Museum Camp

Alice Briggs, 23.09.2014
What are we evaluating and why?
This summer I went to California where I attended Museum Camp at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.

The museum is directed by the dynamic Nina Simon who has been making waves in recent years as the author of The Participatory Museum and blogging about her work at Santa Cruz through Museum 2.0.

This is the second year she has run Museum Camp as a development training camp for museum professionals (and others working across the cultural sector).

The premise is to pick “a different theme and work with new partners, but the concept is the same: diverse, passionate people coming together to learn in a creative space. Museum Camp is intense, spirited, and transformative”.

The reason that I applied to attend Museum Camp was partly looking to see the work that Nina has been doing in Santa Cruz (the location wasn’t bad either).

I was particularly interested in her work bringing bilingualism into the museum (a topic that we are very familiar with in Wales where bilingual interpretation is standard) and the Museum Camp theme of social impact assessment, which stood out as being particularly relevant to me at this point in my museum career and also to the sector in the UK right now, highlighted by the Museums Association campaign Museums Change Lives.

At the same time in Ceredigion Museum, where I work in Mid Wales, we have been running a social enterprise and participation project called Harvesting the Knowledge with funding from The Happy Museum Project.

Museum Camp was attended by 100 professionals across the fields of museums, the arts, social impact research and marketing. The camp was a three-day event, working intensely from morning to night, predominantly in small groups but with the chance to network and socialise with other participants and hear about other exciting projects that were happening across the US.

In order to run the camp, Simon had partnered with arts company Fractured Atlas, led by research director Ian Moss.

When we arrived we were put into small groups to work on real-time research projects across Santa Cruz town over the three days, with the task of developing hypotheses, methodologies and then evaluation of those projects.

The group I joined was called Team Hair Band. We were led by Moss, whose specialisms in evaluation appear to be (deep breath) cutting-edge analytical forecasting and social-sector evaluation techniques.

For our projects we were encouraged to research using a method that we wouldn’t have the opportunity to use back in our work environments. As a group we bonded around the idea of public art, and art that people happened upon serendipitously, with the idea of trying to measure pride and sense of place. It turned out to be very difficult to evaluate.

Our hypothesis didn’t exactly turn out the results that we had planned but we did gain confidence in our methods, were given a huge amount of support in areas to look for research in the future, and those we met were awesome people working in amazing ways.

In some ways it is reassuring that we are all in the same boat – looking for ways to evaluate the impact of our work in arts and museums, and we should always be challenging the way that we deliver projects and who we deliver them to, but I’m also interested in why we are doing this.

Is it just for our own interest? Why, after 150 years of public museums that were set up for the wider population and for our communities, are we not succeeding in bringing those groups and individuals into our museums?

Did we forget somewhere along the way who we were delivering it all for?

Or is it simply a fight for survival against all the other sectors desperately trying to prove their worth to the treasury in the hope that in the next budget, it won’t be us?

Alice Briggs is the assistant curator at Ceredigion Museum