Monday, September 28, 2020

Intentional Practice: An Interview with Randi Korn

Randi Korn is a noted writer, evaluator, and intentional practice leader who has worked in, and with, museums for many years.

To be honest, Randi and I tried (twice!) to have a video conversation via Zoom as part of my Museum FAQ series on the POW! YouTube channel, but technology let us down.  So instead, we have created this hybrid interview that tries to capture the flavor of our previous conversations and also includes a short video (below) of Randi and myself modeling an exercise from her recent book, Intentional Practice for Museums: A Guide for Maximizing Impact.


What’s your educational background? 
I have a BFA and focused on design while in undergraduate school.  I thought I was going to be a painter or a potter, but after taking a design class, I was intrigued by the problem-solving approach design offered.  I found it intellectually rigorous.  I always viewed design as a communication tool, and exhibition design was no different.  In practice, though, I wondered why some design solutions attracted people and others did not.  To satisfy my curiosity, I enrolled in a museum studies graduate program specifically designed for people who didn’t want to stop working (now there are several of those, but back then, there was one).  The program was at a big university so I had access to professors from many disciplines.  I chose to focus my studies on educational research methodologies that I could then apply to a museum environment.  For my thesis, I did original research that tested two interpretation strategies in a botanic garden—where I happen to be working at the time.

What got you interested in Museums?
Ahhh.  Great story!  I wanted to leave undergraduate school after my second year to see if what I was learning was at all useful in the real world.  A professor told me that he looked forward to working with me next year (what was to be my junior year), and I told him that I wasn’t returning.  When he asked what I was going to do, I answered him honestly; I had no idea.  He wrote someone’s name and phone number on a piece of paper and told me to call this person because she might need someone like me.  Of course, I did what most 19-year-olds did with such a suggestion: I made a mental note and then discarded the piece of paper.  

A month later I went to visit a filmmaker friend who needed a poster designed for his new film.  I had my portfolio with me, and visiting him was another friend of his.  So, both of them looked at my portfolio, and his friend said, “you should really call my boss; we are looking for someone with your skillset.”  She wrote down the name of her boss, and it was the same name that the professor gave me!  This time I thought, “Okay, don’t be an idiot; just call this lady”—who happened to work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the (now defunct) Department of Urban Outreach.  She had just received an NEH grant to collaborate with five ethnic communities in Philadelphia to develop and design an exhibition about each community’s rites of passage.  I was hired to photographically document Jewish rites of passage for the Jewish community in Philadelphia and work with the designer to create the exhibition.  That experience changed my life.

What prompted you to start your own business?  
Before I moved from California to DC in 1989, I had been employed by at least half-a-dozen museums around the country.  I had held diverse positions ranging from executive director, to evaluator, to designer, to interpretive program manager.  I loved each and every job!  Like a lot of people between jobs, I started working on projects independently when I arrived in DC.  I was having fun working on a lot of different projects—so much fun that I turned down a job that Kathy McLean offered me when she was at the Maryland Science Center.  Crazy, I know!  Kathy was understanding, as she too had worked on her own intermittently.  She said, “Well, can I hire you as a consultant?”  One thing led to another.  I worked by myself for two years, then I hired someone to assist, and the business grew slowly from there.

Can you tell us more about your recent book, Intentional Practice for Museums?
Sure.  First I’ll explain why I wrote it and then I’ll explain the concept of intentional practice.  There were a few historical moments that were building up in my mind, and collectively, they pushed me.  The first: the result of the 1994 election. It was the first time in 40 years that the republicans seized control of the House and the Senate and Newt Gingrich created the Contract for America (some government workers called it the Contract on America).  There was a chopping block in that Contract and it included IMS (now IMLS), NEH, and NEA.  It was the first time these museum-funding agencies were in danger of disappearing since they were created in the ‘60s.  Remember, back then the Internet was not the powerhouse it is today, so the response from the field was painfully slow, and the museum community started looking for evidence that museums make a difference in people’s lives.  Lo and behold—they found nothing—no reports anywhere!  The second event, so to speak, happened 10 years later—the Wallace Foundation commissioned the Rand Corporation to conduct a thorough review of publications, etc., to report on the value of the arts to communities.  

Gifts of the Muse, published in 2004, is a great read.  There was data about the economic benefits of the arts (to municipalities and business), but scant data on the value of art to people.  One could extrapolate (which the authors did), but that wasn’t quite as good as having concrete data; they and everyone else knew it.  The voice in my head kept saying, “the party is over,” and I distinctly remember saying that on an AAM panel at one point.

The third event, as it were, was the realization that my chosen profession—evaluation—hadn’t produced any reports either. Why was it that I hadn’t conducted any studies on the value of museums to people?  The simple answer was that no one had asked me to.  I started exploring possible funding options and learned that no one was interested in such a study (things have gotten better since then).  Evaluation in museums was driven by exhibits, programs, and funders’ requests, and no one was asking questions about the whole museum.  While evaluation has done a great deal to strengthen individual exhibit and program teams, it had done little to inform museums and others about the effect of the whole museum on people and communities.

As my interest in wanting to help museums measure their impact on people deepened, I realized this: in my work with museums as an evaluator, my colleagues and I ask a lot of questions.  One question we always ask is: what do/did you want to achieve with this exhibition/program?  What is/was your intent?  More times than not, these questions were met with an awkward silence.  If museums stumbled with these questions about a project, I surmised that asking about the intent of the whole museum also would be met with a deafening silence.  That left me with realizing that if I wanted to help museums, I needed to create strategies to help them articulate their value—and intentional practice was born.

So, what is intentional practice exactly?
Intentional practice is a way of thinking and a way of working, and in many ways, it is a philosophy.  A museum’s work towards intentionality is ongoing.  I’ll use The Cycle of Intentional Practice below to explain the components of intentional practice.  While the graphic is neat and tidy, it is a very complicated process.  If I created a cycle that reflected what the process is really like, people would flee.  Like exhibition planning—intentional planning is just plain messy!  

There are five primary elements: Plan, Evaluation, Reflect, and Align, which are placed around a centerpiece—impact.  A museum interested in pursuing intentional practice has to first define its intended impact, and that intended impact becomes the engine that drives all the museum’s work across the quadrants and the gauge of success. Work that ensues—evaluating new strategies, reflecting on the work so staff can learn from their work, and strengthening alignment between the actions and results—should be the only work of the museum. Work that does not help the museum achieve impact, wastes resources, the most valuable of which is staff time.  

Because of the messiness, I tightly facilitate the process; if I didn’t, again, people would flee.  People have told me that the tightly-run workshops are a huge relief to them because then they can focus on the assigned tasks, all of which are hard.  Seats are assigned because workshops are attended by people from across and up and down the museum, and if I left people to their own devices, curators would sit together, educations would sit together, etc.  Working groups are predetermined and we place staff in interdisciplinary groups, often working with people who they do not know.  Interdisciplinary collaboration is one of the seven principles of intentional practice.  

I can’t really explain everything in this post, but I would like to share what comprises an impact statement.  Essentially, the first workshop includes three exercises: a passion exercise (because your passions drive your work and the excellence you put forth every day); identifying the museum’s distinct qualities (so the museum can always play to its strengths); and visioning outcomes for three target audiences (so staff can focus their work on achieving those outcomes [which will lead to achieving impact] on those audiences.  All the exercises I have done as of two years ago when the book was published are in Chapter 5.  I have left nothing out, and my intent is that people will feel inspired to do this work with their museum.

Perhaps I should do the passion exercise with you, Paul, to demonstrate how it could work.  First, to provide context: you would be in a group with 4 or so other people—from a board member, to a community representative, to staff from different departments, and a group member would pose these very simple questions to you and another would volunteer to take notes.  I would collect all the notes when the exercise is complete.  I analyze those notes along with the work from the other two exercises that staff will do to develop a draft impact statement that is vetting and discussed with staff the next time we meet.   

And so embedded below, and here on the POW! YouTube channel you can see a short video of Randi and myself going through the passion exercise featured in Chapter 5 of Intentional Practice for Museums: A Guide for Maximizing Impact.

Why do so many museums place such an emphasis on admissions numbers?
Because most people can count; it is easy, and for whatever reason, many humans take the road most easily traveled.  As we now see in COVID times, numbers are irrelevant—they no longer can be used as a measure of success. Thank goodness!!!  I wrote about this on our blog; in a post titled “Zero.”  I have long argued that numbers are not a measure of success—technically, they are an output, not an outcome. And pragmatically, numbers say nothing about the quality of an experience; they only mean that people came.  AAM and the like enjoy touting that museums contribute to local economies.  They may, but how are they contributing now?  We need measures that will serve us well in good and bad times.  

How can museums become better at measuring what matters?
Ahhh, as you might guess at this point, the first step is that the staff have to clarify what matters to them.  Once there is a clear articulation of what matters, any evaluator worth their salt, should be able to design just the right tools to begin measuring.  However, I almost always urge museums not to measure too soon.  If you have just articulated what matters, then it is quite possible that the museum may need to examine their programs/exhibits to see if those elements, in their current form, can actually deliver. 

Museums often jump right to the measuring part because staff are doers and they want results.  In exhibit design and development, you have the same problem: people can’t wait to start talking about the cool exhibits they want to develop—the “how” part of the work—when they haven’t spent enough time talking about the “what” and “why” parts of the work.  How to measure takes know-how, considerable time, and a willingness to accept what the data say.  In a workshop, before we were about to begin a study, I asked what people’s greatest fears were.  The director responded by saying “That we won’t like what the report says and we’ll blame you and throw the report out.”  It is true, people have to be open to what the data says; they have to be open to the reality that they might need to change a few things if they want the results they envision.

How has intentional practice influenced approaches to evaluation?  
That has been the most interesting and unexpected outcome of this work.  Evaluation methods informed intentional practice; for example, I view part of intentional practice workshops as an evaluation project; that is, —I use them as opportunities to collect data from staff rather than visitors. .  The most significant influence that intentional practice has had on evaluation is that now we include reflection in our evaluation projects.  Reflection is about stepping back and learning from the work.  We assign exercises where staff are asked to refer to the data so they can practice how to use data so they can experience its value as a decision-making tool.  We infuse reflection when needed into client meetings; for example, if we meet regularly via telephone, the agenda will include a 15-minute reflection at the end of the meeting.  I am working with a small nonprofit now, and I start our meetings with a 15-minute reflection and I might end it with asking people to identify a new or different action they will take based on what they have learned.  So intentional practice has helped us strengthen our evaluation work and our clients.

How can intentional practice and evaluation help museums navigate a post-COVID world?
At the end of the day—whether before COVID-19 or now, achieving impact on people is paramount—however the museum defines impact, and along with that definition, staff need to decide whom the museum wants to impact, and “everyone” is not an adequate response.  No doubt, museums are making tough decisions every single day.  An impact statement can be used to determine what the museum should be doing and what it need not do anymore.  Intentional practice is very pragmatic.  Two fundamental, interconnect beliefs are woven throughout intentional practice work to demonstrate its pragmatism: Less is More and Museums can’t be all things to all people and achieve impact.  These hard times require pragmatism. 

What are some of your favorite museums or exhibitions? 
It is really hard to narrow down, but I’ll try.  I used to say, the Picasso Museum in Paris, but they redid it, and I haven’t seen the new iteration.  What I liked about the old one was how the architecture and interior exuded Picasso’s often earthy palette and the use of organic shapes.  But since I know it may not be like that anymore, here is another favorite.  There is a museum in London that blew me away. Sir John Soane's Museum.  It is like the old cabinets of curiosities, except the museum was an enormous cabinet.  Their website has two three-dimensional videos (you can view them here and here.)  

I did not feel museum fatigue; I was continually mesmerized by everything I saw.  My favorite local DC museum is the Renwick Gallery—the national museum of crafts.  Once a very traditional place, when it reopened after a few years of closure, they outdid themselves!  Every time a visitor came in from out of town, that’s where we went!  The lines were around the block, but they did not deter.  The installations were creative and took the notion of craft to a new level.

If money were no object, what would your “dream” museum project be?
I am very committed to intentional practice.  My dream project is something that I am so fortunate to be involved with, and the only reason I can work on it is that money is no object; I am not being paid, which is very freeing.  I sit on a board of a small nonprofit and I have been working with the staff team since last year.  Originally, I was to help them develop an intentional plan for the next three years, but it has morphed into a full intentional practice project, and I am delighted.  The essence of intentional practice is about learning—personal learning, professional learning, and organizational learning.  What’s so great is that I am learning, too.  I am working with staff to strengthen them as a team so they can achieve their intended impact.  It is a great experience and opportunity to test new intentional practice ideas and approaches.

Thanks again to Randi for sharing her thoughts with ExhibiTricks readers! 

If you'd like to learn more about Randi and her work, just click on over to the RK&A website.

If you would like a chance to win one of two autographed copies of Randi's book, Intentional Practice for Museums: A Guide for Maximizing Impact, here's how to enter the giveaway:  

1) Send an email with the subject line, "I want to win Randi's book!"


2) Become a new subscriber to the ExhibiTricks blog by clicking on the link near the top right of the ExhibiTricks homepage.

We will randomly choose two winners on Friday, October 9th, 2020 -- one winner from the email entries, and the other winner from the new subscribers.  Good luck!

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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.)  Let's work on a project together!   (Please note: when you click on links to books or other products featured on the blog, we may earn a small commission, but you will not incur any increase in price.)

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