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

02/21/2019

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, six staff members from the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (hereafter “The Wright,” located in Detroit, Michigan) attended and presented a round table session at the 2018 American Evaluation Association annual conference in Cleveland, Ohio. They were joined by their external evaluation “coach,” Kate Livingston  of ExposeYourMuseum LLC.

The American Evaluation 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 a baseline visitor survey instrument and began data collection, attended the 2018 Visitor Studies Association conference (in Chicago, IL), and–most recently–attended andfacilitated a round table conference session at the 2018 American Evaluation Association Conference. In addition, the full Wright Museum staff was invited to participate in two evaluation workshops (one on logic modeling and the other on survey writing); both were highly attended.

The annual American Evaluation Association conference was a unique opportunity for six members of the Visitor Advocate Team to attend a conference focused on evaluation across all fields and disciplines. Staff members in attendance included Tracey Williams (Guest Services and SRO Manager), Jennifer Evans (Assistant Curator), Charles Ferrell (Vice President of Public Programs), Delisha Upshaw (Director of Marketing and Communications), Jonathan Jones (Museum Educator and Outreach Coordinator), and Jessica Brown (Education Outreach Coordinator). They offered the following reflections:

Tracey:

The theme of the conference, “Speaking Truth to Power,” intrigued me. I fantasized about unearthing some great data that required immediate earth-shattering change at the museum.  Unfortunately, my fantasies were quickly dashed as I learned about the responsibilities evaluators have and the questions we must ask ourselves. Such as:

What are the consequences?  At what risk or cost? To whom and with what expectations?

What is POWER?

Who has it and how can they best be influenced? This seems like an obvious question, but considering it’s not uncommon to share data, truths or simple information in a format that we are comfortable with and the receiver learning of it will bring the desired change. Not necessarily. Most real change involves some sort of struggle. Just because someone has learned about a need for change doesn’t mean it will be welcomed.

What is TRUTH?

Whose truth? The very reason the institution where I am employed, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, exists is because the truth of African American history wasn’t told. It wasn’t told by those it represented but was simply someone else’s story or truth of what African American history entailed.  As a result, the founder, Dr. Charles Wright, saw the need for African American history to be told truthfully and created a museum.

What is SPEAKING?

Whispering? Public pronouncements? Influence? Activism? By whom on behalf of whom?  What method provides the best results with those in power? What are we trying to accomplish and for what reason? The results we desire for any project or evaluation help determine the manner the truth is shared.

Jennifer:

The 2018 American Evaluation Association annual conference theme “Speaking Truth to Power” was a transformative theme with so many applications. In sessions, we asked questions like who is in power and why? Who’s truth do we honor? Can multiple truths exist? These questions are so important in regards to the work that I do at the Wright Museum where we document, maintain and disseminate African American history. This conference was a reminder of the power that I have to speak the truth and select who’s truth I tell.

The conference was very large with many attendees, but with ample opportunity to learn new tips, techniques, and approaches for evaluation. My favorite sessions were those that provided concrete tools for engaging staff and the public in regards to evaluation. For example, the Zoom! Interactive Session and Metrics for Success provided tangible steps for improving evaluation and communicating with staff and visitors its importance.

In the session “Intimidation Rituals”, the panelist talked openly about the negative repercussions of speaking truth to power. The session was a great reminder of the responsibility of speaking truth to power. Throughout history very few people do this and those that do stand out as heroes.

During the Wright Museum’s roundtable session, attendees provided invaluable ways to communicate to the public the value of their feedback and show them that we “heard” them and made changes.

Charles:

The 2018 AEA Annual Conference in Cleveland was impressive in scope and depth. The multifaceted sessions were right-sized, intimate, innovative and inclusive. The accommodations, venue and collateral were first-class.  It was a wonderful experience meeting new associates to extend learnings well beyond the conference and the opportunity of presenting a session with our team. As a first-time attendee, I will be better prepared to take full advantage of future offerings.

Jonathan:

The Conference provided insight beyond what evaluation is, which would have been enough, but practical application of this process for a more steeped-in analysis of how to connect institutions and communities. That a driving factor is learning how to effectively communicate the needs of the community to the institution and the needs of every department within the institution to each other. Educational reform and Professional Development are key to building and sustainability. We are a mosaic, individually gifted parts joined together to create an even more exceptional whole.

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

It was an honor to return to the American Evaluation Association conference–an association I have been connected to and a member of for quite some time–with the team from the Wright Museum. I was most impressed and struck by the reception to and discussion during the roundtable session we hosted, called “Evaluation for Equity, Access, and Inclusion: the Evaluator’s Role in Truth and Power.” There was tremendous interest from AEA attendees to learn about how a museum–and especially a museum dedicated to preserving the culture and telling the story of African Americans–is utilizing evaluation, and why. For me, it was encouraging to see other cultural institutions and community-based evaluators sharing how they are grappling with similar questions, challenges, but also triumphs. I also felt deep pride and respect as I listened to my colleagues from the Wright Museum present, discuss, and unpack how they are exploring evaluation. It made me incredibly excited and ready for what we will do together as a team during the next two years of this IMLS-funded evaluation capacity building project.

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