Carol Scott

Value is at the heart of museums

Our missions embody core values- our purpose, our reason for being.  We use our resources to create value for the communities we serve. We connect with audiences through understanding their personal values and the values they share as citizens.  We measure our value to demonstrate the essential public benefits we provide.

This blog is dedicated to the subject of ‘Museums and Value’.  Its aim is to provide a forum for discussion and debate on the many dimensions of value and its place in the work of museums today.


Can Public Value be Fun?

Carol Scott - Sunday, March 30, 2014

This week, Ben Garcia, author of the chapter ‘Creating Public Value through Museum Education’ In Museums and Public Value: creating sustainable futures, considers whether public value can be ‘fun’.


When I first read Mary Ellen Munley’s question in this blog about public value goals central to the work of the museum and Marsha Semmel’s proposition that museums of value work to become more essential to their communities, I did not think first of beer tastings. But I recently had the opportunity to visit a museum programme in a city that prides itself on its beer culture, and where a large sector of the community engages around music and beer and burgers. So, is this museum –capitalising on existing community interests and providing an enjoyable experience for visitors in the process- doing something of public value?


Part of the challenge when thinking about public value, is that most of the literature comes from an advocacy or research perspective—and these are not realms known for fun. The messages are often reflective and usually directed to a worthy social goal. I have been thinking lately about fun. And about how that term applies to public value.


The beer-tasting event at The Museum of Man in San Diego which I attended last week is indicative of that museum’s wider strategy towards populist exhibitions that incorporate unexpected connections to current social issues. The tasting was one of several held in conjunction with a beer exhibition that features vessels and tools used for the production and consumption of beer throughout history and around the world. The objects were accompanied by informative and humorous labels about cross-cultural beer-making traditions and the exhibit included a wonderful interactive component related to beer terminology around the world.

Walking about the great hall, surrounded by a buzz of museum patrons sampling local beers and eating a variety of foods from area restaurants, I was thinking about the value of programs like these. Museums are often conflicted when the events that garner the greatest public response are those that lie farthest away from traditional notions of museums’ social value.


And then I noticed that the museum had located an exhibition about cooperative businesses run by women in developing countries directly across from the beer exhibition. That space featured objects made by artisans and artists in cooperatives in South Africa, South America, India and elsewhere. The interpretation was an exploration of the socioeconomic factors that underpinned the scarce resources in these communities and a description of the efforts women had made on their own behalf to raise the community out of poverty. As I watched visitors move from the beer exhibition to the beer-tasting event to the exhibition about artist cooperatives I saw the Museum of Man model in action. And I saw fun and public value aligned.


We tend to be very serious when we talk about the role of museums in society.  I wonder if those of us who advocate for the public value of museums might do well to follow the example of museums like The Museum of Man and keep the “fun” in profundity.


Public Value and Public Policy in Britain

Carol Scott - Sunday, March 16, 2014

This week, I’ve invited David O’Brien, author of Measuring the Value of Culture (DCMS, 2010) Value and a contributor to the book, Museums and Public Value: creating sustainable futures, to discuss why the idea of public value has experienced an uneven reception in Britain.


Museums, like most cultural spaces, are contested sites. These contests manifest themselves in many ways, often over the content and purpose of museums.  The contests focus on the value of museums. The value of museums is now a crucial way of arguing for funding in an era where, in the global West at least, budgets are being reduced. One influential way of thinking about value in museums has used a theory from public management, the theory of public value.


In the UK public value was highly influential in the earlier part of the 2000s and was closely associated with the New Labour administration of that time. It was influential for several reasons, chief of which was that it seemed to offer an alternative to the narrow focus on efficiency and economy that had come to dominate public management during the 1980s and 1990s.


However its direct influence was rather short lived. This was for three reasons. These three reasons illustrate both why public value was important for museums in particular and the cultural sector more generally, but also why it did not manage to capture policy makers in a permanent way.


First public value was an important way to capture the intangible aspects of organisations practice. In particular it aimed to explore how organisations did more than just provided goods and services. Public value showed how organisations created bonds of trust with local and national populations, moving beyond merely contractual or economic relationships. However in showing these aspects of organisations’ importance, public value didn’t fully specify how to measure or account for trust or relationships. This meant that what public value sought to highlight didn’t fit when the prevailing language of UK central government changed in 2010.


The source of much of this government language, irrespective of which party is in power, is the UK’s Treasury. Public value never had the full backing of the Treasury and as such was never fully embedded in how Whitehall thought about public services beyond the economic calculations. Public value was important for public bodies outside Whitehall, was influential with think tanks and was crucial to Prime Ministerial strategy for central government. However it did not penetrate the walls of the Treasury during its most influential time and, therefore, never really embedded itself in the way government, in the UK, thinks.


Finally public value was not used in a consistent way by the public bodies that adopted it. For the BBC it was initially a way of justifying funding and doing economic analysis. For the Arts Council, the UK’s main distributor of cultural funding, it was a method of doing market research with its clients and a rather limited range of ‘the public’. For the Heritage Lottery Fund, a distributor of heritage funding based on the UK’s National Lottery game, it was a means of measuring performance. These three uses were not the same and give an illustration of the range, and therefore lack of coherence, of public value in the cultural sector.


Museums must, therefore, be cautious before fully committing to accounting for themselves in the language of public value. The UK experience suggests that public value’s roots in American management theory leave it with an uncertain position if its political champions lose power and influence. Whilst its lessons have been important, public value may best be seen as one moment in a much larger conversation about the role and purpose of museums in contemporary society. It is a conversation that will only become more pressing in the coming years.

The Public Value Of Museums - Does Size Matter?

Carol Scott - Sunday, February 16, 2014

In Museums and Public Value: creating sustainable futures, Lisa Conolly’s chapter on ‘Measuring Public Value’ raises the question ‘does size matter’? In this blog, Lisa shares some personal reflections and provocations on whether ‘size’ is a meaningful measure of public value. She questions ‘size’ in relation to museum buildings, collections and web statistics and finds that ‘size’ is a slippery measure.

The Museum Cathedral

Most museums provide a physical space to be visited. Over the last four decades, huge sums have been invested to establish and refurbish museums throughout the world. Are the size of these investments in monetary terms and the size of the resulting buildings an indication of how much we value museums?  If increased capacity means that a museum is capable of welcoming more visitors, does the size of our attendances mean that a big museum is valued more than a small one?

Grand Collections

In a statistical survey, size matters because the wider your coverage and the bigger your samples the more sure you are about your understanding of the population and the validity of your results. For a museum, does a large, representative collection equate to greater validity, more authority and, therefore, more public value?

If a “collection” has a defined scope and coverage and a representative sample of relevant content, what measures do we apply to assess the significance of smaller, specialized collections where it is not the size but the uniqueness or the special selectivity (representing, for example, a particular historical period) that matters.

Virtually Everything Matters

We are all busy counting hits and downloads. Internet interactions can generate big numbers. But what does it mean? Thousands of hits and downloads may be generated by machine to machine communication. People can hit websites inadvertently while looking for something else. Are numbers of hits a valid measure of value?

Thousands of hits may represent thousands of website users but how do we assess the value to the public of these engagements? As a self confessed museum lover, I confess that my searches on museum web sites usually disappoint me. Virtual tours give a small – too small – sample of artworks or objects. I may be a ‘unique user’ but I often come away dissatisfied- I am seeking greater value than I am getting.This is a case where I believe size matters in a different way. Personally, as these exhibitions and collections are a public resource, I would like to see a much bigger virtual presence of our public museum content. If entire museum collections were online, counting the searches and downloads might give us meaningful indications of the public value of these collections.

Size does matter. But is it always a meaningful measure? What do you think?

Museums and Public Value: creating sustainable futures


Why Public Value Matters to US Museums

Carol Scott - Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The contributors to the book, ‘Museums and Public Value: creating sustainable futurescome from a variety of countries. This week, Marsha Semmel from the US discusseswhy public value matters for US museums


Thank you, Carol, for the opportunity to participate in this blog.

I first learned of Mark Moore in January 2003, when I began work at the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a U.S. federal culture agency. My boss, IMLS Director Robert Martin,gave me a copy of Moore’s Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government and urged me to read it. Later, I heard Mark present at the annual meeting of the Urban Libraries Council.  I got a deeper immersion in his work when I participated in a multi-year public value project Mark did with 13 U.S. state arts agencies under the auspices of The Wallace Collection (Creating Public Value Through State Arts Agencies, 2005).  

For me, the power of Moore’s strategic triangle model was—and remains--its recognition that every institution functions in a dynamic environment, with the continued challenge of maintaining effective equilibrium in response to this fluid context.  The model acknowledges the necessity of attending simultaneously to external and internal forces, with “public value” playing an essential role in an organization’s success and survival.

The public value debate is alive and well in the United States today, with passionate and divergent views on causes and remedies for such issues as income inequality, the appropriate role of government at all levels, employment and job skills, health and well-being, the quality of education, access and privacy, and the impact of technology. Underlying many of these debates are different –and passionate--perspectives on community, values, and the future.

How can museums navigate –and add value to – their publics on these and other issues? I believe that museums can ‘make a difference,’ for individuals and for communities, in support of our missions, but not without intention, adaptation, and collaboration. Many U.S. museums are already addressing such pressing challenges as early learning, digital literacy, civic engagement, environmental awareness, nutrition, creativity, and personal “meaning making” and fulfilment. They are customizing programs to individual interests and preferences, leveraging the learning power of mobile devices and tablets, co-creating programs and projects with their publics (and thereby enriching their own knowledge and content), and joining in community-wide collaborations to systematically achieve and document “collective impact” in meeting a specific educational or community development goals.

These museums seek to understand their communities and work with others (individuals and organizations) to strengthen their roles as responsive community anchor organizations.  Their leaders and boards are recognized throughout their communities for their authentic engagement in –and commitment to--raising the bar for all community members. They understand and transform their core mission and strategic plans in order to expand public access to their offerings and become more essential to communities.

They make the necessary internal structural, budgetary, operational, and staff changes (including recruitment and training) that respond to their community’s (audience’s) public value needs and changing authorizing environment.They recognize the importance of imagination, experimentation and innovation, and they understand that this is a long-term commitment--a marathon rather than a sprint.

So where are our concerns?

These museums exist, principally, as isolated examples.

Too many other museums remain mired in old models, fearful of or reluctant to change, unable, as emcArts CEO Richard Evans notes, to “leave the shore” of the familiar for today’s new terrain.  In order to move forward, it will be necessary for museums to (1) adapt and embrace the current environment of learning, networked collaboration, and evolving public interests; (2) document and articulate their impacts to current and potential authorizers, publics, and partners; (3)  undertake the necessary leadership, governance, and operational changes that will be required to thrive in today’s global knowledge society.

Setting Goals to Achieve Public Value

Carol Scott - Saturday, December 14, 2013

Creating social impact is a 'hot topic' in museum conversations these days. When we plan for social impact, we are making an intentional decision to create something beneficial and 'of value' that will be experienced in the public domain. This week, I've invited Mary Ellen Munely to share her thoughts on what goals might direct a museum seeking to maximise its public value and create positive social impact.


I appreciate Carol’s invitation to contribute to this conversation about public value. As Stephen Weil warned nearly a decade ago, ‘[i]f museums are not being operated with the ultimate goal of improving the quality of people's lives, on what basis might we possibly ask for public support?’ As was so often the case with Steve Weil, his question leads us to the crux of the matter.


The logic is simple: if museums wish to garner public support, then they are obligated to demonstrate that they provide public value. Public value lives at the intersection of the museum and larger, shared public interests and goals. A public value perspective has us look at the work and accomplishments of a museum from the perspective of citizens and the collective greater good. The quality of a collection and benefits for visitors and patrons tell one story about the effectiveness and importance of a museum. I don’t believe that those who question the public value of museums take issue with the concept of museums or the ways that some people find museums to be very important; they take issue with the fact that many museums do not seem to be sufficiently accessible and responsive.


Those who ask challenging questions about the public value of our museums look for the broad community impact of the museum’s work, the manner in which the museum operates, and who it serves. Museums that meet a public value standard are: 1) efficient and effective in contributing to goals shared by the community at large, 2) known to be just and fair in the way in which they operate, and 3) known to work toward just and fair conditions in the society at large. So how does a museum maximize its public value? It starts with a set of public-minded goals. A starter list of those goals might include:

  • Expand participation, by increasing the number and/or diversity of people who typically participate. Public value perspectives and evaluations are concerned with equity of access and if the museum operates in ways that reach and serve all prospective audiences.
  • Increase participants’ sense of individual and collective efficacy for development and action. Public value perspectives focus on ways for people to explore personal connections and meaning; they are not chiefly focused on delivering the museum’s messages.
  • Increase tolerance and respect among people who hold different beliefs or values. The public value approach embraces multiple perspectives and the development of knowledge, skills and ways of behaving that respect differences and continual conversation and dialogue.
  • Assist people in gaining knowledge that results in new perceptions and understanding of the world.
  • Increase visibility for, or awareness of, an issue. Public value perspectives lead a museum to be an active player within its community and to bring its resources and reputation into the hard work of the community at large, not on all issues, but on at least some.
  • Enhance capacity for creative expression.
  • Contribute to building social capital and linking individuals to one another to provide new connections and social support.
  • One challenge in articulating a public value perspective is that many see an outward-looking standard of success as adopting only an instrumental definition of a museum’s value. An instrumental perspective says, for instance, that museums are of public value when they contribute to increases in standardized test scores or reductions in teen pregnancy. But must a public value perspective be synonymous with instrumental outcomes? How might we look at the list of public value goals I’ve offered here as linked to the essential work and value of museums?

    I look forward to hearing from readers about what you see as public value goals and why those goals are directly related to the work and role of museums in our society. In other words, what are public value goals that are not tangential to the work of the museum, but absolutely tied to our understanding of what the role of museums is in our society – and in our times?