Thursday, September 18, 2014

Four Key Practices


With Building a Shared Understanding I cast one of the five practices I have accumulated over the years as the queen of museum practices. Perhaps somewhat of a stretch, it is, nevertheless, useful in distinguishing it as a high-level, long term, organization-wide practice from other productive, but nevertheless, supporting practices. On their own, the remaining four practices do important work in strengthening the museum in small ways towards their larger interests. 

  1. Building a Shared Understanding
  2. Making Meaningful Distinctions
  3. Breaking Things into Smaller Parts
  4. Crossing Boundaries
  5. Experimental Mindset
Making Meaningful Distinctions
Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (1995) is a landmark study by
Marko Remec at Mass MOCA
Hart & Risley on parent talk to young children at home and the lasting difference it makes for children. The title alone consolidated for me a valuable practice around highlighting important differences among otherwise similar ideas or situations.
These distinctions, connected to driving ideas or supported by evidence, are crucial to building shared understanding, capacity, consistency, quality, and value.



Familiar concepts or favored ideas often have several or fuzzy meanings with invisible implications–until they collide. A half dozen words now enjoying currency in museums–creativity, participation, play, engagement, impact, learning–have multiple meanings across the field and even with in a single museum. Meaning that seems intuitive to one person rarely is to another.



I recently read a museum master plan that used the terms scientific thinking, science learning, and science literacy interchangeably throughout. While these concepts are related, they’re not same. Each possesses meaning or attributes the others don’t. Undoubtedly one is more consequential to the museum’s driving ideas than the others. In what ways is one concept more resonant with the museum’s interests, supported by evidence, or related to community priorities?



Making distinctions is more than just defining words or word-smithing. Less busy work, it facilitates work, for instance, guarding against false dualities that stymy discussion. Are we about art or people? Are we nice or necessary? Framing important ideas, identifying salient traits, relating them to one another, and clarifying their importance also signals what is less important and why. Staff can channel their creativity and act with confidence following clear direction on where to invest energy and resources to benefit visitors and the museum.



Meaningful distinctions can be made in many ways and virtually all the time. A simple statement caught my eye on Nina Simon’s Museum Two recent blog: Each of these activities invited contribution on a different level.” Rather than a single participation opportunity, each activity invited a particular kind of participation, for instance, at a point in the process, individual, collaborative, of varying duration, or personal investment, etc.



My strategic planning partner Andrea typically follows a statement like, “The museum’s region is a fast-growing mid-sized market” with, “This is important because…” This links a characteristic of the community relevant to the museum’s vision, mission, and audience grounded in back-up information. It assists the museum in viewing the future, addressing potential growth, and identifying benchmark museums.



Everyday museums have opportunities to make meaningful distinctions about anything that's meaningful at the museum: sustainability, adult engagement, access, inquiry, materials, collaboration, learning, risk/hazard, etc. 
For instance, championing open-ended materials in a studio space says some materials better support the museum’s vision of its visitor experience and learning opportunities. Open-ended materials that invite and extend exploration help clarify why a museum values them. Selecting particular open-ended materials because their properties invite manipulation, build knowledge of material properties, build on existing competence, and encourage representing ideas add important information. Considering how these qualities tend to extend exploration through more questions, experimenting with techniques, defining problems, or richer language connects the materials and their qualities with the broader experiences, and conveys more valuable distinctions. When staff across a museum make these choices consistently, everyday choices serve the museum’s long-term interests. 

Breaking Things into Smaller Parts
From an early age we are encouraged to break a problem apart to make it more manageable. Outside of school we forget until, years later, we fall into this practice again by accident. I did. Twenty years ago when I had the opportunity to work with the owners’ reps for Minnesota Children’s Museum’s expansion project on cost estimating for exhibits, I was reintroduced to this in another and relevant form.



The owner’s reps were bringing their method of estimating building costs to estimating exhibit costs for 15,000 square feet of exhibits we were building in house. Compared to present cost estimating for exhibits,  estimating then was a rudimentary, informal exercise with few or no specialists and no exhibit cost databases, at least that we knew of. I was a bit skeptical that the very same way to estimate costs for lobbies, lavatories, and loading docks would apply to estimating costs for a DIY thunderstorm, musical solar event, or the Harambee–a 2-story musical sculpture in our exhibits.



John and Jerry started with a simple example they explained clearly: making a table. On the one hand, they said, they could estimate the cost of making a table: one cost for one entire table unit with all its parts. On the other, they could split the table into its component parts, estimate the cost of making each, and tally the costs: make a tabletop of a certain size and material; build a skirt frame; make four legs; assemble all the parts. While both approaches would be estimates, totaling the cost estimate of each table part would be closer to the actual cost than one estimate for the table.  



Even as John and Jerry were describing the process of estimating the cost of making a table, I was imagining attacks on many types of problems and the benefit of getting a more accurate view of what I was dealing with: taking on a big project, tackling complexity, exploring something new, developing goals and objectives, or just getting unstuck. Whether solving a budget problem, developing a center for creativity, or building a table, Breaking Things into Smaller Parts manages the parts along with the whole. Without losing track of the bigger picture, this practice asks: what are the component parts? What is known about each? How do the parts relate to one another? What’s missing? What resources are needed?

Breaking Things into Smaller Parts works at virtually every scale, starting a museum or building a science park; developing a capital project budget or the annual budget; framing visitor experience goals or initiative goals.


Crossing Boundaries
Crossing the cultural, geographic, physical, contextual, and intellectual boundaries that hold us back and limit our thinking opens new spaces for thought and action. In times of fast-paced change or easy continuity, whether a museum is navigating turbulence or sinking into complacency, stepping outside the familiar
Skirball Cultural Center photo
advances new perspectives, challenges thinking, reframes possibilities, and drives change.



Territory beyond well-known boundaries is wide open. Venture outside the museum field, our cities and countries; explore libraries, retail, hospitals, and parks. Learn from other types of museums and from ones that are smaller, larger, or older. Crossing, not toeing, boundaries of theory, discipline, paradigm, media, department, and terminology allows us to explore what lies at the intersection of areas and to transform ideas in each area by combining them in new ways.



Increasingly the museum field looks beyond its borders, borrowing and adapting frameworks, methods, and approaches from social work, sustainability, and the for profit world to strengthen internal processes and operations. Interest in the Triple Bottom Line, the Hedgehog concept from Good To Great and Blue Ocean Strategy have migrated to museums. To manage these complex and diverse organizations, museums hire people from healthcare, education, business, customer service, anthropology, and theater. A colleague described how her museum director brought his extensive professional networks from previous jobs in other areas to strengthen a collaborative community effort around literacy. Having maintained past connections, he deliberately leveraged them on the museum’s, and the collaborative's, behalf.



By inhabiting another role, we inhabit perspectives that are otherwise unavailable. For years I volunteered in a second grade classroom, accompanying the class on field trips, riding bumpy busses filled with 60 second graders laughing, cheering, and talking to the symphony, book arts center, natural history museum and children’s theater. When we visited the children’s museum, however, I was most challenged in my chaperone role. In spite of knowing the museum, the exhibit, and my small group of children well, I struggled in accommodating their individual interests and different paces for exploring. In all the years we had planned field trips at the children’s museum, I realized, we had never actually stepped into the chaperone role to become chaperones and know the field trip experience from the teacher, parent, or volunteer perspective.



Crossing Boundaries is a daily and doable practice for individuals that introduces and invigorates with new types of diversity. Reading, visiting, training, or working outside our area can stretch us beyond even the best professional development opportunities. Another context, whether physical, cultural, or procedural, can challenge the limits of our thinking and test well-worn and worn-out patterns of thought. Introducing a new process like Design Thinking can energize a team. 

On returning from a journey through new territory, we view and value what we and others do differently, find new paths to follow, and discover new and powerful connections.


Experimental Mindset
Borealis Press
Increasingly my favorite practice is an Experimental Mindset. In many ways this practice energizes and feeds the three other supporting practices.



Museums enjoy a tradition of experimenting. Alfred Barr, first director of the Museum of Modern Art, commented 75 years ago that, “The Museum of Modern Art is a laboratory in its experiments the public is entitled to participate.” Every new exhibition or program, each interactive component or new acquisition, a revised membership incentive, or community collaborative can be a hypothesis about how the museum might invite participation, build loyalty, engage visitors more fully, extend engagement, or increase impact. With prototyping, evaluation, observation, documentation, and research of various types, museums have a wide range of methods to support experimental mindsets.



Working at every organizational level an Experimental Mindset helps solve new problems as well as solve old problems differently. A suite of experiments projects can be activated in service of museum-wide change as the Columbus Museum of Art has been doing for the past 6+ years. Experiments can also navigate around interpretive challenges as the historic Hunter House experiment described in Pushing the Period Room Beyond the Period. They can be as small as a hand-written sign with a question, re-purposed materials, or QR codes and new technology to rethink the field trip. Regardless of the size, curiosity and an experimental stance fuel this practice.



As with all of the five practices, however, museums and museum staff must avail themselves of the practices and their related opportunities. An Experimental Mindset may ask more of staff than other practices do, but challenge and opportunity also invigorate staff and entire organizations. Museums that value institutional vibrancy, groundbreaking ideas, and nimble responses to change and opportunity, can bring an experimental mindset to find innovative ways to encourage and support staff and trustees in being open to new approaches and ideas, taking risks, failing and then failing in new ways, and changing outcomes.



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Monday, September 8, 2014

Five Practices: Starting with a Shared Understanding


In the billowy word cloud of practice, float professional practice, reflective practice, green practice, and many types of spiritual practice. There are practices that are promising, evidence-based, and best. A set of practices might also characterize a particular museum or an approach. Even as individuals, we are likely to have a few favored practices we rely on, whether or not we think of the methods we deliberately deploy to accomplish our work as practices. I know I’ve accumulated 5 practices over the years, applied and tested across settings. 
  1. Building a Shared Understanding
  2. Making Meaningful Distinctions
  3. Breaking Things into Smaller Parts
  4. Crossing Boundaries
  5. Experimental Mindset


While likely somewhat idiosyncratic, my set of five is basically what we know as practices: tested methods, processes, and rules used in a particular situation within a field or profession. Accumulated over the last 30 years, my practices confer a kind of confidence: I’ll find my way through situations I am likely to encounter. They provide the kind of security a traveler in a fairy tale has from jingling silver coins in his pocket as he wanders through strange new lands. 

I like new situations. Over the years I’ve found myself in new territory moving from teaching to design to professional development to museum administration to museum planning; the world has been changing as well. I figure I’ll be using these silver coins in the future since they have served me well in starting a museum, building a new museum, planning exhibits, helping others plan museums, developing initiatives, and fielding strategic plans.


These five practices have come from different parts of my work life: from reading, noticing, borrowing from others and, of course, from actual practice. Sometimes with a click, “just something I do” becomes a firmed up practice. A practice may be based on existing practices like inquiry but comes together with a group as with Shiny Questions. At least one practice has migrated from another field. Breaking things into smaller and smaller parts, a practice in cost estimating, is equally useful in thinking about strategies and what precursor engineering thinking in young children looks like. A phrase I came across in reading a study resonated with a roar and consolidated a string of related activities in one swell foop.

Building a Shared Understanding

When a team hums, a department hits its mark regularly, an initiative gains serious traction, or a museum transforms itself, chances are the group has developed and works with a shared understanding of significant, relevant ideas. They may share an organization-wide understanding of the museum’s sustainability commitment and how to further it across every department. They may be working from a common pedagogical framework around learning that they have hammered, negotiated, tested, and revised. Or they may have coined their own vocabulary about family learning with special words and phrases to describe interactions among family members, reliable strategies for engaging them, and what the chosen outcomes are.

A shared understanding across a team, a department, and levels of an organization deepens appreciation for and genuine caring about a common vision a museum is intent on achieving. Whether initiated by formal leadership, a thought leader, or a team’s energy, cultivating a common language or vision is a practice that engages and brings together an entire museum. Unfolding over time, an understanding explores diverse perspectives in such a way that a deeper, common understanding emerges. Neither static nor finished, understandings continue to be revisited in the light of new information from fresh voices, questions, failures, changing conditions, and new connections. Not at all the product of same-thinking colleagues, it is sustained equally by varied perspectives and the aligned efforts of many. The mutual support, or force, of an understanding galvanizes people in many roles to action and generates shared, productive energy.

Suitable across Many Settings
In a museum building a shared understanding may center on a framework for public value, on a vision for the museum experience and the amenities needed to realize it, or on how a museum advances its broad learning agenda. This process generates questions such as how is learning (or customer service) part of everyone’s job? Following questions and unpacking meaning connect big, roomy ideas with the everyday language of museum work. What do we mean by program? By learning? By creativity? What does learning look like at our museum? A lexicon of words and concepts emerges and facilitates discussion. Familiar words, crisp with new meaning, replace tired, over-used words that mean everything and nothing.

The value and benefit of a commonly understood direction are apparent across a range of settings. Building Shared Vision is one of the five disciplines of learning organizations Peter Senge writes about in The Fifth Discipline. At the heart of the decades-long educational project of the municipal infant toddler centers and schools of Reggio Emilia is a comprehensive, shared pedagogy that has inspired schools (and museums) worldwide. Over nearly 10 years, Columbus Museum of Art has been intentionally engaged in integrating creativity throughout its learning and visitor experiences. The July 2014 issue of Journal of Museum Education is dedicated to an in depth exploration of their journey. A similar deliberate and sustained approach to a shared vision, in this case of becoming a  “… thriving, central gathering place where local residents and visitors have the opportunity to experience art, history, ideas, and culture” characterizes the work Nina Simon has been leading at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. The Learning Community, an innovative K-8 public charter school serving Central Falls, Pawtucket, and Providence (RI) has, as its approach, a comprehensive and deeply understood program based in research, clarity of ideas, and explicit instruction.

For museum staff, team, or board to feel connected to one another around a greater hope of bringing positive change to people’s lives requires a way of talking deeply with one another about important ideas. It relies on unearthing the museum’s salient, ennobling ideas; talking, listening, and thinking together. In probing meanings and casting them in the museum’s particular context, a museum’s full team makes ideas accessible and actionable. A museum that enjoys a shared view of what’s possible and a common starting point for framing issues also enjoys advantages in navigating new and complex situations that arise, making decisions, and identifying solutions.



Why?
Why engage an entire museum–staff and board–in a long-term, challenging effort with inevitable risks, set backs, if not failures, along the way?

By its nature, building a shared understanding is a collective, reciprocal effort that generates a sense of ownership and commitment, shared identity and pride. Work in one area of the museum is integral to work in other areas. Each is necessary to the overall effort and coordinated action required to move forward. Valued for their perspectives, creativity, and experience, staff members are empowered to create opportunities to learn and understand more, and to put relevant, supportive practices into place. Museum capacity builds as staff internalizes ideas and develops fluency around what matters most and how values are expressed. When a museum harnesses a shared understanding across the organization, it experiences a palpable energy, a sense of being alive with meaning and possibility.

Foundational changes will inevitably create shifts, some of which will be disruptive. Many, however, will also invigorate an organization that is serious about change and is on the move. For instance, it is likely that a museum will shift from relying on assumptions, hopes, and wishes that a vision will be realized to being empowered to find strategies and tools to act on it. Other shifts will also occur.


  • From talking about what the museum does to ... internalizing why it does it.
  • From short-term thinking in separate departments to ... on-going dialogues across the museum.
  • From acting on untested assumptions about what visitors do and think to… asking and exploring questions and using evidence to inform choices about the visitor experience.
  • From presenting cherished programs staff likes and has done to … developing programs grounded in research and capable of advancing the vision.
  • From counting what is countable–participants and “likes”–to … documenting changes in practice, progress towards outcomes, and changes in how the museum is viewed by stakeholders.
  • From I and my, and they and them to … we, our, and us.
  • From attracting staff, trustees and funders content with business as usual to … garnering attention, talent, and support of decision-makers and funders attracted by potential and persistence.
An Overarching Practice
Among the five practices, Building a Shared Understanding is perhaps an overarching practice, one that serves an entire museum across all its endeavors and its lifetime. Tied to foundational ideas, effecting meaningful change, and engaging staff, trustees, and visitors, Building a Shared Understanding is as basic as providing for safety and keeping the doors open and goes well beyond. In fact, Building a Shared Understanding is possibly THE practice of a museum. It is clearly supported by the other four practices.


Next up: Making Meaningful Distinction, Breaking Things into Smaller Parts, Crossing Boundaries, and An Experimental Mindset.


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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Managing Multiple Museum Audiences


More attuned than usual to my professional reading, one particular article in the July 2014 issue of Curator has prompted my thinking about museums managing multiple audiences. Museums by nature have multiple audiences designated in numerous ways: members and general visitors; locals and tourists; adults, young adults, families, and children; enthusiasts, culturals, learning families. 



In “A Place for Kids? The Public Image of Natural History Museums,” co-authors Hanne Strager and Jens Astrup report on a study to investigate the public image of natural history museums. Absent published quantitative surveys and studies, the study explores whether natural history museums are seen by the public as being primarily aimed at children and families with children. Given this question, it examines the implications for the role natural history museums might play in promoting science literacy. Conducted in Denmark, the study brings in relevant perspectives from natural history museums in the US and Europe.



While this study focuses on audience questions in natural history museums in particular, it exemplifies an important practice: investigating an unexamined audience assumption, in fact one operating across a sector of museums. Based on my museum experience perpetuating unexamined assumptions about audiences is not unusual. The authors, in fact, make such a point, “Most researchers simply observe the phenomena described above as a well known fact.” (p. 313). Often unwittingly, museums perpetuate unchecked assumptions about their audiences, sometimes embracing and acting on fuzzy or false beliefs about them. At some point, these assumptions collide: public perception of a museum shifts, audiences compete with each other, attendance drops, funding slips.   


The article surfaces some audience assumptions that can limit museums in advancing their missions and serving their audiences well. The following five axioms solidly ground museum thinking in their audiences. Some are more obvious than others, but all are interconnected and contribute to keeping a thoughtful eye on museum audiences.



-        Mission drives audience.

-        Audiences are plural.

-        Museums choose their audiences but their visitors choose them.

-        Different audience groups have different interests and expectations.

-        Meeting attendance goals is not the same as serving the audience well.



Mission drives audience. The mission as the source of a museum’s audience may be neither obvious nor logical. That’s not surprising given many mission statements that refer to a large, undifferentiated public or group such as, “people of all ages.” On the other hand, a focus on a museum’s audience does emerge when it considers its mission elements: what a museum does, how, and why. A museum can bring additional clarity to understanding its audiences when it asks, who does the community need us to serve in order for us to accomplish our mission? Without an understanding of its audience grounded in its mission, a museum may unwittingly aspire to be for everyone and venture onto the slippery slope of chasing the audience.



Audiences are plural. Talking and thinking about “the” audience or “our” audience implies that a museum’s audience is a single, undifferentiated group. This is a problematic approach to serving 50, 100, or 400 thousand visitors a year when they come as families, school groups, seniors, or adult enthusiasts; come on busy holidays or slow weekday mornings; visit a dozen times a year or once in a lifetime. A museum must serve multiple audience groups to deliver on its mission as well as to establish a broad enough base of support to its collection, experiences, staff, and facility. Of course which audience groups are served, which are larger than others, and how a museum serves them varies according to the museum, its mission, size, and community.



Museums choose their audiences, but their visitors choose them. The mission broadly frames who the museum’s audiences are so it can identify (and characterize) the groups it needs to serve well to deliver on that mission. Converting an audience group into a visitor, however, is quite a different matter and not an easy one. Visitors don’t simply show up at a museum because they fit a museum’s audience profile, although it’s tempting to operate as if it were true. Why a museum attracts whom it does is a function of multiple factors. Research helps sort out how location, experience, relevance to everyday life, educational content, amenities, and local competition play out. Sometimes, however, a group, like young adults that a museum wants to attract isn’t inclined to be attracted. A museum must decide how much it should stretch to engage a particular audience group and at what cost to other valued audience groups.



Different audience groups have different interests and expectations. While obvious, the implications of this can be tricky to manage. In whatever way a museum identifies its audience groups (learning families, culturals, young adults, millenials, enthusiasts), it does so around within-group commonalities that are salient to its mission and offerings. Various groups may not only have different but sometimes, competing interests and expectations. Sometimes the differences between groups and the expectations begin to drive other decisions. Internal mindsets can reinforce competition for experience or space; sacrifice appealing to one group over another; or perpetuate the idea that one group ruins the experience for others. If, however, audiences are grounded in the mission, then all audience groups are valued. The museum employs its expertise, creativity, audience research, and prototyping in expanding engagement strategies capable of serving multiple audience groups–building on shared interests, encouraging collaboration, optimizing spaces and time of day.

                 

Meeting attendance goals is not the same as serving the audience well. A museum uses many measures to characterize its impact. Among audience-related measures, attendance is most common, indicating a museum’s popularity and, to an extent, its access related to location and cost. Attendance is used so often we forget what it doesn’t convey. First, it doesn't reveal if these the right people, the audience groups the museum must serve to advance its mission. Crowds of people coming through the doors is an accomplishment. When these crowds aren’t made up of priority groups or are served at at the expense of groups to whom the museum directs its mission, it is not a success. 

Finally, as important as reaching attendance goals for key audiences is, a museum must also serve its audience groups well. What this means is different for every museum, but it is necessarily a complex choreography across many time frames delivered by a great many people with intentionality. It doesn't, and can't, happen without thoughtful examining and updating assumptions about the museum's multiple audience groups.


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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Perspective on Professional Reading




Several weeks ago on his ExhibitTricks blog, Paul Orselli sent us off with his reading recommendations for the beach or a long sit in an Adirondack chair.

Soon after, the August 2014 EdCom Newsletter arrived with a list of what several EdCom members are currently reading. Included on this list were: Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement (Anne Bergeron and Beth Tuttle); Excellence in Practice: Museum Education Principles and Standards (developed by EdCom); The Museum Experience Revisited (Falk and Dierking); and Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Eco-system (AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums)

Whether you work in a museum or with many museums, recommended reads for the beach each summer is part of keeping up and being inspired. It’s also a natural complement to reliable, go-too museum books within easy reach. I would add a third type of reading to summer reads and core museum references: reading a variety of museum journals, articles, and blogs.

Keeping up with a variety of museum journals, articles, and blogs is a high priority professional *best* practice for everyone in and involved with museums.

As a field, our purpose centers on learning and we are ever more engaged in understanding the museum experience through research. Equally important, museums are constantly challenged to navigate complex and dynamic external environments and characterizing their impact on their communities. Being well read is critical for museums’ growth, sustainability, and long-term public value. The selection of relevant books, journals, articles, and blogs on all aspects of museums has been increasing over the last few years. But we have to convert the potential value of that information into real value for our visitors, museums, and communities.

I often suggest a regular diet of professional reading to museum colleagues and clients. Typically, the response is, "there's no time". Time is absolutely a huge issue. Museums have multiple and competing priorities. Yet, museums are fully committed to other priorities such as assuring safety and security that also take time in training, preparation, and staffing. No one would ever suggest demoting safety and security as a priority because they place demands on the scarce resource of time.

Close behind protecting scarce time is demurring that keeping up with journals and studies is the domain of museum education. Few assumptions could more effectively limit a museum’s sharpening its understanding of its interests and marshaling its resources than declaring any single department as the sole domain of thinking and learning. What, then, guides other museum staff in contributing to its overall impact? How does this invite participation?

A third explanation for professional reading not being a higher priority is that the museum is small. If there’s a simpler or better way for a museum to expand its resources than for its staff (and board) members to learn about what museums in other cities are doing, learning, and researching, I have no idea what it might be…after 3 decades in this field.

Reading, talking, thinking, learning, and revising ideas and practices are critical to a museum building its capacity, fulfilling its enduring purpose, and inviting others to invest in it. Internal as well as external reasons demand that museums expose themselves to new, roomy, and challenging ideas. Museums can fortify themselves with regular and varied professional reading across (and a bit beyond) the boundaries of the field in four ways.  

Nourish Yourself: Read Regularly
I consider my professional reading to be a great benefit of my museum planning practice. It is a source of pleasure that keeps me going on the treadmill at the gym, makes hours of travel time fly by, and is a distraction and a balm during challenging times. While I am often behind in my reading and could be reading a Winter 2014 volume in the heat of July, I eventually get to it and am glad I did.

Even if your museum does not subscribe to many publications, it probably does receive one as part of its membership in a museum association. The three I receive, enjoy, and read regularly give me an overview of what’s going on in the field, resources (people, research, and funding), and a close-up on a topic like exhibits or accessibility and universal design.  

Read Across Your Area
Museum journals and articles discuss ideas, share models, present studies, and share insights on visitor satisfaction, exhibits, learning, community engagement, looking across types of museums and countries. Look for articles on topics related to your museum’s priorities: Creativity? Science learning? Play? Families? Engaging diverse cultural communities?

I like an eclectic mix of topics and views: research, theory, and practice; strategic planning and organizational culture; where different types of museums are headed; what’s working, what’s not. All of these (and more) are critical aspects of museums’ work. Daily they interact with one another and bring an essential perspective to each museum's mix. Stepping away from what is most familiar, finding distance from the usual assumptions and rhetoric, and exploring a co-worker’s area is invigorating, if not downright informative. Six journals I subscribe to, along with the Interesting Blogs and Websites listed on this page, provide a great mix for me. I would be missing something without each one of the following.

Venture Outside Your Area
I like to make connections between ideas, to import something from another context that promises to address a persistent problem. Subscribing to several journals “outside” my area has supported this. 
I came to appreciate this practice almost 20 years ago when the strategy team at Minnesota Children’s Museum decided to expand into areas a bit afield from museums. Each of us subscribed to a different journal from: business, technology, education, children’s literature. Doing so exposed us to new ideas and more rigorous approaches; we saw concepts and practices like the Triple Bottom Line and scenario planning migrate from business to museums. These days, I am more likely to find the work of institutes and foundations like the Harwood Institute, Strive for Change, and the Skoll Foundation that focus on community learning and large-scale social change to help catalyze my thinking.

    Spread the Word
    Talking with others about what you are reading deepens and extends engagement with a report, a case study, the authors, a project, or an approach. Ask colleagues what they are reading, what they think about it, and what ideas are most helpful to what they are doing. Every article is not a direct hit for your museum. For those that seem promising, however, talking (and writing) are helpful in examining the conceptual framework, making connections with your museum’s strategic plan, looking up cited studies, reframing your thinking, or adapting practices to current museum projects. This serves to make more people in the museum carriers of ideas and possibilities for change.

    Writing my blog posts is frequently the process that helps me understand what I have read or why it is relevant. This is also one way I share professional reading that has made a big impression on me and that relates to work and challenges I see being tackled at multiple museums. Recommending articles and studies to current and former colleagues and clients is an extension of my professional reading. I share copies and send links. It becomes a valuable opportunity for me to listen to others and hear their ideas. I am delighted when the article has already been read; pleased when it is welcomed; and disappointed when the publication, let alone the article, is unknown to the museum. 

    Onward with reading, sharing, and spreading the word on professional reading. What are regular and important parts of your professional reading?

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