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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