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Transparency and Museums (Part 2) – Reasons for Transparency

Museum TransparencyLast week in part one of this series, we looked at a working definition of transparency on which to base the context of our conversation.  There was some good discussion in the comments about the concept in general and specifically about the differences between the valuation of museum collections and deaccessioning practices.   Thanks to those of you who commented, and/or tweeted about the article.

Saying that transparency is a “good idea” is not enough to address concerns that many museums have about sharing  information in this way.  Today, we’ll spend some more time examining a few reasons why museum administrators should seriously consider an open approach to transparency as a strategic choice in running the museum.

Again, please chime in with thoughts / questions / analogies / etc…  Your thoughts really add to and enrich the conversation.  Do you think this would work in your museum?  What would be the biggest concerns that would arise?

Reasons for Transparency: The Internet Will Out You

Since a common counter argument to efforts for Transparency is the impact of information sharing on the museum’s brand and reputation, it is useful to explore this in the context of today’s realities. Seen initially in the rise of the blogosphere and more recently in the emergence of micro-blogging and real-time search, the pace of information creation and the ease of access to this information has changed the ways in which a museum’s brand and reputation are perceived in the media and online. The advent of the real-time web means that the invested public frequently has as much input into a museum’s online reputation as media professionals do.  An increasingly information-savvy audience is becoming more and more sophisticated in their ability to decipher fact versus spin as they surf this info-sphere. Author Clive Thompson highlights the impact of these facts on Transparency in his article for WIRED Magazine,

“But here’s the interesting paradox: The reputation economy creates an incentive to be more open, not less. Since Internet commentary is inescapable, the only way to influence it is to be part of it. Being transparent, opening up, posting interesting material frequently and often is the only way to amass positive links to yourself and thus to directly influence your Googleable reputation.”  – Clive Thompson, “The See-Through CEO”, WIRED Magazine – Issue 15.04, March, 2007.

This reality is not restricted only to government and for-profit corporations to deal with, but in fact, has already reached deeply into the way that museums and non-profit institutions operate in modern culture. “There is no outside world anymore, just a world–one that is blogged, Facebooked, Twittered, and utterly porous. The extent to which we can control our image is directly proportionate to our honesty about ups and downs in a context that we can to some degree define” points out Maxwell Anderson, The Melvin & Bren Simon Director and CEO of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

A common reaction and perhaps our gut response is to see Transparency as just another public relations tool which can be employed to enhance an institution’s brand and reputation in the public’s eye.  While efforts in Transparency can have a positive impact on a museum’s reputation, that’s not the point says Anderson, “To view a dashboard primarily as a PR tool is to miss entirely the point of Transparency, which is to influence contemporary organizations to act with greater responsibility.“ Likewise, author Thompson points out that, Putting out more evasion or PR puffery won’t work, because people will either ignore it and not link to it – or worse, pick the spin apart and enshrine those criticisms high on your Google list of life.”

Reasons for Transparency: Impact on Mission and Performance

“I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that, at a time when new media technologies are changing the rules of journalism, companies are placing a new emphasis on Transparency. Access to, and distribution of, information is being rapidly democratized and smart companies know to get out ahead of this trend. However, as with many corporate buzzwords (e.g., “quality” and “innovation”), the concept is suffering from inflation as too many companies claim “Transparency” as part of their identity without really walking the talk.” Mark Hannah, “Transparency as a Principle not a Tactic”,, January 7, 2009

It is a natural tendency to promote what is good about our institutions and hide what is not. As professionals, we’ve been conditioned over many years to treat the internet as just another communications medium, but in fact it’s not.  What does it take for a museum to begin the adoption of transparent methods and attitudes without falling into thinking of Transparency as just another PR tool, and what are the advantages of this strategy that might compel institutions to make the leap?

Museums are mission-driven organizations. For a museum, success cannot be measured in financial terms alone.  Sometimes – in service to our mission – museums make decisions which would play very poorly on Wall Street. However, these very decisions are those that set us apart most clearly from the for-profit world and offer us a chance to communicate with our constituents about our mission and about the unique and important place museums hold in our communities.

It is safe to say that museums spend large amounts of time and money every year on strategic planning – and for good reason.  A healthy and vibrant strategic plan is an invaluable tool to use in divining which activities we should pursue and which we should not.  The choices we make about which activities to forgo often say more about our strategic purpose than those we choose to pursue.  A common thread among many museums seems to be an addiction to an over-abundant array of worthwhile programs and activities. Solid strategic planning helps us focus activities on those which will achieve a measurable impact for the mission of the institution and result in long-term progress towards those stated goals.

Museums face difficult challenges when trying to measure whether or not they are being successful.  Success cannot be measured solely by the size of their endowments, attendance figures, or recent coverage in the press. Unlike their for-profit counterparts – where profit/loss statements can ultimately separate the winners and losers – a museum’s success has much more to do with achieving its mission and its degree of impact within the community.  Defining what success looks like and the establishment of benchmarks for comparison is absolutely vital to achieving a continuous improvement to goals and success over the long term. In his 2004 paper entitled “Metrics of Success in Art Museums”, Maxwell Anderson points out that “The root of the problem is that there is no longer an agreed-upon method of measuring achievement” and proposes several sets of measurements by which museums might gauge their success over time. Of course, the task of defining and agreeing on common metrics to be used across institutions seems to be a daunting task, however Anderson highlights the fact that, “While many challenges beset art museum leaders today, finding a way to measure performance is accordingly among the field’s most urgent.” and, “Without generally accepted metrics, arts organizations will have more and more trouble making a case for themselves.

Choosing such a set of primary metrics for your institution can help to clarify and codify the relationship between your organization’s mission and its strategic plan.  These conversations are perhaps the most important discussions that could possibly be had among senior management executives and board members. As Andrew Taylor points out in his blog the Artful Manager,

“Of course, such systems [dashboards] raise a rather vexing challenge: what, exactly, are the few key indicators you would need to watch to monitor your success? It’s this question that actually proves to be more effective than the dashboard tool itself. To know what you should monitor, you need to know what you’re trying to do, and you also have to define what success looks like (more people? happier people? more art? better reviews? prolific artists?).” – Andrew Taylor, “Keeping an Eye on Dashboards”, The Artful Manager Blog, October 20.

It is important to note that this is a point at which the notion of Transparency and Metrics of Success in your museum are very closely related.  Anderson’s paper makes a convincing argument regarding the measurement of those efforts which are the most important to meeting our mission objectives.  Furthermore an establishment of appropriate metrics and benchmarks can have tangible benefits for museum operation.  Author Jason Saul illustrates this point in his book on benchmarking for non-profits,

“Thus, benchmarking has many direct and indirect benefits: increasing the impact of mission-related activities, raising internal standards, improving performance, attracting more funding, uncovering (and fixing) hidden weaknesses, and overall, improving the public face of the organization.”Jason Saul, Benchmarking for nonprofits: how to measure, manage, and improve performance (Fieldstone Alliance, 2004) pg 12.

If these benchmarks or metrics are indeed the key drivers of our success, is it not also the case that these are the same facts and figures we should be making available to our constituents? By so doing, we begin to build an ongoing trust based on measurable fact and open a door to rational and informed conversations about why continued support of our museum is so vital.

Unfortunately, choosing the statistics and deciding to share them is not enough. Our museums are composed of an amalgam of individuals from many different social, educational, and professional backgrounds. Many of whom are extremely intelligent and passionate about their service to our institutions. Their daily choices, attitudes and activities are required to actually put these strategies and metrics into action and achieve the institution’s mission.  We cannot succeed in achieving our mission without the buy-in and understanding of these key staff members.

Filed under: Musings, Technology

One Response to “Transparency and Museums (Part 2) – Reasons for Transparency”

  • avatar
    Mark Says:

    With so many ways to promote your arts institution online, it can sometimes be hard to keep all the portals through which you can be contacted up to date with relevant information.

    There is nothing so sloppy as an out of date online profile, but it can be a lot of work.

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