Why Do We Do It?

During the last hour of the art museum Interpretation pre-meeting we talked about near horizon future trends for the field. The wall was full of ideas, everything from taking a page from hospitals in thinking about wayfinding to the internet of things. Of the long list of ideas generated by the group, two have stuck with me. The first is one that we’ve been thinking about a lot in recent months:

DTpremeeting

Design thinking, prototyping, experimentation, and user experience. The team is currently working on developing personas for the first set of projects and experiments. Prototyping to come!

The second note that showed up on the wall that really stuck with me was this:

purposepremeeting

Why do we do it? It’s a great question. I love what I do and I believe that what museums do is important, and those two things are the foundation of why I do it. At AAM there were thousands of people engaged in the work of museums, who love what they do and believe it’s important, and I’m sure that those two things are at the heart of why they do what they do.

I believe that what I do is important, but can I prove it?

I’ve been thinking about this for a long time– to the point where in 2010 I went back to graduate school to get some evaluation and stats skills to support searching for the answer. In our department we’re at a moment where we are starting to think about how to implement some strategies for investigating how effective some of the things we’re doing really are, so it was at the front of my mind when this post it went up on the wall at the pre-meeting. It also happens that today Rob Stein posted an essay on Code Words that keys right into this issue (particularly for art museums). It’s a must read.

There are lots of things in his essay that really, really hit the mark. The economics-as-justification-for-arts-funding model has long been of deep concern, for all of the reasons he cites and more. Not least of the issues here is the inherent problem with trying to win someone else’s game. (For the same reason I am also cautious about academic transfer and museums). Yes, the culture sector can have a tremendous, positive economic impact. But that isn’t why we exist.

One of the reasons we exist is because we make life beautiful. We make human hearts sing. We can prompt people to think, deeply, creatively, and complexly, and that kind of thinking is exciting work. Art and culture are the color and texture of life.

This has value. But it is also hard to articulate the impact. The origins of museums lie in the wunderkammer, a Chamber of Wonders. How do you measure wonder? It does not easily translate into quantitative measures. But this doesn’t let us off the hook when it comes to trying to figure out how to do it, quantitatively, qualitatively, creatively, however we can get there.