Monday, September 26, 2011

Strengthening Parent Engagement

 

Over the summer I’ve been working on several museum projects that are framed around reaching and engaging parents. By parents, I mean not only mothers and fathers, but also other significant adults in children’s lives­: step-parents, foster parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. For simplicity, though, I’ll refer to this large, loving, and important group as parents.

These projects and their museum’s interests emerge from what research and experience show about the critical role of parents in children’s lives including, pre-natally and right on through, well maybe,  forever.

•            Strong attachment between a child and parent, or caregiver, nourishes a child’s emotional development, fostering development of a healthy sense of belonging, self-esteem, and well-being.
•             Parents are children’s first teachers, supporting early language and literacy development, problem solving, and dispositions to learn, for starters.
•            Parent participation in their child’s play and learning extends to the prosocial and independent behaviors in the classroom. 
•             Increased parent involvement in children’s education is associated with a child’s improved achievement in school. 

Children and museums need parents in order accomplish their goals for richer engagement
Museums, like schools, libraries, early childhood programs, health and social service agencies, businesses, colleges, and universities need parents in order to reach their goals for children and for the community. Every one of these groups needs to reach parents, engage them, and communicate with them, share or reinforce messages about their critical role in children’s growth and development. While this may be especially true for children facing multiple challenges, all children need the solid foundation for a good start in life that parents offer. In museums, we also know that children engage more and in more complex ways in exhibits with parent involvement.

The Parent Imperative
The imperative for effective parent involvement in museums is clear. The strategies for doing so are less clear. After recently immersing myself in reading research, writing and mostly re-writing, thinking, and talking with colleagues about how to reach and engage parents, I am struck by how museum efforts are not stronger and more comprehensive than they seem to be. New efforts at engaging parents are hopefully percolating through museums right now. With few exceptions, however, we seem to be using limited strategies for accomplishing a challenging, complex, and sensitive goal.

From my scan, approaches seem to rely on text panels with parent tips though I am aware of several promising exceptions.
•            One is the exhibit Wonder Years: The Story of Early Childhood Development at the ScienceMuseum of Minnesota and reviewed on Museum Notes in July. It covers lots of information well.
•            The Adult Child Interaction Inventory is an assessment tool that can be used for evaluation or development of exhibits where the role of the adult in the child’s experience is significant to the exhibit project. Developed by Boston Children’s Museum with researcher Lorrie Beaumont, the tool assists in identifying what key design elements of the exhibit support adult-child interactions. The ACII is also useful as a training tool for museum staff.
•             Along with Lorrie Beaumont, other researchers have been looking at parent-child engagement as a part of their studies on children’s learning, literacy development, and family learning. A good, but by no means exhaustive, list includes: Maureen Callanan; Kevin Crowley; Jessica Luke; Suzanne Gaskins, Doris Ash, Steven Guberman, Kirsten Ellenbogen, Lynn Dierking, and Cheryl Kessler.
•            I have also been involved with projects and hear of more that are using visitor panels and focus groups to explore parent interests and questions about their children and using this information to inform exhibit design, develop parent information strategies, and plan programs.

Listening to parents and children at Louisiana Children's Museum
Text Traps
Relying on text to communicate important and sometimes subtle messages to parents in a setting planned to engage their young and active children is problematic. I struggle with the following challenges and find it hard to sidestep them. I encounter these traps labels I write and those currently in exhibits.

•            Getting a parent’s attention when she is attending to her children, with whom we want her to interact.
•            Coming across as telling a parent she should be doing more.
•            Being congratulatory about parental efforts, but not too much.
•            Seeming to suggest that the information is intended for another parent and his child.
•            Over-simplifying information about brain-development, play, talking to your child, etc.
•            Sounding too bossy, jargony, breezy, or clever; being too wordy or too elegant.

I recently wrote, “Play is joyful exploration. Add a spirit of inquiry and building play becomes science play.” A colleague noted that this elegant turn of phrase was not what parents are interested in while they watch their child hustle to the top of the climber. His comment woke me up and I hit the delete button. But knowing what to write instead was the next challenge.

Be Positive, Think Strategically, Act Collaboratively
Museums may not have the same kind of opportunities that schools and childcare centers have to connect with parents on a daily basis, at-pick-up-and-drop-off times, and at conferences. They do, however, have distinct opportunities they can exercise more fully and effectively than they currently do. Parents visit museums with their children rather than sending them off to school by themselves. The relationships museums want to focus on walk in the door everyday. With objects, interaction, a lively social context, and active exploration, museum settings accommodate a wide range of exploratory approaches. And because they are not grading children’s performance–or the parents–parents can relax in museums.

After 10 days of mucking about in search of parent engagement strategies and thinking about our ambitions for reaching and involving parents, I have a beginning list of promising strategies to assist museums in supporting and strengthening the connection between parents and their children.
•            Be positive and assume the best. Parents want to do their best on behalf of their children. Many factors overwhelm parents’ intentions to be actively and intentionally engaged with their child during a museum visit and in the everyday moments of their lives. Parent involvement strategies should build on good intentions, strengthen parents’ positions, and support their relationships with their children.
•            Frame a clear set of goals. Be clear about what you are trying to accomplish through parent engagement and why it’s important: does it relate to local issues? has it been identified as a priority for the audience? is there a gap in local resources in this area?
•            Focus on strategies and actions that evidence suggest makes a difference for a child. I have realized I need to follow the research more closely. In combing research, a useful focus might be on behaviors and situations that are relevant in an informal learning environment around asking questions, participating in play, everyday moments– rather than about homework, for instance.     
•            Get to know parents. Parents are a diverse group even when “parents” is not a placeholder for a much larger group of step-parents, foster parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Within any group are smaller, but distinct groups, who might benefit from being engaged in particular ways or who have preferences for how to be approached. There are members and first-time visitors; mommy bloggers and weekend dads; new parents and parents who are uncertain about their role in museums; out-of-town grandparents and custodial grandparents. A parent segmentation scheme might be in order.
•            Identify and employ multiple engagement strategies. By its nature, facilitating parent involvement with their children is a complex negotiation. Adding a museum's agenda to the mix means 3 agendas are at play: the parent's, the child’s, and the museum’s. Navigating this means considering all approaches–text panels, facilitation, parent programs, film and video, hand-held media; it also means borrow and invent more. 
•            Engage more often, more directly, and in more varied ways with parents. This calls for some imagination and research. For instance, is there a voice parents are more likely to want to hear in text and even from facilitators? I wonder if there’s an “Aunt Judy” voice? A trusted, helpful, warm, yet firm voice. Could a museum recruit a cadre of trained volunteers to serve as Aunt Judys and Uncle Peters who engage parents in conversation, focus observations, share insights, ask questions? What about parent play sessions with staff who scaffold with and for parents?
•             Build museum capacity around parent engagement. Increasing capacity comes in all forms at every organizational level. It could be a staff person who serves as a parent advocate. A team gathers input from parents, summarizes and introduces parent perspectives into exhibit planning and program development. Someone coordinates staff training like Wakanheza that enhances parent involvement at the museum.  Partner organizations also have expertise to leverage and build capacity.
What might an Aunt Judy or Uncle Peter do to encourage engagement?
•            Expand on research and tools with practical applications like the Adult Child Interaction Inventory. Projects like Making Playful Learning Visible (2006 by Thomas Siobhan and James Bradburne) is an example of a project that accomplishes many of the above ideas. (Unfortunately, the report used to be available at www.ngf.org.uk/mplv/index.htm; it is now referenced but not available at: www.londonmobilelearning.net/aigaion2/publications/show/566.) Museums will hopefully also consider collaborative research projects to explore their questions about parent engagement with other museums and among cross-setting partnerships with libraries, schools, early childhood programs, etc. 

Getting Better Together
I hope this list is only a start. There's lots to be done and undoubtedly more than I know of is happening.  
  • How is your museum engaging parents?                
  • What strategies are working well?                 
  • In what are areas are you most interested in making changes? Why?                  
  • What have you learned that might be helpful to other museums?               
  • Are there other researchers and projects in this area to share with others? 

Monday, September 19, 2011

Listening to Children’s Thinking



A few months ago I was shopping in Target. In the next aisle, I heard a child say, “I want to look in that mirror to see if my face is in that mirror too.” Looking around the aisle cap, I saw a girl about 3 years old leaning out of the seat in a shopping cart while her mother pushed the cart. I pulled out a scrap of paper, scribbled down what she’d said, and waited to hear more. The mother pushed on. I relished this privileged glimpse into the amazing everyday thinking of a young child: if my face is in the mirror at home, is it also in this mirror? In other mirrors? In all mirrors? What does that face in the mirror mean?

I love to listen in on children’s conversations at airports, playgrounds, restaurants, stores, and hotels, as well as in museums, nature centers, and zoos. I often overhear remarkable comments that I record and share. Others enjoy these quotes, laugh, and sometimes share something they have overheard a child say.

To call these anecdotes cute or funny does not take them or the children who have said them seriously. Yes, they are delightful and they do have a charm and freshness. Yet, the more I listen to children, the more I find examples of remarkable thinking as they make sense of their world. These quotes become anecdotal evidence of children as thinkers and learners. They provide insights into how children construct their understanding of the world in the ordinary, everyday moments of their lives.

These and other anecdotes reveal children more as they are and very likely as more competent and resourceful than we usually view them. Both are relevant in planning for children in museums, zoos, nature centers–and schools. First-hand information about children deepens an understanding of this part of a museum’s audience. An appreciation of young children as competent thinkers and active learners is invaluable in exhibit development and design, writing parent labels, planning programs, and training staff to engage and interact with children. Anecdotes like these go well beyond generic developmental profiles. They bring reality, fullness, and visibility to what a child formulating questions, testing a hunch, or discovering a new meaning might actually look like.

In My Dreamscometrue
We expect that children will become readers. But questions like the following put a spotlight on moments in that process when a child is constructing an understanding of how sounds, letters, and words work together.
“Mom, how do you spell ‘W’?”

Children’s growing awareness of letters and words comes through in this question asked, not surprisingly, by 4 year old. A question like this reflects a growing awareness that letters are associated with sounds and that letters and sounds make up words. The distinction between a letter, a sound, and a word, however, may not yet be clear or stay fixed. Eager, fueled by curiosity, and cued to questions about what letter a word starts with, children look for and link clues about words and sounds asking, as a 5 year old boy did, “What does “B” start with?” 

Babies, it seems hear spoken words as a continuous flow of sounds. Gradually, a child recognizes familiar sounds within the stream; these become words a child knows and uses.  But young children also continue to use several words as if they were a single word. Three words continue to be one word for a 6-year old girl who promises her sister, “And I’ll keep you in my dreamscometrue.”

These questions and words are reminders of how very complex learning sounds, letters, words, and phrases is. Adults could treat them as mistakes and correct them. On the other hand, these questions and children’s speech are evidence of how they construct an understanding of language, how they listen carefully, notice patterns, and apply rules to become competent speakers, readers, and writers.

Thinking About Objects
Ordinary moments fill a child’s day, holding countless opportunities to notice, wonder about, and explore basic relationships that operate in their world. We may think little of it when a baby repeatedly drops a spoon from the highchair; a toddler pushes a car up a track; or a group of children shape dinosaur worlds in the sand. Yet, from the falling spoon, spinning wheels, and miniature worlds in shifting sand, children develop hunches and explanations about materials and their properties and how different conditions affect them. They make observations, link them together, test and retest assumptions. With experience, they develop, revise, and organize ideas about movement, causality, perspective, and changing conditions. 

In a motel lobby, a 5-year old girl pointed to a red line on a highway map. She turned to her younger brother and said, “That’s a road. Roads make cars park.” This explanation draws on an observation the girl and many others make: cars park on streets. The unusually ascribed causality that streets make cars park might come from evidence that cars park virtually exclusively on streets; or perhaps painted parking lines seem powerful; or perhaps the agency of drivers parking cars is less apparent.

We know four-and-five year olds have a strong interest and great delight in categorizing and organizing objects and events; but what does it look like? Five-year old Jake laid out a kind of timeline of world history to his mother when he announced, “Dinosaurs. Baby Jesus. The Knights. Me.” In his short history of time, Jake has correctly sequenced some major figures in his world. He has noted the dinosaurs and knights that fascinate him, Baby Jesus who is culturally significant for him, and, of course, himself.

Even at a young age, children are revisiting observations about their earlier experiences and activities. Seven-year old Andy’s changed perspective on his 5-year old world came through when he said to his playmate, “Barry, do you remember when we thought our block was the whole world?” The difference between how big the block seemed then and really was (at least in this 7-year old’s view) suggests how actively children revisit, revise, and, in fact, notice changes in their thinking.
Building theories about when the fan will blow off the hat



Children are constantly and intently paying attention as they learn language, navigate how to relate to others, and make meaning of their everyday experiences. We might also listen as intently to them. 

Music Hat or Dancing Hat?
Interpreting what a child might be thinking is, admittedly, speculative. We don’t know for sure whether Jake’s timeline of world history is just that. But a record of what he or another child said, the context in which he said it, and his approximate age, invite conjecture and a healthy regard for alternative interpretations about what he was thinking or his meaning at that moment. These anecdotes also support respect for children’s competence.

Glimpses into children’s thinking fascinate me, but I’m also interested in listening for insights into how, for instance, they see themselves, the competencies they are proud of, what interests them, and the possibilities they see in materials and objects.

“Why do you have a dancing hat on?” " It’s a music hat.”
I was in the Providence airport this summer when many families were coming home from beach vacations. Several parents compared vacation notes while their four-year-old daughters gradually struck up a conversation. One girl was wearing a derby-style hat decorated with animated musical notes. The other girl asked, “Why do you have a dancing hat on?” Her new friend answered, “It’s not a dancing hat. It’s a music hat.”

That apparently important distinction intrigued me. I wanted to hear more and couldn’t help but wonder, what are they thinking?



Monday, September 12, 2011

Collective Impact



How recently have you discussed the impact your museum has–or would like to have–as part of a project meeting, at a board retreat, with an organizational partner, or with a funder? Very likely you’ve been involved in several. Perhaps you have been asked for examples of museums doing this well, have checked out a dashboard; looked up a conference session; or have googled museum impact or public value. 

Museums want to matter. With a need to be both nice and necessary they struggle to find ways to have an impact that makes a recognized difference on visitors, learners, and the community. They want to find a way to move the needle on a community priority like closing the readiness gap, bring back play, or reducing obesity.

With questions of impact lurking everywhere, I felt I had received a tremendous gift when I read Collective Impact from the Stanford Social Innovation Review (Winter 2011) by John Kania and Mark Kramer. The authors explore a concept of collective impact with supporting case studies capable of effecting large-scale social change. 

Collective impact, they say is, “the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem.” Collective impact, I am finding, is a powerful lens for focusing on, distinguishing among, and strengthening museum initiatives to create positive change. 

Organizing for Impact
The article makes a major, valuable, and suddenly obvious point.

Complex social problems are a function of a wide range of interacting factors at play over an extended time. They must be addressed by a broad-based, sustained response of comparable complexity and magnitude.

Efforts at educational reform, watershed restoration, or improving community health resist isolated, independent initiatives of a single organization or a few partners, regardless of how innovative the intervention might be.

In greater Cincinnati and northern Kentucky, a group of local leaders from every community sector has been working together over the last four years with a shared agenda to improve student achievement. Improving one point on the education continuum, these leaders knew, would make little difference if all parts were not improved. Furthermore, no single organization would have the power or resources to accomplish this alone. More than 300 leaders and their organizations have organized themselves into StrivePartnership a non-profit subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks that coordinates improvement at every step of a young person’s life, from cradle-to-career.

This is no small effort. Strive Partnership represents more than 300 organizations in a broad, cross-sector effort among universities and community colleges, private and corporate foundations, school districts, city government departments, and hundreds of education-based and advocacy organizations. 

Alignment is high across the collaborative. All participants commit to a shared vision for change, including a common understanding of the problem. The entire educational community focuses on a single set of five goals and eight priority outcomes for all its programs. All organizations use shared measures across all programs and all levels.

The Strive Partnership builds on what these organizations already do well that the solution needs. Rather than creating new educational programs, participating groups focus on specific activities where they have current capabilities. Multiple partners with mutually supportive programs form around specific strategies. They develop shared performance indicators, follow progress towards shared objectives, and find new ways to align efforts and support each other.

Strive, a separate organization that supports the initiative, plays a central role in strengthening relationships among partners and in aligning and coordinating their efforts. The role it plays in gathering and reporting data across all participating organizations is critical to maintaining alignment and holding partners accountable. A deliberately data driven initiative, Strive promotes collaborative continuous improvement that advances overall learning to find and implement interdependent solutions that work for children.

Results of this comprehensive, systemic effort are beginning to show and are promising. Strive’s 2010 Report Card shows positive gains on 40 of 53 success indicators. Significant interest in Strive, its approach and successes is coming from other communities. Strive has begun to consolidate its learnings and processes and work with nine communities across the country in a community of learners.

The article also highlights the role funders have in understanding and supporting collective impact. Funders too must shift from assuming that innovative initiatives by a single organization can have an impact on major social problems.

Five Elements for Success
The article describes the Strive Partnership and also identifies five elements of success that encourage alignment and lead to powerful results. These five elements strongly reinforce one another; they build the kind of alignment, discipline, and persistence required for large-scale social change.
            Common agenda. All participants share a vision for change. A major commitment from every partner, a common agenda requires shared understanding and ownership of the problem and the solution.
            Shared measurement systems. Agreement on what to measure maintains a common focus on change and holds all partners accountable; common systems for measuring results use the same criteria and inform decisions.
            Mutually reinforcing activities. Stakeholders’ differentiated activities interlock and coordinate with one another in an overarching plan consistent with a common agenda.
            Continuous communication. Developing familiarity among partners, building trust that all interests will receive fair consideration, and coordinating activities takes time, frequent contact, and multiple forms of communication.
            Backbone support organization. Dedicated staff, time, skills, and tools are critical to creating and managing collective impact: coordination, facilitating decision-making, data collection and reporting, and strengthening relationships among stakeholders.

Many museums use some of these five elements and to some extent in their large-scale community initiatives that are intended to produce recognizable and lasting results related to a community priority. Few museums, however, use all of these elements to a significant degree. I see these five elements as helpful in distinguishing well-intentioned efforts of museums from initiatives with significant potential; they also provide helpful guidance for moving a collaborative effort to collective impact.

Museums Engaging in Collective Impact
From my museum planning work, I am familiar with several large-scale museum projects that put some of these elements of collective impact to work. Each project is learning as it goes, reaching across sectors for partners, evolving practices, and strengthening their focus.

  Louisiana Children’s Museum’s (LCM) has embraced the opportunity to help rebuild New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina by bringing the community together around positive futures for young children. Working with a core group of organizations that share a commitment to children’s healthy social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development, LCM has been planning the Early Learning Village (ELV), a campus of three facilities in New Orleans’ City Park. Long-term, strategic collaborators, the ELV Partners bring critical expertise in infant-toddler mental health, nature education, literacy, parenting, research, as well as play-based learning experiences to offer a range of indoor and outdoor programs and services and free and low-cost resources that will serve parents, caregivers, educators and researchers from across Greater New Orleans.

   In Birmingham (AL) McWane Science Center has formed a broad cross-sector group to change the health and wellness outcomes for children 7 - 13 years old. Its Healthy Change in Your Community Challenge provides a common agenda for McWane and its partners which include a university, foundation, county health department, and community-based youth organizations. Children involved in the Healthy Change initiative work with project partners who bring a wide range of complementary skills and expertise in nutrition, physical exercise, and experience development. Children are challenged to plan and implement the best community wellness projects that could inspire change in their neighborhoods.

  Stepping Stones Museum for Children and The Maritime Aquarium of Norwalk (CT) are two of more than 40 organizations that make up Norwalk ACTS. Over the last six years, Norwalk ACTS has been evolving a structure, processes, and practices consistent with collective impact targeted to actively and directly improve the lives and futures of Norwalk youth. Partners have committed to a shared vision, three strategic outcomes, and indicators related to closing the achievement gap. Workgroups have formed and are active around five cradle-to-career focus areas. Norwalk ACTS hosts several major projects including an Out of School Time Network and a Choice Neighborhoods Initiative. A new Early Learning and  Literacy Initiative is targeted to impact readiness for kindergarten. Presently the backbone organization identified in Collective Impact is contributed by member organizations’ volunteer efforts.



 Sally Grose, a member of the Norwalk ACTS strategic planning team, an advocate for children in Norwalk, and a wonderful friend to Stepping Stones found and shared the Collective Impact article as a part of her research on related best practices in other communities that could be helpful to Norwalk ACTS.

Looking Further
I know there are more collective impact museum projects. I would love to hear about them and I know others with an interest in museums and public value would. Below are  projects at a variety of scales and in various areas along with some related resources. 

• Harlem Children’s Zone that is doing whatever it takes to educate children and strengthen the community: www.hcz.org/
• Baby’s Space is putting the baby’s point of view at the center of child development programs – from start-up to sustainability: www.babyspace.org
• All Around the Neighborhood, a neighborhood learning community in St. Paul, MN: www.augsburg.edu/cdc/westsidelearning/
• Alignment Nashville aligns community organizations to positively impact the Nashville community by helping our public schools succeed and our youth live healthier lives: www.alignmentnashville.org
• Ready to Learn Providence, a program of the Providence Plan, is a broad-based community coalition with the vision that all children in Providence will enter school healthy and ready to learn: www.r2lp.org/matriarch/default.asp
• The Blue Zone project in Albert Lea, MN has set out to add 10,000 years of healthy life to a typical American city: www.aarp.org/health/longevity/info-09-2009/albert_lea_healthiest_hometown.html
• Search Institutes has Five Action Strategies for Transforming Communities: www.search-institute.org/content/five-action-strategies-transforming-communities

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Audience, An Area of Enduring Focus

Several years ago on a strategic planning project, my planning partner Andrea Fox Jensen referred to a museum’s audience as an area enduring focus. Someone on the strategic planning team had commented that the museum had already been through discussions about their audience and what it should be.

The group seemed reassured by Andrea’s characterizing audience in this way: important, in fact so important, consideration of it is never complete. In any case, they engaged wholeheartedly in lively and productive discussions about age ranges, audience groups, and geographic radius. Later when the planning team brought the board into the discussion, members conveyed the value of revisiting this important question without a “been there, done that” subtext.

Andrea’s observation was so smart and helpful. Every project I work on–a strategic plan, learning framework, exhibit master plan, or something in between–involves a key discussion about audience. I don’t mean a back-up-and-start-from-scratch audience conversation. Typically these are fruitful discussions that review, check, or affirm the current audience. They relate the audience to the current project and get everyone on the same page. Sometimes they help bring new staff or board members along. These discussions are also opportunities to share new information or a chance insight about the audience like the arrival of universal pre-kindergarten in a community, declining school group visits, or an increase in moms’ groups.

These and countless other discussions about audiences, museums, and public value have surfaced features that distinguish audience and other possible areas of enduring focus. Moreover, they have underscored the critical role of audience in a museum acting deliberately on its aspirations.

Of Persistent Interest
Enduring assumes a long-term, continuing interest. Nothing could be more central to a museum’s aspirations and reason for being than its audience. Who a museum intends to serve is as fundamental at start-up as it is during periods of growth and change, as it is at each step of fulfilling a promise to the community.

A sound and shared understanding of a museum’s audience is essential. Museums go about this in many ways and on an on-going basis: identifying primary, secondary, and emerging audiences; surveying visitors; analyzing attendance data; and sometimes conducting audience research. Museums then apply an understanding of the audience to shaping and presenting collections, engaging experiences, and educational services in order to open up possibilities of learning to its visitors. 

Sometimes, however, it seems that the persistent focus of audience switches to attendance as Paul Orselli explored recently in ExhibiTricks. A focus on attendance can, in fact, distract from the centrality of audience to a museum’s value. If, for instance, the challenge of audience was simply about more visitors, a museum could just send out a bus, pick up visitors, and hand out free passes.

A Significant Difference
An area of enduring focus must be capable of making a major contribution to a museum’s public service. Audience is pivotal, from community-wide awareness of a museum to making a difference in the learning lives of children, building social cohesion across neighborhoods, or increasing science literacy among citizens.

In this respect, the challenge is less about bringing more visitors to the museum than about bringing the right visitors to the museum. To be certain it serves all parts of its audience well and serves priority audience groups fully, a museum must be knowledgeable about, alert to, proactive, and respectful towards its audience. Stories spread about museums discovering there are consequences to being vague about or indifferent to their audience.

Using a current and well-informed understanding of its audience, a museum needs to effectively reach and actively engage families, school, and community groups, children and adults, both current and potential visitors. The informal learning experiences it offers must address age-related development; be relevant to visitor interests, expectations and everyday lives; and align with its own aspirations.   

A Sharpening Perspective
Perspectives on critical, complex, and constant areas are never static. They evolve, advance, and become nuanced. Museums as well as their audiences exist in dynamic external contexts. Successes and failures produce new insights that affect understanding and reaching audiences; new practices help refine and advance audience knowledge.

In only a few decades, museums have shifted from being about something, to being for the general public, to serving specific audience segments, to being concerned with who is not coming to the museum. Learning from and about actual and intended visitors shifts perspectives, reveals interests and expectations of visitors, and produces new insights about what is attractive to them.

A body of audience knowledge builds from multiple sources: surveys, focus groups, and visitor panels, census data, and information generated by other groups. New practices and insights come from the work of other museums, from research conducted in the field on behalf of museums, and from audience development work supported by, for instance, the Wallace Foundation. Continuous scanning of emerging community and audience trends, sharing and interpreting observations, and following the implications of new information sharpen perspectives.

Supporting Practices
An intense commitment to audience in a pocket of the museum is inadequate in serving audiences well and catalyzing the mission. A museum must operate with a shared understanding of priority audiences, an organization-wide value on relationships that serve the audience well, and a strong belief that improving service to the audience will make a difference.

Robust audience-centered systems and procedures, integrated with practices, supported by resources, and reaching across the organization are necessary to grow audience knowledge, facilitate its transfer, and apply it effectively to experiences. Supportive practices must permeate developing and designing exhibitions; involving audience groups in planning programs and exhibitions; training staff for interaction; calibrating the variety of offerings and pace of change; and evaluating programs and exhibitions and their impact on the audience.

This is a museum’s everyday version of enduring focus. It circulates and re-circulates, interprets and re-interprets audience information and visitor studies. Staff look for evidence for-and-against goals and hunches. Teams address audience interests and engagement strategies at the forefront of every project and initiative. They prototype and revise experience goals, activities, messages, and designs. They evaluate the impact of experiences on the audience. And they begin again, playing it forward.

Intensifying Attention to Audience
In my work, I have found that identifying audience as an area of enduring focus is useful in intensifying attention on this critical piece of a museum’s potential to make a difference. It effectively signals to staff and board that the people and communities they hope to serve are the highest priority, at the center, and at every step.

What are your thoughts?
  • In what way does identifying audience as an area of enduring focus help your thinking and work?
  • Would you suggest other areas of enduring focus? What about:
    • Product, or a museum’s exhibitions, programs, learning experiences and environments, through which it serves and engages its audiences and accomplishes its purpose?
    • Resources, financial, human, intellectual, and real property, that are the necessary means to make this possible?
    • Impact, or areas of significant change in the public service a museum provides that are congruent with its purpose and to which it will be held accountable?