This is an Eval Central archive copy, find the original at rka-learnwithus.com.
As we begin 2022, nearly two years since the pandemic began, what I’m most struck by is that the world I operate in is a fundamentally changed one. It’s fascinating and a bit disorienting that these changes happened so quickly, sped up by circumstance of the pandemic. Change is happening all the time, but more often than not, it happens so gradually and subtly that it goes undetected in real time. The accelerated changes in 2020 and 2021 allowed me to be a conscious witness and active participant in transformation. In particular, the world of museums and cultural organizations changed in five ways that make me optimistic about my work as a researcher and evaluator in 2022.
1. There is room for vulnerability in the workplace.
We let our guards down professionally during the pandemic which allowed us to connect with one another human to human. Zoom had a lot to do with this by the sheer fact that we got a sense of each other’s day-to-day surroundings and context at home. In two years, we went from types of communication that convey formality and reserve (like in conference rooms) to virtually getting a glimpse into people’s everyday lives (baskets of laundry, artwork on walls, cats on keyboards, etc.). It’s subtle, but I have felt an opening up, a breath of relief, to bring our full selves—flaws and all—to professional encounters. I don’t see that reversing even once we meet in person more often (except maybe less athletic wear).
2. There has been a broadening in who we include in research.
This change has been a long time coming. For many years now, research in museums and cultural organizations has tended to focus on current audiences rather than potential audiences. One reason was access—it is easier to collect data from an onsite audience than to recruit and collect data from people out in the world. But a more insidious reason is “navel gazing”— a tendency among museums to focus inward rather than acknowledge the complex, wider context in which they are situated. The tables turned during the pandemic; not only was access to in-person audiences impossible for several months, but the question “who are museums for?” was amplified as protests for social justice took hold. So, audience research went remote, and in doing so a whole world of possibilities opened. Even now, with museums open again, remote research that includes broader audiences is here to stay.
3. A reckoning in museums is leading to a dismantling of the status quo.
This change is enormous, and even with all the attention to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in 2019, still felt like something in the distant future. In 2020, with many museums pledging a commitment to Black Lives Matter, I wondered along with others, was it all lip service? Could museums walk the talk? The answer is, “yes, sometimes.” Some museums and cultural organizations are deliberately making choices that make space for a break down in the status quo. One of the strongest signs of this is the number of black leaders hired in museums and cultural organizations in 2021. Along with staffing changes, I have noticed other more subtle changes, having to do with vulnerability described in #1 above, in which cultural workers are bringing their full selves to meetings, raising difficult questions and challenging topics that disrupt an implicit protection of the status quo. I am hopeful for more real talk in the future.
4. The colonial roots of social science research and evaluation are being questioned.
My training is in anthropology, and perhaps more than any other social science, anthropology grew from and thrived during colonialism. Many anthropologists go on to be evaluators, taking their colonial origins with them. None of this is news, but what is news is a strong and vocal outcry by evaluators questioning our role in social change and the methods we use. I asked myself in the last 18 months, how have I protected the status quo in museums and cultural organizations through evaluation? Two years ago, this kind of questioning was done privately—more often than not we evaluators found a way to justify our work despite its role in perpetuating systemic injustices. During 2021, I have drawn inspiration from many posts on the American Evaluators Association daily blog, AEA365, that offer alternatives to traditional evaluation approaches, like this one about culturally specific research and indigenous liberation. I feel freedom to explore new, more inclusive and responsive research methodologies moving forward.
5. Audience research and community engagement have been blurred.
This change grows from #1-4 above, and I am still working out what it means for my practice. Prior to 2020, I thought of audience research and community engagement as separate, but related, endeavors. Audience research is the study by a researcher of an organization’s audiences (current or potential) to learn how to serve those audience best, and community engagement is the actions of an organization building relationships with its surrounding community. In my mind, audience research could inform community engagement, but I never saw them as the same thing. Yet, in the last year a couple things have happened. First, some museums have asked us specifically for community engagement services. This immediately raises a red flag for me— should we, third-party researchers, be the first outreach to a potential new audience? Is collecting data from someone really the best first step to engagement and relationship building? Secondly, as our research and evaluation has started to include more and more people who do not visit museums, I felt uncomfortable extracting data from them for the museums’ benefit alone. How do the research participants benefit other than a small honorarium that we provide? I no longer see audience research and community engagement as separate. I want audience research to include engagement by the museum as part of the process. I am still very much in the process of working out what this looks like.
Being a part of these radical transformations, I am not the same person professionally that I was in 2019. I am more energized, more focused, and grateful to be working in this field at this extraordinary time in history.
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