The report says museums should look at how they are experienced by audiences

‘Don’t use evaluation of your work purely to seek funding’

Caroline Parry, Issue 116/06, p7, 01.06.2016
Report by the Cultural Value Project says a wider use of evaluation would allow the sector to better serve audiences
Museums and other cultural organisations should stop using evaluations of their work only as a means to gain funding and prove accountability, according to a new study into how to assess the value of arts and culture.

Understanding the Value of Arts and Culture, published on 27 April by the Cultural Value Project and backed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, calls for a wider use of “formative and participatory” evaluation to help the cultural sector better serve its audiences and offer a “deeper” story to funders.

Geoffrey Crossick, the director of the Cultural Value Project and co-author of the report, says: “Museums have a much better record of thoughtful evaluation than most of the cultural sector, but seem less effective at digesting and using the outcomes of those evaluations. Other priorities get in the way.”

Supporting this view, the report places greater value on the contribution made by qualitative research, as long as it can be made more rigorous.

Jocelyn Dodd, the director of the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester, says this type of research is a “real strength” in the museum sector but it has been “denigrated”.

“This report shows it can have a real depth of understanding, and museums need to be more confident as a sector about using it,” says Dodd, who together with independent researcher Carol Scott published the Cultural Value of Engaging Museums and Galleries, one of 70 original pieces of research funded by the Cultural Value Project.

The study also calls on cultural organisations to stop making claims about their impact on society that are “hard to sustain”. Crossick adds: “The sector should focus on the difference arts and culture actually make.”

The report aimed to identify what makes up cultural value, while considering and developing methodologies and evidence that might be used to evaluate it.

It concludes that there is a need to “broaden” the scope of discussion to include commercial, amateur and participatory cultural activities, as well as those that are publicly funded. It also places significant emphasis on the need to “reposition” the individual experience of art and culture at the centre of any investigation into its value.

The report says: “Far too often, the way people experience culture takes second place to its impact on phenomena such as the economy, cities or health.”

The report was broadly welcomed by Sharon Heal, the director of the Museums Association. “The focus on the individual impact of culture and the broad definition of culture – from local, community-based activity to engagement with national publicly-funded institutions – are good starting points for the research,” she says.

The 200-page report is intended to be used as a basis for further research across the cultural spectrum.

The museum sector, says Crossick, should start by looking at how audiences experience museums and evaluating that through more “thoughtful open-ended research” into how people respond to content and how it affects their thinking.

“If we don’t start by looking at the way people experience museums – as individuals, families, groups – there is little prospect of understanding, let alone articulating, their real importance,” he says.

“We make much of reflectiveness, empathy, citizenship and critical imagination. We tend to find out what people think as they emerge from a venue. But longer-term evaluation is important. What do they think a week or month later?”
Report's view on engagement
“Participation in arts and culture may produce engaged citizens, promoting not only civic behaviours such as voting and volunteering, but also helping articulate alternatives to current assumptions and fuel broader political imagination. All are fundamental to the effectiveness of democratic political and social systems. Arts and cultural engagement help minority groups to find a voice and express their identity.”