What is it: Forced From Home is a traveling exhibition created by Doctors Without Borders (MSF, for their legal name, Médecins Sans Frontières) to raise awareness about refugees.
Why I went: I had a lot of questions about this exhibition before I even went with a group of museum friends. Why would a humanitarian organization decide that it was part of their mission to create an exhibition on refugees and tour it around the United States? Is that a good use of their resources? Shouldn't those resources go to help others? Or is there a long-game that they are playing? Do they think that what is, essentially, a museum exhibition, is useful and efficient for continuing their work? If so, how and why?
Quick description of exhibition: I'll be honest. The exhibit itself was solid, but nothing special. A short introductory movie (good), and then several exhibits that essentially took you through a general refugee journey: unexpectedly leaving home; the journey; legal status; refugee camps; medical care at camps; and ending with VR videos. It was logically laid out, and had what my friend Rainey Tisdale referred to as the "material culture" of refugees: refugee tents, a latrine, water jugs, etc. Most powerfully, they had a small raft that many in our group "boarded;" we then learned that typically 40 refugees would cram onto a raft of that size … for a week. Gulp.
But the exhibition, except for the raft, was very generic. It was not the story of Syrian refugees, or Honduran, but instead a generic stage set. This was likely by design, because you cannot visit the exhibition on your own. An MSF fieldworker provides a guided tour of the exhibition. This makes the exhibition personal through that fieldworker's own experiences and stories, which can happen anywhere in the world.
MSF's big goal - empowered empathy: For the exhibition to work, that fieldworker/guide is key. Our guide told his stories, putting a human face on what we read about in the media. He wielded the ability to make it emotional. He bore witness, which is, to my surprise, part of the MSF charter:
"We may seek to bring attention to extreme need and unacceptable suffering when access to lifesaving medical care is hindered, when medical facilities come under threat, when crises are neglected, or when the provision of aid is inadequate or abused."
If I had to boil down the exhibition's goal to just a few words, I would say "empowered empathy." Let's pick apart why that is, and why I think they only succeeded at meeting half the goal.
Empathy. As our guide said, "no one ever wakes up and says they want to become a refugee." It is forced on them. It is a trauma inflicted on them. The guides tell specific, personal stories so we can connect to refugees as people, not statistics. That's why the drowning of three-year-old Alan Kurdi last summer viscerally hit so many of us. Or why the impassive face of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh in Syria was so searing and shocking for us. By bearing witness with their own stories, the guides put a human face on the millions of refugees around the world, and we feel empathy and compassion. That is a mission as worthy as caring for those in need, because without bearing witness, how would the rest of the world know enough to understand or care?
Note, however, that the guide is what made engendering empathy possible. The material culture of refugees that was shared in the exhibition only served to support what was said. Normally, I am opposed to guided tours as a forced march, but this was different. I struggled with why until Rainey observed that "… he was a different kind of docent … chosen based on the life stories and deep knowledge [he] can share, not whether [he was] available to volunteer regularly …" Rainey raised a good point. While a guide at a museum may be committed, and genuinely care about what they are sharing, the interpretation generally doesn't come from lived life experience. They are one or more degrees removed from the content. Not the case for our guide at the MSF exhibition. It was real.
That realness also made another friend, Matt Kirchman of ObjectIDEA, reflect on what it means to financially support MSF. He shared that if he were to do so, "I’m helping people help people. The exhibit experience does not emphasize the largeness of the agency, rather, the close and personal attention of the people in the field." Or, rather, compassion translated to action.
Empowered. Clearly, by bearing witness, MSF wants us to do something about it … to empower us. But here I felt they fell short. I came out feeling far more knowledgeable about the refugee crisis, but did not feel I had gained new information to do anything about it. I wanted them to be more proactive and forceful. To specifically tell us how we could help. Not necessarily a strict fundraising ploy, but specific ways to educate ourselves further, advocate for and support refugees, and yes, give financially. Instead, the experience ended rather abruptly, and fell short in helping us, as participants, follow through with action. (Though to be fair, I am already a donor to MSF, so I didn't stop at their donation table at the end. Yet I wonder how many people did stop.)
So what does MSF get out of this? Bearing witness is part of their charter, but that is only meaningful if creates change. Does this exhibit do that? That is not so clear. In Boston, the primary audience seemed to be groups of students from area high schools. Short-term, the outcomes are likely to not be meaningful for that audience base.
If the long-game is their goal, however, I suspect it may reach enough youth to effect some change in perspective in enough of them to matter. If I were running the exhibition, I'd do something to capture visitor contact information (no, they didn't even do that for any kind of follow-up). Then I'd reach out to all visitors (students and other adult visitors) a year from now and ask about the experience. True, not many would respond, but enough would to capture the exhibition's capacity to change people. Or to find out that if this isn't the most effective way of reaching people after all.
Politics: An exhibition on refugees could have easily gone political. Especially given events in Mosul over the past week and the bulldozing of "the Jungle" in Calais. It is a hot, political topic globally. Yet MSF managed to avoid politics completely. Instead, it was about witnessing and presenting a human story. In some ways, despite emotional content being presented, it was presented neutrally. That is an impressive feat, and one that museums could model instead of their general tendency to avoid these topics altogether.
Should you go? Yes, absolutely. It is in Pittsburgh now, and headed to Philadelphia soon. MSF plans to take a few months off and start up again on the West Coast (so they told me). When they reach Seattle, I plan to volunteer so I can learn more about how people actually responded to the exhibition … and because I support MSF.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com. (Note: I don't intend to regularly review exhibitions; this was an exception because of how this exhibition originated.)
Why I picked it up: Early this week I came across the annual impact report of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WCIJ). Annual reports are common. They share financial statements and perhaps a few accomplishments of the year (not the same thing as impact). This is different.
This is an annual impact report. Real impact. With evidence. I loved it, and immediately started picking apart its purpose and considering why it would be a good idea to emulate. (WCIJ is the impact report I came across doing other research; others exist but they are few and far between.)
What you need to know: As philanthropy continues to shift towards a higher expectation of impact, organizations that cannot clearly articulate and provide evidence of impact will not be sustainable.
This report pulls together why an organization matters into one tidy document. Why WCIJ matters. And why WCIJ is deserving of philanthropic gifts over other organizations that may simply not be as effective. If I was an executive director/CEO or development director, having this at my fingertips with a major donor would be gold. I suspect it is also a fantastic tool for staff morale, retention, and recruitment, as it allows them to point to a clear document of why their work matters.
Implications for museums: In a world where there is so much strife and trouble, museums are in the long-game of improving our communities and world, one visitor at a time. Through our own distinctive medium. If we don't champion that, we have no pro-social or educative purpose (and do we deserve that charitable status then)?
But few people make the connection between museums and changing lives (Michael Bloomberg excepted). Thus, we need to articulate and provide evidence of impact, which is why this example of an impact report is so compelling. It forces us to make our case, clearly and concisely … and then back it up. It also exposes the holes in our arguments, which we can acknowledge and then commit to studying and understanding. And for donors and funders, it enables the long-term connection between meaningful experiences with art, history, and science, and a better community and society. To thrive in the future, we need that too.
Frankly, if your organization cannot put a compelling impact report together, it indicates to me that impact probably doesn't really matter to you. And if a lack of resources to track impact is the issue, maybe putting together this report, acknowledging the gaps in evidence, and instead positioning impact as hypotheses, will help secure resources to track that evidence. After all, with evidence you will know for sure what is working (and what isn't).
Read or skip? Read. It is seven pages. Read it and emulate!
Page-by-page commentary, and how I would adapt for a museum (for those who want the details):
Who We Are (p. 2)
Starts off with a short description of the organization and what they do. They did this concisely and effectively by hitting four main things:
For museums: For a museum, I'd start off by not assuming it matters, but taking time to articulate why. Why does the history of this community matter? Or why does art matter? Play matter? Once I had prepared my answer, I would then ask again "why does that matter?" And how does that mattering make a difference to individuals and communities?
For example, a local history organization might first say that it matters because it helps people understand their community. OK. Why is understanding their community important? Answer that in the report, and place history as a key tool for getting there.
Can you boil down your guiding values to three definitive things you do that do matter? It won't be things like share (insert art/science/history), but things like expand knowledge. Cultivate compassion. Increase understanding. You get the idea.
Then, your reach. If you reach a traditional museum audience (and I'll be blunt here) of affluent, well-educated, white folks, well, that's not going to cut it. Glad you help them (everyone deserves museums!), but you probably don't need my support. But if you tell me how you are expanding your audience, and acknowledge you have to do better (and talk about how later in the report), you'll keep my interest.
And yes, I want to know how you do this. But keep it short here.
Highlights (p. 3)
For WCIJ, they created 8 blurbs that tell us in more detail what they do:
To be honest, I felt like this was too many, and it was a wordy page. Five would have worked better. That being said, it did give me a strong sense of what this organization tries to do based on what they have done in the past year. To be clear, however, that's not the same thing as impact.
For museums: Taking it down to five things, for a museum I would probably share:
Major Investigations (p. 4)
WCIJ broke some major stories in Wisconsin. This shares six via a picture for each and a one-sentence description. Yes, that concise.
For museums: This is where you get specific show off the great stuff you did.
Impact (p. 5)
The most important page of this report. I want to frame it and hang it on my office wall. How their stories really mattered to Wisconsin citizens. And I am impressed by how many they are!
For museums: This is going to be the hardest page of writing your own version of this report. To be truly effective, you have to understand, and share, evidence that what you are doing matters over the long-term. And link it back to your exhibitions and programs. Pieces of this evidence could (and should) come from high-quality evaluation of specific exhibitions and programs, but that typically doesn't convey why the museum methodology is better than alternatives, or longer-term effects. There also needs to be high-quality community research to track long-term impact trends and provide community context. You need both.
Put them together, though, and this one page could clearly make the case of why your museum matters. To individuals and to a community. It won't make the financial support come in by its mere existence, but man would it make raising money a whole lot easier.
Audience Matters (p. 6)
For WCIJ, putting their operations into numbers. How many investigations, how many news outlets picked up their stories, how many readers. It conveys depth and reach.
For museums: This could start with attendance numbers, of course, but I would go further to use data to track how the audience is (ideally) shifting over time in ways to better reflect the community, broadening and deepening engagement. How you show who you matter to.
Investigative Reporting + Art (p. 7)
WCIJ mounted what is, essentially, an art exhibition on water quality and traveled it through Wisconsin. Basically a deeper look at one of their initiatives and how it furthered their work. What I find most fascinating, however, is that they chose a museum methodology to do this.
For museums: This could be a page that also takes a closer look at one major initiative that really mattered (and why).
Financial Information (p. 8)
This is fascinating. It is not the annual report of the organization, with balance sheet, etc. It gives the operating budget, and plainly states that they have a goal of doubling it. And then shares two paragraphs about funding and how it does not affect editorial decisions. It does list some of their largest donors, but keeps it short. The point here is that this isn't the financial nitty-gritty, but instead an acknowledgement of the budget they have to deliver the impact they share. And it is an articulation that the impact is only possible if those donors cannot influence their day-to-day work.
For museums: Go and do likewise. Your normal annual report can (and should) still exist, but the two main outcomes here are different and crucial. Share what your budget is so readers know the resources you have to deliver the impact you have. If the numbers are not in alignment, discuss how that will change. That is, if you have a relatively large budget and little impact to show, talk about how you will focus those resources to deliver more impact. And if you are doing amazing things on a teeny tiny budget, be proud and demonstrate how more resources could extend that impact even further. Additionally given some of the controversy around museum trustees whose political positions are in conflict with either the historical or scientific record, it probably isn't a bad idea to also state that donors cannot influence the scholarship at museums (especially if it is true; please be true).
My final response: Museums are in the long-term impact game. But if we cannot provide evidence of that impact, we are seen at nice but not necessary. Or even fluff. That cuts me to the quick since I know museums have the capacity to change lives (they did mine, after all!).
One thing missing from this report, however, is a failure statement. I'd love to see that included as well. Whether it is a long-standing exhibition or program that simply isn't effective (and you axed) or a new initiative that didn't live up to your expectations, share failures. It tells me you are willing to try new things and to make the appropriate decisions to focus your efforts on what does work. It also tells me that you learn from failure. No one expects you to be perfect.
Finally, I believe in this impact report so much that if you send a draft impact report for your museum to me, I'll be happy to privately comment on it. So do it! (I'm thinking about how I could develop one for my practice.)
Full citation: Report to Stakeholders. Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. July 2016.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
Why I picked it up: Design thinking is big. Bill Burnett and Dave Evans from Stanford are two of the most notable gurus of design thinking. Even though this book is written through the lens of designing your life, I thought it might serve as a good primer for design thinking in general.
What you need to know: To think like a designer, you need to internalize five mind-sets (pp. xxvi - xxvii):
1 - Be curious. See opportunities everywhere. "Get good at getting lucky." I would add to that the willingness to absorb a lot of disparate things and then work to make unusual connections. That's not luck. That's curiosity, thinking, and work. It just appears like luck to those who are not willing to put in that time and effort.
2 - Try stuff. Take risks, try different things. Prototype, fail, and try again. I would add to this perseverance.
3 - Reframe problems. Approach from many different angles. Don't anchor on one solution. It may not work. If you have ever heard me say "let's step back," that's me reframing a problem.
4 - Know it is a process. Toss out initial ideas or hypotheses if they are bad … or even simply not good enough.
5 - Ask for help. Participate in what they call "radical collaboration" so you get new advice, new ideas. I think this also helps tremendously with #3, reframe problems.
The mindset they don't include, though they hammer it home in the conclusion of the book, is that design thinking never ends. Ever. That's a pretty big one to come around to as well. Every project, program, exhibition, is part of a larger endeavor that never ends. We should know this. Museums are in the forever business after all, right? Yet we forget it all the time.
Implications for museums: Although this book focused on how to design your life, I found it more useful to think about how a savvy executive director/CEO could apply design thinking to the life of a museum. That is a rather smart, long-term, yet extraordinarily nimble perspective, and one that would likely do much to create deeper impact in a community and with audiences.
Read or skip? It depends on what you need.
My final response: I love design thinking, probably because it is how I operate already. What I appreciated about this book is that it has me thinking more deliberately about how I could develop ways to lead the senior leadership at a museum through a design-thinking process to plan their future. This isn't strategic planning (though it is both strategic and planning), but instead an exercise to open up paths of inquiry for research … which could all feed into a more effective strategic planning process.
The Nitty-Gritty (for those interested):
Design starts with a problem for which there is no one best solution. Because there is not necessarily a clear goal, or existing data to inform a decision, it requires new thinking to create a solution. How that problem is framed is crucial. To effectively design a solution start with empathy, and use empathy to reframe the problem from the perspective of those affected by it.
My response. That's why design thinking works well for human conditions. Emotion is involved, and humans are rarely that predictable. So of course empathy is the right place to start! If you want your museum to matter to your audience, to your community, you have to take the viewpoint of your audience and members of your community. What matters to them? What problems do they need solving? For a visitor, the problem they need solved is unlikely to be the science of bubbles, or class issues in 17th-century English portraiture. It is wanting to have well-rounded children, or to have an enjoyable outing with a loved one. It may even be wanting a powerfully human experience that puts what it means to be human in this world in perspective (though almost no one will be able to articulate that!). As museum professionals, if we can start with this empathy for our visitor, we'll be far more effective in what we do, and our museums will likely matter more. So yes. Love this (but then, when it comes to me, they were preaching to the choir here.)
"To speak authoritatively, you need data." (p. xxii)
My response. Amen.
Emphatic about enforcing risk, as it is less risky than the status quo (I think Seth Godin was the first to say that). And that the "... best results come from radical collaboration ... the principle that people with very different backgrounds will bring their idiosyncratic technical and human experiences to the team. This increases the chance that the team will have empathy for those who will use what they are designing, and that the collision of different backgrounds will generate truly unique solutions." (p. xxiv)
My response. This makes the case for museums of different types to work together. (I know from experience that history museum people think completely differently than children's museum people … and that they have much they can learn from each other.) But it also makes the case for museums to work with completely different organizations to solve community and societal needs. Go bold! Take risks!
They say a couple of times that designers build their way forward, not think (italics theirs).
My response. This I don't agree with. It takes both. If you are not thoughtful about what you are building, you are going to waste a lot of time and resources.
Goes on to discuss the five mind-sets, which I covered in "what you need to know."
The individual chapters of this book are the steps and framework for reinventing your life. I don't feel it is necessary to recap it here.
Full citation: Burnett, Bill, and Evans, Dave. Designing Your Life: How To Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
Reaching and Engaging with Hispanic Communities - research report by Child Trends Hispanic Institute and The Crimsonbridge Foundation
Why I picked it up: Hispanics and Latinos are the second-fastest growing minority group in America (after Asian Americans), and the largest, and youngest, minority group. If museums are going to thrive in the future, they have to adapt to meet the needs of a broader swath of Americans; Hispanics and Latinos have historically been underserved by museums.
Best thing in report: A chart showing how how different racial and ethnic populations follow news topics. (See below.)
Two findings in this chart particularly fascinate me:
1 - That whites are far more interested in local town or city news than African Americans or Hispanics. It makes me wonder if there are barriers to connecting with a local community that African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to feel. And if so, what can we do about it? Lots of questions here.
2 - That Hispanics are more interested in science and technology than whites, with African Americans significantly less interested. That seems like a great opportunity for museums to tap into (as well as work to be done).
(The data in this chart comes from the Media Insight Project (2014) from NORC at the University of Chicago. It is a great, reputable source.)
What else you need to know: Demographically, while Hispanics are nearly 18% of the US population, a quarter of children are Hispanic. Two thirds of those Hispanic children live in or near poverty, and those families are less likely than their socio-economic peers to access public assistance programs. (Here using only "Hispanic" in the same manner of the US Government; see final thoughts for why this matters.)
Hammers home that the Hispanic and Latino audience is not monolithic, and that individuals are more likely to identify by their nationality (i.e., "Honduran" or "Guatamalan") than "Hispanic" or "Latino." Emphasis on taking the time to get to know who your audience actually is, and to reflect their linguistic and symbolic preferences in your communications.
Service providers to Hispanics and Latinos emphasize how important face-to-face communications are, such as knocking on doors, going to events, visiting schools, and partnering with educational, faith, or medical groups. While more labor intensive, it is far more effective than broader media outreach.
Note: this communications guide focused on lower socio-economic Hispanic and Latino households.
Implications for museums: Museums generally struggle to reach Hispanic and Latino households, just as they do households that are of lower socio-economic status (SES). To hear that public assistance programs, and the nonprofits that work with public assistance, struggle as well doesn't absolve museums from the struggle, but puts it into context.
If you are serious about reaching Hispanic and Latino households, it takes grassroots work to do it effectively. Face-to-face communications and hard work to build trust and connection. It is a long-term, incremental process. But as our population changes, it is one that is necessary if museums are truly going to matter in their communities.
Read or skip? Skip. The bulk of the report was a toolkit for communications, and was well done; if you are new to communications work you should check it out. But there were few insights that were truly about Hispanics specifically; most applied to low SES households in general, not just Hispanic ones. I had high hopes, but it just wasn't the report I hoped it would be. The most relevant bits are highlighted in this review.
Final thoughts: The report mentioned repeatedly that we should listen to our audience and identify them by how they identify themselves. Yet the report pretty much used "Hispanic" and "Latino" interchangeably (as others, such as Pew, do). They are not, however, the same. "Hispanic" means Spanish-speaking origin, so it would include individuals from most of Latin America and Spain … but not Brazil, as they speak Portuguese. "Latino" refers to individuals from Latin America, including Brazil, but not individuals from Spain.
Full citation: "Researching and Engaging with Hispanic Communities." Research report published by Child Trends Hispanic Institute and The Crimsonbridge Foundation. Released September 28, 2016.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
I respectfully acknowledge that I live and work on the lands of the Duwamish people, whose ancestors have lived here for generations. I thank them for their ongoing care of this land, and I endeavor to help museums bring forward a more complete and inclusive history and culture in their work.