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

It can be daunting for a museum to determine what information it should measure to decide on 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 prioritized social impact for their missions. We spoke 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 U.K., which 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 museums can continually check their progress towards their goal and improve their work. Farrington of the Children’s Museum explains that they consider measuring social impact as necessary 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, a former civil servant in the U.K.: “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 a 2017 article by Kelly McKinley, Deputy Director of the Oakland Museum of California, she explains that an institution needs to ask the tricky 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 because you are a 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 asking those deep questions. Jennings recommends the tool “Story of Change,” which “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 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 to empower “people to share their talents to strengthen their communities.” Murawski at Portland Art Museum explains that the basic idea is “making [ing] decisions with the community, rather than for the community.” OF/BY/FOR ALL has a variety of free resources and tools for institutions that want to make this change.

While an institution needs to define what social impact means for its 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, and 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 and make the process more complex, but it will move the museum from just offering ideas to one that is co-producing with the stakeholders.

At this stage, Murawski of the Portland Art Museum advises to involve the local community and ask them. He says an institution should “make sure it isn’t institutionally centred, it’s more community centred. If you want to impact the local community, involve those people, and ask them.” Just relying on staff or visitors leaves people out of the conversation, especially those 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 determine how to measure its program’s impact. There are many different ways to evaluate an institution, including surveys, focus groups, observations, and more. Traditionally, institutions have relied on visitor statistics or other quantitative data points. Still, Jennings explains that visitor numbers do not help an institution understand their visitors’ experience, much less those who don’t visit the museum. The Happy Museum has extensive tools to help institutions measure different kinds of programs, from Happy Tracker, which measures wellbeing before and after a workshop, to an observational evaluation, “an on-gallery approach to predefined indicators of outcomes.” These tools can be used to overhaul the entire museum, or they 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 will be 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. In contrast, others, like focus groups, will be more involved and may include fewer people. Chicago Children’s Museum uses questionnaires, surveys, and focus groups. They compare their visitor statistics with the city’s demographic data to see if visitors reflect the city’s diverse makeup.

For Murawski, he places the most significant 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 co-created exhibitions with local indigenous artists. They are waiting on the final evaluation, based primarily on conversations with people from the indigenous community. The museum wants to understand “how the local Native population sees themselves about the museum and how can we make them 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 evaluating a project/initiative at the beginning rather than the end of the project. Doing this at the start will help the museum figure out how 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.
An institution must be selective about what it chooses 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 inefficient or unrealistic.

Moreover, institutions should consider investing in the right technology and tools to keep track of the information collected. Institutions should consider what data is collected, how it is 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 various reasons (data privacy, security, etc.). Still, an institution should consider where it will be held.

Chicago Children's Museum measure social impact

Chicago Children’s Museum

Institutions should use the data to change their programming. If your institution has invested the time and effort to create social impact goals, develop the right measures, and continually measure, then the data should help it determine whether it is moving in the right direction with its goals.

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

Most critically, an institution needs to keep honing its social impact goals and refining its data collection. As museums begin measuring social impact, they will learn how to fine-tune their social impact mission and improve their data collection. They will acquire new technologies and ideas to evaluate programs and develop better programming with the community. It’s a process of continual improvement.

Some institutions have created departments to help improve their community relationships. Chicago Children’s Museum has the Community and Educational Partnerships department to “make meaningful partnerships across the city.” But Farrington points out that while the department facilitates 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 with the Pomegranate Center this week 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 contact peer institutions to get an idea of what ideas are available for creating measurements. Oakland contacted professional organizations such as Americans for the Arts and the U.K. Museums Association. At the same time, 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 evaluations also “help 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 that 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 them to keep doing the work. Do it every day, and don’t stop.

Ultimately, measuring social impact involves constant evaluation and continuous conversations within the museum and with external stakeholders. Institutions need to define the social impact they want to make, figure out what they want to measure, and continually improve 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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