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Standards, Goals, and Self-Assessment

Wednesday, December 4, 2013   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Karen Stark
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If your standards are low enough, anything is a success: Some thoughts on standards, goals, and self-assessment before and after attending related sessions at the 2013 WMA/UMA Conference

In my previous life, I was a Social Worker. I spent my days visiting people with chaotic lives in homes that were also chaotic, and often unkempt and unsafe. Often I would come home at night to my modest older home which felt somewhat like a palace. Occasionally after visiting more affluent friends in their elegant homes, or even more so after attending the Parade of Homes, I would come home to what seemed like a real dump. It’s all about perspective.

There are some problems with such comparisons. Too much from the Parade of Homes could lead to financially unwise decisions to try to have what they have that I really don’t need. Or it could lead to envy, frustration and resentment at what seemed out of my reach. I could be very content with my humble home by only comparing with “ghetto homes,” but that contentment could lead to complacency and neglect of maintenance, improvement, or hey, even cleaning, because anything would still be better than some of those.

There is a rather wide continuum of museums, from large museums with all kinds of technology and expensive showy exhibitions, to moderate size museums doing good things with limited resources, to very small history-museums-in-a-log-cabin struggling with few volunteers and scanty donations. How we gauge the success of our museum may depend on which end of this spectrum we make comparisons with.

It is essential to have some awareness of both ends of the spectrum, seeing both the deficiencies of museums on the minimal end, but more importantly, understanding “best practices” and standards of excellence that all museums should be aiming for.

As I “practice Yoga” in a group setting, we are all cautioned to focus on ourselves and not compare with others. An instructor may model a pose, but the point is to show what we should be working toward. Honestly, some of our bodies could never do some of those things no matter how long or hard we tried. It doesn’t really matter if we look the same as long as we are positioned safely and correctly and focusing on what the pose should feel like. However, if we don’t know what the pose is supposed to look like, we might as well just be standing or sitting there. We are not benefiting and actually can risk injury by doing a pose improperly. The point of the “practice” is personal improvement over time. Similarly, all museums are not able to perform at the level of “best practice” in everything. But we all need to understand what that looks like as we begin to take steps toward improvement. And we need to understand the reasons behind “best practices” for they exist to protect our collections from damage and keep our museums functioning in a healthy manner.

A session at the 2013 WMA/UMA Conference titled “Help for History Museums” discussed various assessment programs. All of these assessment programs were presented as a series of steps. Improvement is a gradual process. We start where we are, set small incremental goals, re-assess periodically, and over time will be able to see progress.

 To start where you are, you need to know where you are

Setting any goals to make improvements must start with an honest assessment of where you are. There can be problems with self-assessment when our real intent is to justify to ourselves and others that we are really ok with the way things are.

I have had the opportunity to work with young people who set goals as part of a program to achieve a specific award. There is a tendency to try to fit projects they would enjoy into some goal category. Often this extends to things they have already done or are currently doing. I have heard things like “well, that kind of fits” and “this would count, wouldn’t it?” Museum performance goals can be approached in the same way if the desire is just to check off items on a list so we can receive a certificate.

The State recognizes Certified Utah Museums, who comply with a few basic requirements.  Some may see this as a stamp of approval. Actually, it just provides a very minimal museum definition, which is used for determining eligibility for grants. We have some museums that even have to stretch to fit those requirements, and none should assume that this is all that is necessary. We should look at this as a starting point.

An attitude of improvement

As I have read things written by 19th Century folk, I have seen frequent use of the term “improvement.” Those people worked hard to “improve” their farms, their homes, and their communities. They “improved” their minds through study and education. Some even sought to “improve their leisure.” I think this kind of attitude is rather lacking in today’s world, and when it is lacking in a museum, that museum will undoubtedly struggle. I have heard some of our small museum people indicate that their main goal is “to be able to keep the doors open.” If that is all they aspire to do, it will be a struggle. With an attitude of improvement and a willingness to work to make it better, remaining open becomes a non-issue.

Self-assessment cautions and help

Self-assessment can be a challenge if we don’t understand professional standards, terminology, and definitions. If we self-define or re-label things to fit what we are already doing, we are not being honest in our assessments. We need to understand what the professional museum community means by terms like Interpretation, Exhibitions, Preservation, Conservation, etc.

The MII website is a good place to begin to gain an understanding of what “Interpretation” involves. After reviewing the pre-MII interviews by Randi Korn, I realized many of us thought we were already doing “interpretation.” An observation after completion of the entire program however, was that it took about 3 times being exposed to the concept for most to really “get it.”

There is an excellent Museum Resources List on the MII website. Many of these resources can help us understand best practices. Connecting to Collections has resources for best practice in Collections Care and Management.

The term ‘Policy’ to some may mean a simple statement that our policy is this or that. Good museum policies for collections management & care, education, security, etc., include specific items or areas that need to be addressed and expectations for them. The AASLH website has sample Mission Statements, Policy & Procedures, and Job Descriptions (available to members only). The MII Website Museum Resources list  includes several with policy templates.

National standards - “Characteristics of Excellence” can be found on the American Alliance of Museums website.

It would be wise to include professionals from outside our museum in our assessments, to get an unbiased view of our museums as well as a sense of their expectations. If that is not possible, at least we can visit other museums, observe how they do things, and talk to their staff about how they have assessed their level of functioning in different areas.

Continuum of excellence programs

Making improvements is not easy. It often starts with the hard realization that we are not doing as well as we could be. It takes time and much thought to set ambitious and realistic goals. The Help for History Museums conference session presented the Continuum of Excellence showing a natural progression through several programs which outline a series of steps toward improvement in several defined areas of museum functioning. (Their handout was an edited version of the Continuum on the AAM website which included StEPS and CAP.

A. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) offers a starting point of taking a Pledge of Excellence. This involves simply an expression of desire and commitment to seek excellence and follow best practices, which would be followed up by involvement in a specific program.

B. Utah State Performance Goals  may be the best place for our small museums to begin, especially if they see  the national standards of the other programs as beyond their reach. The State Performance Goals are patterned after these national programs, but start at a more basic level, and then progress through 3 levels of performance in several categories. The worksheet has standards of Good - Better - Best in eight goal areas: structure, staff, finance, facilities, collections & conservation, exhibitions, education, and public relations. These goals are great stepping stones to progress for museums of all sizes and would prepare a small museum to progress toward one of these national programs.

C. The Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations (StEPS) administered by the American Association for State and Local History is an excellent program.  There is an initial cost for this program, but it is self-paced, so can be approached gradually over a period of time.

D. Museum Assessment Program (MAP) administered by the American Alliance of Museums and Institute of Museum and Library Services This is the highest level of standards and is a professionally guided program requiring a financial investment.

E. The Conservation Assessment Program (CAP) through Heritage Preservation provides annual consultive reports that can be used to plan for improved care of collections.

F. Core Documents Verification through the American Alliance of Museums can be applied for after documents and created and reviewed while working on the other programs.

G. Accreditation through the American Alliance of Museums is the crowning recognition and mark of distinction for museums demonstrating excellence in all areas.


Evaluation and reassessment

Selecting a few areas where progress could easily be made in a short time period is a good approach to begin to make improvements without becoming overwhelmed. Periodic re-assessment will help to see progress, adapt to changing circumstances, and set new goals. After a museum completes one of these programs, accomplishing the highest level in one or all areas, there is still need for periodic reviews. The pursuit of excellence is something that is never really completed. Even Accredited museums must be re-accredited every ten years. Changes in circumstances, staff, audience, technology, or other things may necessitate re-assessment and setting of new goals.

As we approach “performance standards” or any of these other programs, our attitude is ultimately more important than the size of our museums or our available resources. We can approach from either extreme: focus on minimal baseline standards and celebrate mediocrity; or set our sights on “best practices” and pursue the more challenging, though more satisfying road to real success, continuous improvement, and striving for excellence.


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