An interview by Diana Fehr / March 4th, 2021
Carol Scott is a consultant working with museums and cultural heritage organisations around the world. She is Director of Carol Scott Associates where her practice is based on working with clients to build vision, value and impact through strategic planning, evaluation, audience development and branding. She has been President of Museums and Galleries Australia, Secretary of ICOM MPR, Chair of ICOM UK and is currently in her second term as a member of the Executive Committee of the International Council of Museums. She has published widely and is in demand as a speaker and thought leader. More about Carol at carolscottassociates.com
Museo: In a time of accelerated change and crisis most museums focus on accessibility as they try to stay connected with their audience. However, your current research interest is more focused on museum leadership. Why is this topic so important for you?
Carol: As you say, staying connected with audiences is a major focus for leadership at any time. This crisis has strengthened our virtual connections while forcing us to hit the ‘pause’ button on much of our other activities. Pausing is an opportunity to slow the pace of accelerated change under which we have all been operating and take a moment to reflect.
The impacts of COVID for museums have been major. I work with museum leadership on strategic planning, and I know that many museums are reassessing and reimagining their future in the light of decreased resources, reduced physical visitation, a dispersed workforce and interrupted programs. But the current pause provides an opportunity to revisit mission and core values. It is an opportunity to re-examine key questions – Why are we here? What is our role and purpose? What do we stand for? What is a feasible vision for the foreseeable future?
For example, the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London is particularly clear about their mission, vision and values. They begin with a quote from the naturalist, David Attenborough about the planetary emergency we face and describe their strategy as the NHM’s response to this environmental crisis.
Our mission is to create advocates for the planet.
Our vision is of a future where both people and the planet thrive.
We have four values that will define our approach during this strategy:
we are connected, we encourage creativity, we champion diversity and we value evidence.
So COVID has created a space to re-interrogate these fundamental questions. It is also forcing us to be more selective about what is achievable within a resource-poor climate for a number of years to come. We will have to choose carefully. Selecting those activities which reinforce mission, vision and values is likely to make the most authentic and significant impact in the years to come.
Museo: Is funding the biggest challenge for museum leaders today?
Carol: Many leaders think so. A survey by the Strategic Planning Committee of ICOM in 2018 found that it was cited as the most important issue facing museums today. Public funding for museums in many Western countries has been declining for some time. The pandemic has exacerbated an already challenging environment and one of the things that COVID has revealed is the fragility of the business model under which many museums are laboring.
This is evident from two surveys which ICOM has conducted within the last year exploring the impact of the pandemic on museums. One of the findings is that 6% of the world’s museums anticipate that they will not be able to re-open and a further 13% are in a perilous position and ‘at risk’ of closure. The museums most ‘at risk’ are those which either do not receive public support or where minimal public investment makes them more dependent on self-generated income, sponsorships and the investment income from foundations and endowments. Those that are likely to survive are the recipients of sustainable government funding.
To get back to your question about whether funding is the biggest challenge facing museum leaders today, I would say it is one of the major challenges. The art of leadership is a balancing act, working across multiple external and internal stakeholders. Visionary leaders can see around the curve. They can engage staff and management to work towards a vision of what a museum can be. Increasingly, that vision needs to have engagement from the communities which the museum serves. Collaboration with communities on a project-by-project basis has been a growing part of museum practice but the collaboration with communities which is emerging is now more about direction-setting and working with communities to build social value together.
Museo: How can museum leaders support this movement of building positive social value and more importantly, how can this change be measured – how can this be evaluated?
Carol: In many ways, it is the leader who fosters an approach where the museum sees itself, not just as a cultural and educational entity, not just as an attraction but as a citizen. As public citizens, museums have a responsibility to contribute to the common good. And we find museums increasingly embracing their citizenship role. Museums are modeling sustainable environmental practice and championing equality through questioning colonial narratives and addressing contested histories. But to make real gains in these areas, it is necessary to plan with the intention of creating change. If you know the change that you want to achieve, then it is easier to develop clear measures to track progress towards the goal.
Museo: Are there more opportunities for museums in the future?
Carol: I think that this is a moment when we should really interrogate and create powerful narratives around the experiential value that museums have for visitors and the social value that museums create in the public domain.
When ICOM’s Strategic Planning Committee did that survey in 2018 which I mentioned earlier, the respondents were very clear that a major reason for the decrease in government funding was due to an imperfect understanding of the real value of museums to society on the part of funders and bureaucrats. Further, they thought that the museum community had to take the initiative to redress this. Making the case for museum value is the opportunity. Most museums are not-for-profit organizations but the value they add to society far exceeds the public investment they receive. If public funding continues to decrease, then we must ask ourselves how we can make the case for value more powerfully so that our advocacy is more effective.
Museo: Can you tell us more about the evidence showing that museums are creating value?
Carol: I mentioned both the value that museums have for visitors and the social value that museums create in the public domain so I will begin with the first of these – how visitors describe the value they experience as the result of museum visits.
As part of the UK’s initial Cultural Value Project, I worked with the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at Leicester University where we did a big project on how visitors describe the value of museum visiting. The emphasis was on the visitor experience in the visitor’s own words. I looked at 20 years of audience research and evaluation studies in UK museums and galleries.
The value that visitors described was in three main areas. ‘Museums help people think’ was the first category. What was significant was that this thinking was not simple recognition or recall of factual information. It was at much higher levels of cognitive functioning such as comparing and contrasting, evaluation and judgment. In an age of information overload and fake news, museums are helping people think critically. But the study also found that people value museums because of their capacity to create a sense of connectedness, by making you realize how other people live. And, in addition, the museum experience is described in terms of well-being citing feelings of inspiration, calm and pleasure as well as enhanced self-esteem.
On the public value side, museums are promoting citizen science, working with disadvantaged communities, bringing people together to discuss unresolved social issues, enhancing a sense of place, fostering access and social inclusion and partnering with health and social partners to improve community health.
Museo: Museum professionals are very creative thinkers, but are they also fast adapters?
Carol: I think that the response when COVID forced museums to close is evidence of how agile this sector can be. In the absence of physical visits, museums used digital to maintain both a presence and an engagement with audiences. Many museums report an increased virtual constituency because digital is not tied to time and place and a worldwide audience can connect with what you are offering online.
Museo: What role does the digital element play in the future?
Carol: One of the really interesting outcomes of digital was reported at the end of last year in the lead up to and the aftermath of the US election. Previous research done in the US has consistently shown that museums are the most trusted sources of information, out-performing media and politicians by a wide margin. That trust actually increased during COVID. One of the major reasons for this was that the digital presence of museums was (in contrast to much of the fake news emerging during the election campaign) based on evidence, credentialed experts and authentic objects. So real facts, real experts and real objects promoted through digital- it’s a platform with potential!
Museo: Thank you very much for this interview.
Images: Carol Scott, Unsplash