Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Visually Compelling & Perspective Changing

Image: Gapminder.org
The first time I saw a print of Napoleon’s losses in his Russian campaign depicted by Charles Joseph Minard, I was stunned. Although written in French, I immediately grasped the horrific troop losses taken across the distance and time on the figurative map. Happily I later found this and more images in The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by information designer, Edward Tufte. That, along with data visualization examples for evaluation and research in museums has pushed my thinking about presenting information in unusual, visually compelling, thought-provoking ways.
Image: Wikipedia.com
An incidental encounter with 200 Countries, 200 years, Four Minutes has tipped my thinking again. In this case, the combination of a sweltering weekend and exploring Gapminder Worldwide was perfect for being immersed in the videos and work of Swedish medical doctor and statistician, Hans Rosling.

Gapminder: A fact-based worldview, translates statistics into visual explanations taking on myths and complex questions like, does saving poor children lead to overpopulation? Not only does Rosling avoid simplifying the information or the answer, but he is very deliberate in clarifying relationships among factors and connecting results to changes in relevant policy. Interactive and incisive, Gapminder accommodates a wide range of perspectives; past, present and future; questions, misconceptions, reality, and mindsets.

Image: Gapminder.org
As visually compelling packages of vast amounts of information connected by a narrative thread, Rosling’s information graphics and talks challenge everyday thinking and assumptions on a wide range of contemporary issues: poverty, health, education, climate, HIV, etc. He translates information with unusual props and partners and in unusual places (See photo left). His graphics feel a bit like successive bursts of fireworks, beautiful and illuminating. 

Rosling and his team are generous in sharing both information and materials. Gapminder World Offline provides software that allows users to show animated statistics from their own laptops without internet access. There is also an accessible "indicator finder" as well as handouts and lesson plans on the site. Even the graphic of an update of Gapfinder World’s data structure is engaging, something I wanted to use even though I had no need to.  

Admittedly, museums are not primarily about addressing questions of global immunization trends, population growth, or the health and wealth of nations as Gapminder is. Yet, everyday, museums communicate information on a wide range of subjects to diverse stakeholders with particular ends in mind. These same groups are concurrently engaging with and expecting well-designed messaging in media, web design and marketing. Information expands and expectations are changing. 

Museums have comparable platforms, information to share, and opportunities to construct narratives. In communicating with trustees, staff, funders, partners, museum visitors, researchers, community members, and volunteers they can deliver engaging messages–rich in information and visually compelling–that change perspectives. Whether framing a case for an expansion, hosting professional development opportunities, presenting research and evaluation results, highlighting the year's accomplishments, presenting the museum online, or creating complex–but accessible–information panels in exhibitsmuseums can be both rigorous and lively, visually compelling and mind-changing. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Harnessing Vision, Data, and Collective Action

Paper Cave; Kotaro Horiuchi Arkitektur
Several ideas I have explored over the past few years on Museum Notes have come together recently in a clearer, more helpful way. Reading Nina’ Simon’s blog post on local data and picking up on Marsha Semmel’s reference to collective impact in a recent conversation connected Revisioning Vision Statements, Vision With a View to Impact, and Collective Impact, casting new light on the relationship among them and their value to museums. As she always does, my strategic planning partner, Andrea Fox Jensen, brought additional clarity and a few valuable pieces to the relationships between these parts.

Individually, each of these topics is concerned with museums helping to build stronger communities. All–vision, data, and collective action–are capable of engaging more fully with one another in a coordinated approach to community-level change. Guided by a common vision of a community, its challenges and opportunities and supported by shared information, the collaborative efforts of a museum and its important partners hold the promise of long-term, broad-based impact.


Many museum visions focus in on the museum. They list how it hopes to be perceived by its partners and stakeholders: high quality, a premier resource, a place of choice, etc. Museum visions can also project out to the community to embrace a deeper and more expansive purpose. They can express the positive change a museum believes is possible for its community that it can help accomplish with partners and stakeholders.

Where the community’s challenges and opportunities intersect with a museum’s long-term interests and strengths, is a museum’s niche in making a difference related to conservation, health and well-being, strong families, the achievement gap, or workforce development. A museum’s mission expresses what and how it intends to contribute to this change. Similarly other organizations build on what they already do well that the challenge needs. The collective intentions of these organizations begin to describe a common agenda and a set of priorities.

The externally oriented vision is a catalyst for moving from intention to impact, from isolated initiatives to coordinated action. By engaging local stakeholders and considering their perspectives in framing its vision, the museum finds partners with shared interests and related initiatives in priority areas. In getting to know each other, partners begin to identify valuable organizational assets such as relevant expertise, lessons from previous collaborations, infrastructure, and related organizational data. At this initial stage, a shared platform takes shape, one that supports collective conversations on an on-going basis, brings partners together before acting, and encourages shared development of questions and information, and joint ownership.

Data, Local and Shared
To move the needle on community-level change, a museum and its partners need more than multiple organizations with a shared agenda delivering relevant programs where they have current capabilities. While helpful, partners also need a common understanding of the challenge and what they hope to accomplish; where they are starting and what progress looks like. This requires information–data–about the children, youth, families, or neighborhoods they serve; the quality of life measures at present levels; and supporting indicators capable of indicating progress.

But what information is needed and were does it come from? Information should describe relevant aspects of improved lives for targeted individuals and groups. Long-term outcomes typically relate to a more vibrant community in areas of health, safety, education, civic engagement, social capital, or the environment. Indicators tracking outcomes may relate to youth believing they can achieve their goals; lower obesity rates; increased levels of civic engagement; greater access to learning technology; involvement in meaningful community activities with opportunities to contribute.

Data sources include readily available information from other entities as well as data generated by partners. In her blog post, Learn to Love Your Local Data, Nina Simon points out that often the data partners need already exists. Baseline information may be available from community assessments, the local United Way, or area foundations. It is local, shared and manageable for smaller organizations. Community-wide sources of data are place-based with a high degree of relevance. Furthermore, since this information is already shared, it reinforces the common purpose of the efforts and sets the tone for joint ownership of information.

A more ambitious approach is working collaboratively to collect data with partners. This is the approach the StriveTogether Network uses. And, although organized for evaluation and research, groups like the Denver Evaluation Network do have the capacity to collect local data for museum partners or local partnerships. 

Collective Action
Complex social problems are a function of a wide range of factors interacting over time. Collaborative efforts that create and sustain positive change at a meaningful scale require organization to coordinate and align efforts. The supportive organization can take varied forms, ranging in structure, size, and level of infrastructure.

Since 2000, Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) has taken a comprehensive, holistic, and place-based approach to supporting the Harlem community, starting with babies. With its clear vision, pipeline of programs, evidence-based decision-making, and robust infrastructure, it has made it a model for other transformative partnerships. Many communities and museums are familiar with the HCZ-inspired federally funded Promise Neighborhoods with cradle-to-career programs.

The Strive Partnership launched in 2006 developed a shared agenda to improve student achievement in the Greater Cincinnati area. Its approach, often referred to as Collective Impact, follows 5 principles that together build alignment and lead to significant change: a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone organizations. 

When 40 organizations in Norwalk (CT) came together in 2005 to form Norwalk ACTS, the focus was on 6 cradle-to-career outcomes, from kindergarten readiness to post-high school guided by volunteer management. Now a group of over 100 organizations, Norwalk ACTS uses the Strive model. One of the original members,  
Stepping Stones Museum for Children serves as the anchor organization.

All efforts aren’t as formal and structured as HCZ, Strive, or Promise Neighborhoods. Lower maintenance structures typical of many museum partnerships use similar principles: an articulated joint vision, shared data, identified outcomes and impacts, and collective action. Over the past 3 years, the Children’s Museum of Tacoma and its community partners have been collaborating to build a child-centered community, supported by a volunteer structure similar to the one initially supporting Norwalk ACTS.

These and other efforts are gaining the attention of museum associations. IMLS will be analyzing current projects to support comprehensive community revitalization. Through a partnership with Local Initiative Support Corporation, IMLS will look at best practices and strategies to better understand how museums and libraries are engaged in sustained commitments to community-level change. For those attending InterActivity 2016, Collective Impact will be the theme of the Association of Children’s Museums annual conference hosted by Stepping Stones Museum for Children. Geoffrey Canada, President of Harlem Children’s Zone, will receive the Great Friend to Kids Award.

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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Rewind: Essential Experiences – Where Museums Can Matter

Museums want to matter. They want to matter to their communities and to their visitors in large and small ways. Those hopes are expressed in their missions; they guide museums in framing the future and in making major decisions. Museums work to build connections with their communities, place visitors at the center of their thinking, and find meaningful ways to engage children and adults in exhibits and programs in order to matter. 

Yet, a vast expanse of territory exists between intending to provide meaningful experiences and actually doing so. Missions are typically lofty and aspirational; they don’t readily translate into experiences for learners or something a family can do on a visit. Conducting audience research about whether a museum’s experiences are meaningful is ambitious, if not out-of-reach of most museums. Exhibit goals can miss the mark as well by being narrow and primarily focusing on cognitive areas such as thinking skills and knowledge.

Museums can, however, be deliberate in delivering a set of essential experiences that make a difference in people’s lives and, eventually, in the collective life of their community. Essential experiences are valuable opportunities that build on and contribute to the potential of the visitors in areas that move a museum towards its mission and achieving its impact. While museums alone cannot change life outcomes, they can focus their expertise, efforts, and resources on creating and delivering root experiences in areas that matter. 

At the Convergence 
Most museums have a handful of opportunities that would be a starting place for a set of essential experiences. Perhaps a favorite phrase or powerful image surfaces and is repeated. “Frequent and positive experiences with nature,” “a time and a place to be children”, or “coming together as a family” might galvanize teams and resonate strongly as experiences your museum values.

A museum’s essential experiences emerge from its mission; on behalf of its audience; and from opportunities afforded by its strengths and distinct features.
Essential experiences are where a museum needs to deliver over time in order to act its mission and reach its stated outcomes. A mission gives direction about what experiences matter: people discovering and valuing nature; the role of science in everyday life; children’s well-being; understanding works of art; or sustaining our community. These are clues about how children might succeed in life, how a community might be healthier, or what a brighter future might look like. Essential experiences build on these hopes and beliefs. 

Essential experiences are for the audience, building on their potential, and considered from their vantage point. They can be developed for priority audience groups such as children, youth, or families and might be tailored to an age cohort or interest group. Essential experiences focus on and are inspired by potential, by an image of vibrant, competent, curious children, connected youth, motivated educators, engaged citizens, or involved parents. For Louisiana Children’s Museum’s Early Learning Village, positive outcomes for children, families and the community inform the essential experiences. Robust, healthy children become responsible, caring adults who, in turn, contribute their strengths to their children and to their communities in the future.

A museum’s advantage in contributing significant experiences and influencing outcomes is where its strengths complement what other organizations and agencies offer–and don’t offer. As informal learning environments, museums are social settings, where participation is self-motivated, guided by learner interests, voluntary and personal, contextually relevant, collaborative, and non-linear. In these attributes are opportunities during out of school time, for families, bringing people together, and using rich objects and environments. A museum’s particular its valued contribution is in its partnerships, its collection, its site, and its story.  
Framing Experiences
Similar to building blocks, essential experiences support internal resources, positive developmental processes, and protective factors. While they emerge from the mission and connect with strongly held organizational values, they are also grounded in research, supported by theory, and reinforced by community wisdom. Enjoying many of these experiences is associated with a firmer toe-hold in life, with flourishing, and helps advance well-being, strong families, engaged citizens, or increased social cohesion.

A set of experiences will not, and need not, be exhaustive. They should, however, be rich and varied. Building block experiences span domains, tapping into the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional dimensions. They are holistic and inclusive, accommodating children and adults from a wide variety of backgrounds. For some parts of the museum audience, essential experiences reinforce a good start or provide an extra boost; for others these experiences serve as protective factors against challenge and risk. Delivering these experiences alone will not change life outcomes. Doing so, however, represents a well-informed step towards building on capabilities and intentionally adding positive factors to members of the community.

Children and adults should enjoy essential experiences regularly with their family, friends, peers, and new members of a group at the museum, as well as in other settings. More than an activity like problem solving or reading, essential experiences are opportunities with long tails. Close observation of the world; experiencing wonder, beauty, and awe; and following interests and motivations to explore personal questions are experiences that contribute to a long-term experiential bank, enhancing internal assets.

Essential experiences may be framed by a museum team or with community members as part of many museum-planning processes. They can be identified in planning a new museum as the emerging Children’s Museum of Sonoma County did or as Louisiana Children’s Museum has in planning its early childhood campus, the Early Learning Village. Tamarack Nature Center designated essential experiences when it reinvented itself through its master planning process. These platform experiences can be identified during exhibit master planning as The Family Museum has. Providence Children’s Museum has developed Avenues of Play Experiences for its Play Power initiative. In every case, essential experiences need to emerge from a museum’s core interests and be easy to communicate to staff, board members, and partners.  

Naming Experiences
Essential experiences are an invitation to capture, name, and cultivate assets that we hope children, youth, adults, and members of our community enjoy. Rather than focusing on skills, communicating exhibit content, or interpreting principles, these experiences emphasize what happens for the person. Solving a problem for someone else, being at the spot where a view is revealed, or transforming materials for new uses draws on internal resources and contributes to a solid foundation for life.

Describing an experience in a way that is more poetic than clinical makes room for interpretation and insight. While clear and backed up by evidence, these experiences are not narrow, nor are they necessarily tangible. Finding respite in nature, being touched by art, connecting with place, or making the most of everyday moments fuses thinking, feeling, and doing with a generative quality.

The Early Learning Village focuses on offering essential experiences that cultivate: a robust sense of self; supportive relationships; a sense of well-being; making sense of the world; and a child’s expanding sense of the world. These five areas reflect what matters to the ELV’s target age range in the Greater New Orleans area and highlight adults’ critical roles. They work as a set, strong in all domains. Each is a platform supported by more specific experiences. For instance, a robust sense of self is supported by Pursuing appropriate risk and experiencing disappointment and failure in a safe environment and four other related experiences which are all supported by many and specific activities and moments. The ELV’s essential experiences have guided facility and exhibit design and are the areas in which it is building capacity.

Each and every encounter with exhibits, programs, events, take-homes, on-line activities, or walking through the museum door, offers children and adults an opportunity to engage in a rich, experience that matters and contributes to their individual resources. Museums support building block experiences when they are intentional in many and everyday ways. 

A museum’s commitment to its experiences guides planning, revisiting and recalibrating an outdoor site, exhibit component, family night, badge project, or professional development workshop. In which part of the site do visitors connect with nature through all the senses? How does this particular component help a learner reduce uncertainty by seeking and gathering information? In what ways does someone enjoy a sense of well-being here? How is our staff prepared to provide attention, guidance, and support to parents? to children? to seniors? Considering questions like these and finding ways to intentionally support and strengthen experiences that matter for visitors is foundational work for museums that matter. 

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

DIY Research Agenda

Skyline at Chicago Children's Museum
Do you have questions about learning in your museum? How conversations support and reveal learning in family groups? About making as a learning process? Whether your visitors are environmentally literate? Do you want to go beyond knowing program satisfaction? Would you like to know more about the value your museum offers your community?

Do you often develop goals and evaluation questions on the fly, primarily as part of a grant proposal? Have you completed an evaluation study or exploratory research project and you hope to do more? Do you have a folder of museum studies that you refer to for guidance and inspiration? Are notes for a literature review collecting dust on a shelf? Do you wonder if you have the right mix of theory or practice to guide planning around engagement and learning?

If any of these resonate, your museum might be poised to develop a DIY research agenda.

Roadmap for Research
A research agenda is a roadmap or a framework for research that identifies and prioritizes what a museum or group of museums is most interested in knowing about the learning, engagement, and experiences it offers. It focuses on the impact the museum has on the lives of the children, families, and communities it serves. Development of museum research agendas reflect a shift from a belief in the inherent value of museums to a recognized need for a collective, evidence-based body of knowledge about museums that can be used across institutions to build theories of learning, improve practice, and demonstrate museums’ distinct value. 

Reflecting a growing maturity in the museum field museum groups have been developing research frameworks over the last decade. While initiated for different purposes, these research frameworks share an intention to grow the capacity of individuals, institutions, and the field. They express a common desire to improve practice, build theories of learning, and demonstrate the distinct value of museums while encouraging research and evaluation across the museum. Typically the frameworks include both basic research and evaluation, because evaluation studies have provided much of what is currently known about learning in the museum field.

Work on the AZA Framework for Zoo and Aquarium Social Science Research has been evolving since it was first introduced in 2011. The Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) introduced its Practice-and-Research Initiative in 2014. In 2015 the Association of Children’s Museum released its Learning Value of Children’s Museums. 

These frameworks provide a context for individual museums to conduct research, evaluate projects, and collaborate on multiple-museum research initiatives. They also provide a context where museums can situate their own research agendas. Ideally a museum’s research agenda emerges from its learning or interpretive framework. A learning framework, however, can also be built around a museum’s long-term learning interests expressed in its research agenda.

You might be thinking that you will develop a research agenda some day, when … your museum is bigger or more established; when you have finished the evaluation project or the learning framework you have been developing; when you have greater capacity, the right tools, or a new director of learning.

Don’t let that idea roost for too long because it will slow you down, if not stop you in your tracks.

Start Now
Start where you are and grow from there. Use whatever internal capacity you have and access professional connections and networks. Start with what you like to do most or where you feel most confident. Gleaned from reading through the research agendas and my experience with museums and their research agendas, practical, but not necessarily linear, steps for starting your research agenda.  
Frame questions. What broad questions about your museum’s learning value and its community service purpose most interest staff across your museum? How do these relate to areas of impact–where your museum believes positive change is possible for its learners and its community? Look at the studies completed over the years at your museum to identify areas of continuing importance. Helpful here is Elee Wood’s article, “Defining the Scope of Your Evaluation” in Journal of Museum Education “Empowering Museum Educators to Evaluate” (March 2015).
Sort and refine. Cluster questions in various ways. How do questions align with research agendas in the field; with the research and evaluation done in museums in these areas; and with areas of funder interest? Some questions are sub-questions, important to keep, but not overarching research questions. Group the questions into 2-4 areas of interest; or select one question to start with. Before going too far, make sure your museum has a current policy on research and evaluation.
Familiarize. Wherever you are in the process, check out resources such as:
- “Empowering Museum Educators to Evaluate”, Journal of Museum Education (March 2015) 
- The CAISE Informal Science Education Resource
- ACM’s soon-to-be-relaunched Research Exchange 
- The White Oak Associates' John Jacobsen’s 2010 “A Research Vision for Museums”
Access capacity. Consider everyone and everywhere as a possible source for related expertise needed to advance your research. Capacity undoubtedly exists in your museum in design, education, marketing, and/or development. Consider creating an internship for a trained intern with evaluation and/or research experience to work under supervision. Tap into a local evaluation network or a regional museum with an internal evaluator. Get to know researchers at area colleges and universities. When you do work with an outside evaluator or researcher, select one interested in building capacity in your museum through engaging staff in the research and coaching.
Connect and collaborate. There’s a good reason large groups of museums develop and take on a research agenda collectively. Answering big questions is too much for any single museum. Take advantage of the field-wide nature of research agendas and look for opportunities to collaborate. Working together takes many forms from collaborative projects with museums with shared research interests, to joining a multiple-institutional research project, to sharing methodologies and shared evaluation metrics.
Divide and conquer. Making progress on your research agenda requires a meaningful effort over time. Rather than be intimidated, break the work down into manageable pieces you can grapple with and that are achievable. Identify a variety of studies to be conducted across your museum over several years. Structure projects and initiatives around your research questions and sub-questions. Build in opportunities on those projects to work with researchers and evaluators, engage staff, grow internal capacity, and build new knowledge–one study at a time.
Engage and share. Engage often with staff in your museum, in other museums and across the field to learn together and to answer shared questions. Standardize definitions; be generous with research tools and evaluation models; share results with partners, collaborators, and online research exchange.

Prepare for the Benefits
However modest a museum’s research agenda might be, it nevertheless enables it to advance itself and serve its community more fully. Having and working on your own research agenda:
• Shifts from research and evaluation as an afterthought to a backbone for planning and driving change;
• Creates a closer fit between intention and achievement in areas of impact and value;
• Builds a more active and enduring internal culture of inquiry and learning;
• Grows capacity among museum educators, developers, designers, evaluators, and marketers;
• Communicates to supporters, stakeholders, and potential partners the museum’s interest in building knowledge, improving experiences, and increasing value; 
• Demonstrates to others outside museums how museums serve as an integral learning resource;
• Builds a stronger case for your museum’s worth;
• Develops new strategies based on research to advance the mission, improve the quality of experiences, and increase impact;
• Contributes to a larger body of knowledge about learning and change in informal learning settings.
A DIY research agenda is win-win-win. Placing your museum’s work as part of that larger collective effort advances the field, your museum, and your community.

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