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Museums and measuring performance, part I

Last week, Trilce Navarrete and I attended a debate at the Reinwardt Academy of cultural heritage in Amsterdam on performance indicators and changing roles of museums in the present “information society.” The debate was part of a monthly series called Erfgoedarena (Heritage Arena), co-organised by the Reinwardt Academy and the Netherlands Institute for Heritage (NIH). In this first part of the post, I’ll provide a brief overview of the debate. In part II, I’ll link the debate to two books on the politics of policy making, and will raise some points for discussion.

The NIH asked freelance consultant Natasja Wehman last year to explore the particular shapes the changing roles of museums might take.  Her report can be found here (in Dutch). Wehman signalled 4 possible scenarios, or roles:

1. the museum as networker: the institute is up-to-speed about things happening around the museum, functions as a conduit, facilitates existing (knowledge) networks. This can take different shapes, depending on the museum

2. the museum as a laboratory: also comes in different guises, f.i. as a space for contemporary (new media) artists to experiment, or art-science lab, or cooperation with creative industry

3. the validator: museum as knowledge and information expert, but with a 21st century twist: the museum as cultural producer instead of reproducer

4. the innovator: combination of the three scenarios above. According to Wehman, this is the ideal museum of the future. ‘Possession’, either the possession of a collection and/or of knowledge, she argues,  is now usually put first. But museums are losing their monopoly on these ‘possessions’. They need to innovate, or transform. The representatives she interviewed mentioned a number of relevant preconditions for that transformation: a. work together, b. create opportunities for research & development, c. create time, d. be aware of relevance for society at large. Wehman adds that museums need to create new ways to engage with audiences, and need to realize that the meaning and relevance of a museum is not static but in flux.  (post continues in part two)

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Museums and measuring performance, part II

This brings us back to  last week’s debate. There were 3 discussants: Gitta Luiten, director of the Mondriaan Foundation (supports projects in the visual arts, design, and cultural heritage); Arnoud Odding, head of the National Glass Museum; and Marc Jacobs, senior advisor Culture and Cultural History for one of the Dutch provinces. Their job was to set the stage for a discussion with the audience, consisting of representatives of heritage institutes, researchers, Reinwardt Academy students and a strikingly small number of new media people. While all discussants agreed that museums needed to innovate, and traditional performance indicators did not suffice, they differed in their analysis of the situation, and in the kinds of alternatives they brought forth. Luiten and a small number of other people in the audience stressed that museums could be more flexible in the way they account for past performance – they tend to come up with numbers (of visitors, acquisitions, etc.) themselves, while for instance the Mondriaan Foundation would be open to other formats. If it fits a particular project, Luiten argued, why not send in a video instead? Marc Jacobs took a pragmatic position. He argued that museums would do well to think very thoroughly about their audiences, and just simply focus on what delivers. This is where he diverged from Arnoud Odding’s position. Oddding was invited because his museum is successful in engaging new audiences, in experimenting, and in making smart use of new media. Odding’s position was clear: Don’t go looking out for a particular audience, don’t focus on numbers, just focus on what you as a museum think is exciting and stimulating. In a network society, museums can benefit greatly from the many communities of interested people already out there. Maybe that means that your number of visitors to the museum declines, but that’s too narrow a focus anyway, he argued. He himself experienced that, indirectly, smart new media use created new and unexpected partnerships with craftsmen and companies. This is perhaps hard to capture in numbers, but certainly no less relevant.

The debate afterward again highlighted that while museums realize the need for change, they also feel that innovation conflicts with the way their performance is now usually measured by for instance governmental grant providers, etc. These parties, they argue, keep asking for traditional performance indicators like amount of visitors, number of times mentioned in the press, number of exhibitions or publications, or number of website visitors.

While it is interesting to bring to mind what Gitta Luiten said about the Mondriaan Foundation being open to, even challenging institutions to come up with, alternative indicators of past performance, the centrality of the relationship between performance and numbers was striking. Coming from the field of science studies (where researchers analyze ‘science in action’, to borrow a phrase from Latour), it struck me how much the debate resonated with similar discussions in the sciences. There, too, quantification is the ‘preferred’ way to measure performance or ‘output’. I think it is worth translating  some of the work done in sciences studies to the current debate in the cultural heritage field. The work of historian of science Ted Porter was the first that came to my mind. In his book Trust in Numbers, Porter argued that using numbers to judge and measure quality is a way to manage trust between parties that are at a distance. Numbers travel over larger distances (not only geographically, but also more ‘psychologically’) and are today seen as more ‘objective’ than other ways to build trust, based on more informal rules and agreements.

A related issue: administrators themselves usually have to justify their own work and their decisions in impersonal terms. When decisions about distribution of funding etc. are made, they try to avoid arbitrariness by using instrumental, standardized tools. In Policy Paradox, Deborah Stone tackles this rationalist approach by laying bare the complexity of policy making. She shows that policy making is a “constant struggle over the criteria for classification, the boundaries of categories, and the definition of ideals that guide the way people behave” (Stone, p. 11).  Stone contends that there are multiple ways to define a problem, present relevant issues, creating relevant categories, leaving things out. This is not, and can never be, a neutral process. Policy making is done by parties with a vested interest in presenting the problem in a certain light.

When I translate the above to the topic of the debate on performance indicators and changing roles of museums, I think that further interaction between institutions and funding agencies would benefit from explicitating the following points:

  • What particular policy is supported by this portrayal of information via numbers?
  • Which categories are constructed behind the numbers, and what are the consequences? A simple and seemingly innocent example: counting the annual number of visitors implies that you define what you consider as a ‘visitor’ first. These decisions are not neutral, and shape all kinds of work processes in and outside of museums (hiring staff or technologies to register these numbers, defining what a visit is, how that changes when a museum ‘goes virtual’ etc).
  • What shape do the trade-offs take between the goals of different parties?
  • If this is clear, what would be workable alternatives to deal with the inherent ambiguity in these particular decision making processes?

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