titles and now, for the first time, people’s job titles reflect what they actually do and resonate with the industry and the public. This change positively affected people’s confidence and morale, as well as their ability to clearly describe to others what they do. The department is still working on the plan, and Linden noted, “We have implemented some changes, and that is a positive thing for us.”
Intentionality — the Long View
I have been engaged in this work for a decade. I recognize that organizational change is never easy and it is often painstakingly slow. The proverbial phrase “patience is a virtue” comes into play a lot! I have had to adjust my expectations and try different strategies to accommodate unique situations. I have deep respect for organizations that have ventured onto the Cycle with RK&A; they strive to improve their practice and the results of their museum; they see intentionality as a way to learn about their professional selves, their organization, and their public — all while pursuing impact.
One of my primary beliefs is that individual museums are distinct from each other, and a museum’s distinction is based on its assets (collections and staff expertise) as well as the place/community in which it resides. I also believe that while a museum may do many things well, it usually does only a few things exceptionally well. I try to help museums identify their extraordinary strengths so they can accentuate their distinction in all that they do. Too often staff members look to colleagues in other museums for answers or implement in their museum a program that was successful in another museum, sometimes without considering their museum’s assets or local community. Part of intentional practice is about knowing who you are — as an organization, clarifying what the organization wants to achieve, and collectively as a unified staff, embracing the qualities that make the museum distinct and moving forward together in one singular voice.
I hope that this piece about intentional practice brings to light the elements that comprise my intentional practice, which I realize might be different from how others frame their own intentional practice. I encourage museum educators to invite their colleagues into their practice to ensure their viewpoints are heard and respected as they forge ahead. In pursuing intentional practice, it is important to prioritize which audiences you most want to affect and funnel resources and efforts towards those top one or two audiences.
To me, museums are very distinct entities in the American landscape. My intent is to avoid the applying a cookie-cutter approach to culture. The quadrants that comprise the Cycle of Intentional Practice are meant to help practitioners learn — about themselves, their colleagues across the hall, their organization, and their visitors. Intentional practice is about prioritization, unrelenting focus, and discipline. I want to see museums achieve impact, and I want them to be self sustaining organizations. Intentional practice is one way to achieve those ends.
Randi Korn, (Twitter) founding director of Randi Korn & Associates, Inc. (RK&A) — a full-service planning, evaluation, and research firm in Alexandria, VA and NY — has thirty years of experience working with all types of cultural organizations. RK&A’s approach is defined by asking questions to seek clarity, upholding high-quality standards, and working with clients to improve practices.
Weil, Stephen. (2002). “Can and do they make a difference?” In Making Museums Matter. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Dana, John Cotton. (1999). The new museum. Washington, DC: The Newark Museum and the American Association of Museums.