The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History at VSA 2018


As part of a generous 3-year award from the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ “Museums Empowered: Professional Development Opportunities for Museum Staff” funding program, four staff members from the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (hereafter “The Wright,” located in Detroit, Michigan) attended the July 2018 Visitor Studies Association annual conference in Chicago, Illinois. They were joined by their external evaluation “coach,” Kate Livingston  of ExposeYourMuseum LLC.

The Visitor Studies Association conference attendance is one piece of a larger spectrum of activities designed to support evaluation capacity building amongst staff at The Wright. The museum has teamed with ExposeYourMuseum LLC to create a customized, dynamic exploration of evaluation, aimed at reaching each staff in all departments and at all levels throughout the organization. ExposeYourMuseum LLC is positioned as the museum’s dedicated evaluation coach, defining the strategy, demonstrating key evaluation tenants and methods, training and motivating staff members, and transitioning project evaluation to the museum’s internal team. The project design provides multiple layers of professional development and skill building over the three-year project period, leading to sustainable capacity building for in-house evaluation beyond the grant period.

To date, a small group of Wright Museum staff (referred to internally as the “Visitor Advocate Team”) has led an online survey to assess current evaluation capacity, interest, and needs amongst Wright Museum employees, conducted field interviews with staff at a neighboring museum, designed and piloted a baseline visitor survey instrument, and wrote a successful conference proposal for the 2018 American Evaluation Association Conference. In addition, all Wright Museum staff were invited to participate in two evaluation workshops (one on logic modeling and the other on survey writing); both were highly attended.

The annual Visitor Studies Association conference was a unique opportunity for four members of the Wright Museum’s Visitor Advocate Team to attend a conference focused on evaluation– and museum evaluation, at that. Staff members who attended included Tracey Williams (Guest Services and SRO Manager), Charles Ferrell (Vice President of Public Programs), Jonathan Jones (Museum Educator and Outreach Coordinator), and Jessica Brown (Manager of Public Programs). They offered the following reflections:

This conference was a definite confirmation on the importance of attaching visitor outcomes to the institutional mission statement. Otherwise what are we doing this all for? We must further consider, “What is it that we really need to know?” Once we have the data, are we looking at the data the right way? Is the data telling us something else that we haven’t yet considered?

-Tracey Williams, Guest Services & SRO Manager

The joint conference of the Visitor Studies Association and Association of Midwest Museums in Chicago, entitled “Fostering Transparency, Strengthening Public Trust,” was deeply informative, enriching and affirming. The conference essentially focused on, “How do we remain relevant to our communities?” and, “What is our value to society?” The immediate takeaways were that the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is relevant to our local, national and global community because of our value as a “truth teller,” which is core to our mission and daily work.

-Charles Ferrell, Vice-President, Public Programs

When it comes to data analysis and interpretation of evaluation there are 5 key points: 1) Familiarization, 2) Developing a coding system, 3) Coding, 4) Charting, and 5) Mapping. When it comes to designing an evaluation for your institution, it is important to recognize the influencing factors: 1) Context, 2) Culture, 3) Demand for evaluation, and 4) Resources & Supports. When these factors are combined in a successful manner, the capacity indicators of visitor studies activity and capacity to do and use visitor studies flow in conjunction to maximize evaluation results and effectiveness.

-Jonathan Jones, Museum Educator/Outreach Coordinator

One subject that was discussed was, “How do exhibitions, programs, etc. relate to current societal issues?” Not all museums do this very well, yet at the Charles H. Wright Museum most of our programs, exhibitions, etc. are tied to greater societal issues due to the nature of our institution. A greater question might be, “How do we engage our constituents so it’s relevant to them?”

-Tracey Williams, Guest Services & SRO Manager

We [The Wright] have been fearless in addressing challenging topics in our exhibitions and programming. Also, the opportunity to connect with peers across the region will yield immense benefits and future collaborative projects.

-Charles Ferrell, Vice-President, Public Programs

The type of change that occurs in an institution leads to very specific results. Renovation, expansion, and capital projects lead to a disruption in educational programming as well as siphoning off considerable financial and human resources away from evaluation. The roll out of plans informed by organizational development activities such as mission revision also leads to the loss of  financial and human resources for evaluation. Turn over in senior leadership results in loss of primary evaluation champion.

-Jonathan Jones, Museum Educator/Outreach Coordinator

Having a corporate background, I assumed that a non-profit must adopt some corporate concepts to be successful. Yet, I learned about a must-read book, Good to Great for nonprofits.  What may work in a corporate setting may not necessarily work for a nonprofit.

-Tracey Williams, Guest Services & SRO Manager

The external evaluation consultant and coach on the project, also offered the following reflections:

It was such a great experience to share a conference that has been a critical part of my life since I entered the museum field– the annual Visitor Studies Association conference– with this incredible team of museum professionals from the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. As I listened to their reflections on the conference I was reminded that their museum– The Wright– is exceptional. It is rare that history museums– and especially museums committed to the preservation and interpretation of African and African American history– have internal evaluation capacity. As a result, our field often doesn’t learn about the positive outcomes they bring to visitors and communities. The Wright Museum’s exhibitions, programs, services, and staff bring joy, pride, and hope to so many in Detroit and beyond. And now we’re measuring it. The Wright educates, challenges misconceptions and stereotypes, confronts racism, and fights white supremacy on a daily basis– things many museums are unwilling to address. And now we’re capturing that truth. This grant helps to ensure The Wright Museum has a sustainable, ongoing way to tell their story– informed by current, reliable evaluation data. I hope this project will inspire and ignite a movement to keep professional development for museum staff at the forefront. I’m grateful to IMLS for recognizing the need and prioritizing it.

-Kate Livingston, External Evaluator and Evaluation Coach, ExposeYourMuseum LLC

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