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How can you measure the social impact of museums and celebrate the successes of programs and initiatives?

It can be a daunting task for a museum to figure out what information it should be measuring to figure out its social impact. It’s even a trickier proposition to figure out how to measure that data. MuseumNext had the opportunity to talk to three museum leaders who have made social impact a priority for their missions. We talked with two people from US based museums: Jennifer Farrington, President and CEO of the Chicago Children’s Museum; and Mike Murawski, Director of Learning and Community Partnerships of the Portland Art Museum. We also talked with Hilary Jennings, Director of the Happy Museum Project in the UK, that aims to provide a “leadership framework for museums to develop a holistic approach to wellbeing and sustainability.”

Why should institutions measure their social impact? Measuring social impact means that museums can continually check their progress towards their goal and make improvements to their work. Farrington of the Children’s Museum explains that they consider measuring social impact as important because “You really have a responsibly to define who do you serve, how are you going to serve them, what resources are you willing to dedicate, and then to measure that work so you can put into place a process of continual improvement.” Jennings of the Happy Museum Project aptly points out the sage words of Sir Gus O’Donnell, former civil servant in the UK: “If you treasure it, measure it.”

But how does a museum define social impact for their institution? That can be a very involved process. In an 2017 article by Kelly McKinley, Deputy Director of the Oakland Museum of California, she explains that an institution needs to ask the hard question: “What difference are you making in this world?” For McKinley, social impact is about the specific context of the institution: social impact is “not what we do or why we do it, but the effect of what we do. And because we’re grounded in a particular community, we’re defining social impact as local change to people in our surrounding community.” Farrington points out that just because you are nonprofit, you are not neutral; your institution should have or figure out what it is trying to do.

The Happy Museum Project offers a variety of evaluative tools that can help institutions start to ask those deep questions. Jennings recommends the tool “Story of Change” that “is a workshop approach to planning and reviewing the difference your group wants to make and how.” Jennings explains that the Story of Change takes the idea of social impact and helps institutions to work backwards. She explains that the process helps challenge business as usual and “allows for unexpected and unanticipated outcomes.”

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History has developed the OF/BY/FOR ALL initiative about making “people empowered to share their talents to strengthen their communities.” Murawski at Portland Art Museum explains that the basic idea is “mak[ing] decisions with community, rather than for the community.” OF/BY/FOR ALL has a variety of free resources and tools for institutions who want to make this change.

While an institution needs to define what social impact means for their museum, it’s important to bring in the voices of its many stakeholders. Jennings recommends including the broadest spectrum of people in the project including volunteers, staff, curators, visitors, community members so you can “get the full breadth at the start.” Jennings recommends against a simple top-down approach to the definition. Involving many partners will take more time, make the process more complex but it will move the museum from just offering ideas to one that is co-producing with the stakeholders.

Murawski of the Portland Art Museum advises at this stage to involve the local community in this process and ask them. He says that an institution should “make sure it isn’t institutional centered, it’s more community centered. If you want to make impact in local community, you got to involve those people, and ask them.” Just relying on staff or visitors leaves people out of the conversation, especially those who are not engaged with your institution. He advises that you may have to be willing to hear hard things about your institution. Then act on them.

So once the institution has decided on the social impact it wants to achieve, it has to decide on how to measure the impact of its programs. There are many different ways of evaluating an institution including surveys, focus groups, observations, and much more. Traditionally institutions have relied on visitor statistics or other quantitative data points, but Jennings explains that visitor numbers do not help an institution understand the experience of their visitors, much less the people who don’t come to the museum. The Happy Museum has extensive tools that can help institutions measure different kinds of programs, from Happy Tracker, which measures wellbeing before and after a workshop, or an Observational Evaluation that is “an on-gallery approach to predefined indicators of outcomes.” These tools can be used to overhaul the entire museum or it can be used for a specific program, gallery, exhibition, etc.

Chicago Children’s Museum

Ultimately, the measurement will be case by case depending on the desired social impact. Farrington advises that the measures are going to specific to the program or initiative; one size does not fit all. Some measurements are broader, such as people attending an event or workshop, which will give limited data, while others like focus groups will be more involved and may include fewer people. Chicago Children’s Museum uses questionnaires, surveys, focus groups and much more. They compare their visitor statistics with the city’s demographic data to see if visitors reflect the diverse makeup of the city itself.

For Murawski, he places the greatest importance on just listening to stakeholders in the community. Portland Art Museum is currently doing an evaluation with the Native Nations Institute so the museum can transform its way of working with native artists and indigenous communities. They dedicated a space within the museum where they handed over authority and are co-creating exhibitions with local indigenous artists. They are waiting on the final evaluation, based mostly on conversations with people from the indigenous community. The museum wants to understand “how the local Native population sees themselves in relationship to the museum and how can we them make feel like it is their museum and not a museum that isn’t connected with their issues and lives.”

Jennings also points out that institutions should think about the evaluation of a project/initiative at the beginning, rather than the end of the project. Doing this at the beginning will help the museum figure out to track the program and create the right technique for collecting data. Some projects will require a light touch of data collection, such as asking visitors to put a piece of tape on a board to measure their feelings or something more in-depth like a focus group, a gallery observation, or a survey.

It’s important that an institution is selective about what it choose to measure. Evaluations, data tracking, and analysis take time, effort, and monetary resources so it’s critical to be selective. Farrington advised that you can’t count everything, it’s just not efficient or realistic.

Moreover, institutions should consider investing in the right technology and tools so they can keep track of the information collected. Institutions should think about what data is collected, how is it combined for analysis, and where it is stored. Having a single place for data collection will allow institutions to keep track of the data, compare prior data sets, and do an analysis. Data collected may not need to universally be shared within the institution for a variety of reasons (data privacy, security, etc.) but an institution should think about where it is going to be held.

Chicago Children's Museum measure social impact

Chicago Children’s Museum

Institutions should use the data to make changes to their programming. If your institution has invested the time and effort to create social impact goals, developed the right measures and continually measured, then the data should help an institution figure out if they are going in the right direction for their goals.

For instance, the Chicago Children’s Museum has a deeply discounted admissions program but they noticed that mothers were the ones using the program. They did a focus group with fathers to find out why they weren’t coming to the museum. They learned about how fathers of color felt about the institution, and the representation within the staff. The museum has worked to make staff reflect broader diversity as well as create special father-focused programs like “Papapalooza” to celebrate dads as well as provide a meet up with other dads.

Most critically, an institution needs to keep honing their social impact goals as well as refining their data collection. Museums will learn how to fine tune their social impact mission as well as improve their data collection as they begin the road of measuring social impact. They will acquire new technologies, new ideas to evaluate programs, as well as developing better programming with the community. It’s a process of continually improvement.

Some institutions have created departments to help improve their community relationships to this end. Chicago Children’s Museum has the Community and Educational Partnerships department to “make meaningful partnership across the city.” But Farrington points out that while the department is there to facilitate communication with partners, it is the role of the entire museum “to remove those barriers.”

At the Portland Art Museum, they launched a new program this week with the Pomegranate Center with a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Museum staff and community partners “will receive intensive training and mentorship on community facilitation methods that empower people to come together, become change makers, and achieve constructive outcomes.”

Portland Art Museum

Institutions can also reach out to peer institutions to get an idea of what ideas are available in creating measurements. Oakland reached out to professional organizations such as Americans for the Arts and U.K. Museums Association while the Chicago Children’s Museum works with peer institutions, nationally and internationally, to continually improve their programs and learn new strategies to remove barriers.

Institutions should also remember that these measures can and should be celebrated. Jennings advises that these evaluation also “helps celebrate what you are doing, and tell the story of what you are doing.” There’s room for celebrating the successes of programs and initiatives.

For institutions who might find all of this overwhelming, take it step by step. Murawski provides this handy piece of advice: “transformative change comes from a lot of little changes.” Have those important conversations, try to evaluate your programs bit by bit, and you’ll find small changes will add up to something greater. Farrington also advises: keep doing the work. Do it every day and don’t stop.

Ultimately, measuring social impact is an involved process with constant evaluation, continuous conversations within the museum and with external stakeholders. Institutions need to define social impact they want to do, figure out what they want to measure, and keep continually improving their programming and processes to measure it. Murawski explains that it can be messy and at times an institution will be forced to face some hard truths, but the process is worth it to make an institution more responsive and relevant to the people around it. After all, as he explains it, the work is to make museums with communities, not just for them.

About the author – Elisa Shoenberger

Elisa Shoenberger is an academic out of academia. She is a writer, historian, oral historian, musician, performer, and general troublemaker. She writes about the arts and travel for a number of publications in both the United States and Europe.

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