Carol Scott

Thinking about museums and controversy

Carol Scott - Sunday, November 01, 2015

In a world where positions are becoming more polarised, museums can expect to be on the receiving end of controversy at some time or other. I recently gave a paper at the ICOM Marketing and Public Relations conference held this year in Yerevan, Armenia from the 24th-28th October on the subject of Museums and Controversy and I would like to share the thoughts from that paper with you in a series of blog posts. This first one explores the potential sources of controversy in museums:

Collections: We find controversy in issues associated with our collections. One major source of contention is perceptions about the rightful ownership of objects with an increasing focus on repatriation. There are other areas. In these challenging economic times, some museums have considered ‘de-accessioning’ objects to manage escalating operating costs or to purchase new works- a move often accompanied by outcry and dismay from the public and other professionals. And the provenance of objects acquired by museums and galleries, often in good faith, has been the subject of more intense public scrutiny in recent years.

Inclusions and exclusions are a contested area. Who is included? Whose voice is heard? There has been controversy over the exclusions of women, migrant groups, indigenous cultures and different expressions of sexuality. Inclusion has not, in itself, eliminated controversy because conflict can then arise over representation of difference.

Standards, ethics and mores: Controversy is also played out through questions of what is admissible according to standards, ethics and mores. The exhibition of human remains is a contested area, sexuality in its myriad forms can provoke dispute- and art, with its capacity to bring with it ‘the shock of the new’, still contains the power to deeply divide public opinion.

Important collective narratives can be a source of discord. There are divergent views on how we represent war from lionising heroism and nationalism to deploring the inhumanity of war, the huge social cost to generations and the targeting of specific groups through holocausts and genocides. The contention around national narratives has witnessed overt intervention from at least one government that did not subscribe to the notion of plurality and diversity in interpreting the national story.   The origins of the world and its species are currently a highly polarised debate between creationists and scientists. 

Emerging or unresolved social issues which come accompanied by divergent views and value positions are often sources of controversy. Whether these are perceived as being linked in some way to larger geo-political conflicts, reflect deep divisions within a society or explore issues around which there are contested positions, museums can find themselves in the centre of a maelstrom.

Funding: As public investment decreases, museums are required to become more entrepreneurial and to seek greater input from sponsors, donors and foundations. What are the ethical issues involved in partnering with outside funders? Museum ethics policies are beginning to reflect the situation. The Canadian Museum Association’s ethics guidelines state clearly that any sponsorship or partnership with an external partner must not compromise the institutional mandate or the museum’s public trust responsibilities.  In the same spirit, the UK Museums Association’s draft code of ethics maintains that financial support from commercial organisations and other outside sources is acceptable provided that it does not compromise the integrity of the museum.

These six areas begin to ‘map’ the situations where controversy may occur. In the next blog, I discuss the subject of establishing guidelines to manage controversy.


Evidencing change: how do we measure social value?

Carol Scott - Monday, April 13, 2015

This is the title of the session that I am curating with Randi Korn (Founding Director, Randi Korn Associates) and Deborah Schwartz (President, Brooklyn Historical Society) at this year's American Alliance of Museums annual conference in Atlanta, Georgia.

The conference theme is the social value of museums. Creating positive social change is forging new directions for 21st century museums. But evidence to prove that change occurs remains elusive and approaches to measuring it are a work in progress.

At the heart of the issue is the question: 'do museums make a positive difference to society as a whole?' If we want the answer to be a resounding 'yes', how do we translate museum activity into measurable evidence of social value- and- what are the implications for planning and evaluation?

Our session is going to look at these questions through three lenses. Passion is needed to effect social change. Our museums need to resonate with and be relevant to our communities. Deborah Schwartz heads one such museum- where passion and commitment to the community are paramount. But passion needs to be directed. It needs to work in tandem with results-based planning and evaluation measures to achieve its social goals, a subject which is at the heart of Randi Korn's work. 

At a national level, the sector as a whole is challenged to find a narrative to demonstrates that museums create value that makes a difference in the public domain. Do museums contribute to the well-being of populations, their connectedness to one another and to communities, to an active, engaged citizenship? Where is the evidence to prove this and how do we capture it? This is the subject of my presentation.

Our session is on Monday afternoon, the 27th April from 1:45-3:00 p.m. in Room B405 at the Georgia World Congress Center. We look forward to meeting you in Atlanta.


The Cultural Value of Visiting Museums and Galleries

Carol Scott - Sunday, March 22, 2015

This week's blog post comes to you in a different format. 

As part of the AHRC's funded, Cultural Value Project (, myself, Jocelyn Dodd (Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, University of Leicester) and Richard Sandell (Professor of Museum Studies, University of Leicester) undertook a critical review of 20 years of literature to identify how users describe their museum and gallery experiences and to what extent these experiences make a difference to the public realm.

The outcomes of this project were presented at a research forum held at the University of Leicester on the 25th February 2015. The session is available on youtube and is divided into three sections:

- An introduction to the session

- My presentation on the research, concluding with three provocations

- The discussion that followed. 

The link is here. 

Cultural Value of Engaging with Museums and Galleries

Carol Scott - Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Last year I worked with Jocelyn Dodd and Richard Sandell from the Museum Studies Department at the University of Leicester. We conducted a critical review of two decades of literature to find out what it could tell us about users’ experience of museums and galleries and what difference those experiences make to individuals and to society. Last week, we met up again at the Leicester University’s Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at to present the findings of the critical review to a lively and diverse audience of museum practitioners.


We described how users’ descriptions often focus on the cognitive processes that they employ to actively engage with encounters in museums. Though positive feelings of well-being were also abundantly evident in the literature, we found that affirming, confirming and inspiring experiences occurred alongside encounters that challenged, confronted and shocked people. And there were myriad descriptions where the main experience was one of connectedness- with place, with difference, with other cultures, with the numinous, luminous and the divine, with cultural identify and with self.


But when we came to the second part of the study- ‘what difference do these experiences make to individuals and to society?’- we found less evidence. In one of my ‘provocations’ last week, I argued that, as a sector, we tend to proceed on the basis of an untested assumption that positive experiences in museum accrue by some process of osmosis to the public realm.


It may be true that the experience in museums does have impact in the public realm-producing well-being in citizens and greater trust in communities. But, as yet, we have little more than evidence from localised case studies. In the absence of longitudinal population studies with user and non-user control groups, it is difficult to argue the case that having museums does ‘make a difference’.


I argue that we need to begin by interrogating existing national data sets (Taking Part, National Household Survey, Measuring National Well-Being) to discover what evidence does exist and what other research we need to undertake to prove our deeply held belief that museums change lives and make a positive difference in the public realm.


If museums create feelings of personal well- being and social connectedness, if active engagement is what we seek to build in our citizens, then we need to bridge the evidence gap between what happens in the museum and what impact it has beyond the walls.

The full report can be found at


Museums and Well-Being

Carol Scott - Thursday, January 22, 2015

The contribution of arts and culture to well-being and good health has been in the news recently.

In an article in the Guardian[1], the Chair of Arts Council England, Sir Peter Bazalgette, argues that the arts have a powerful role to play in increasing health,  easing the pressures on the NHS[2] and potentially saving hundreds of millions of pounds in public health care costs. This theme is further elaborated in the Arts Council England’s January 2015 publication ‘Cultural Activities, artforms and wellbeing[3]’ co-authored by Daniel Fujiwarra and Michael McKerron.

Well-being is associated with life satisfaction, happiness and meaningfulness. But the New Economics Foundation (NEF 2009)[4] has developed a well-being hierarchy which provides greater definition. They distinguish between social and individual wellbeing. In this blog today, I want to focus on personal well-being, which NEF associates with positive feelings such as vitality, self esteem, competence, autonomy, engagement, meaning and purpose.

The good news is that users of museums and galleries (who constitute 52% of the English population)[5] describe their experience in ‘well-being’ terms. In a major critical review as part of the Cultural Value Project[6], Carol Scott of Carol Scott Associates[7] and Prof. Richard Sandell and Jocelyn Dodd from the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies, interrogated two decades of UK studies to discover how users described their experiences in museums.

We found that the users describe museums as a well-being experience, one that generates enjoyment, pleasure, stimulation and inspiration. It can be energising and uplifting as well as calming and healing.  In line with the NEF model, museum experiences can make people feel ‘alive’. An enhanced sense of self often results. People describe feelings of personal ‘dignity’, of pride, affirmation, confidence and confidence.  In their own words:


I have always liked art galleries because the atmosphere was calm compared with home.... It has shown me how to chill, I am much more relaxed and well happier! makes me feel alive when I look at art and things. Because I feel like I'm a working, functioning human being...


The first thing I saw, I felt, was- a refugee person can be something in this country -I felt proud of myself.


It’s changed my ideas about myself - I would actually feel capable now of going in and knowing I had something to offer a local group.


So investment in museums and galleries is paying dividends in terms of the quality of the experience and its positive outcomes for users. The next stage is to examine whether individuals’ positive museum experiences accrue to the public realm and result in positive health impacts.

 There are limited, but promising, indications that this is an evidential base worth exploring. In 2010, the Culture and Sport Evidence Programme (CASE) used Taking Part data to determine whether there were positive correlations between sport and cultural participation and subjective well-being. It found in the affirmative (2010, 36) suggesting that a similar analysis of museum and gallery participation could yield useful results towards proving that museums are contributing to the public health of the British population.








[2] National Health Service in the UK


[4] New Economics Foundation (NEF). 2009.




This week, Jim Cullen talks about Public Value in action!

Carol Scott - Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Last summer I was commissioned to work with the Sir Alexander Galt Museum and Archives (The Galt) in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada on a ‘public value plan’. The Galt is a publicly-owned and funded multi-disciplinary museum and archives focused on the rich history and culture of Lethbridge and Southern Alberta.  

A number of compelling factors present challenges and offer opportunities for The Galt to be of service to the local community in the coming decade. Lethbridge expects ‘boom’ economic growth through oil and gas activity and expanded industrial agriculture. The Galt also expects significantly-increased diversity in its community driven by industrial expansion and growth in urban First Nations, elderly and student populations. How to respond? What public value can The Galt contribute?

A key success factor in our project was The Galt’s ethos. It has an existing commitment to public value principles, a strong track record in community engagement, a passion for telling community stories through a diverse exhibition program and events, and an embedded habit of strategic thinking.  In many ways, The Galt was a dream client for this kind of work!

Carol’s book was our primary source of guidance for a public value-guided ‘mashup’ of my existing strategic planning framework. We were also guided by the Alberta Museums Association Sustainability Working Group’s five ‘Facets of Sustainability[1] and a number of other internationally-published works including AAM’s Trendswatch.

Museum staff began the process with a quick, but robust stakeholder engagement process which focused on each stakeholder’s insights into the direction, needs and issues of the Lethbridge and Southern Alberta community in relation to their own organizations. We distilled this information to find recurring themes across all stakeholders.  Stakeholder feedback, combined with the Galt Planning Team’s own visioning of community trends and issues profoundly informed the plan’s development and content. 

My strategic planning work has long made use of Appreciative Inquiry[2] and ‘SOAR’[3] methods to encourage generative thinking. We found that SOAR worked beautifully with public value concepts. As a Recognized Museum in Alberta, The Galt was already accustomed to rigorous review of its core museum operations and we were able to re-purpose our internal analysis of standard museum functions to focus on the public value capabilities which would be needed to support this fundamental strategic direction. 

The Planning Team reviewed and re-interpreted their existing mission and vision statements through a public value lens and focused on value propositions and community and visitor outcomes.

In the end, we met the project’s scope and timing requirements and developed a strategic plan worthy of this remarkable institution; the plan was approved by the Galt’s Board with few amendments.  It was thrilling to work with such a public value-savvy team and to see how public value thinking could energize and bring vastly greater meaning to the strategic planning process.   As a consultant, my strategic planning process now is driven even more deeply by public value concepts. 

[1] Cultural, Health, Environmental, Financial and Social Sustainability.  See

[2] Cooperrider, Whitney and Stavros, found at:

[3] Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, Results.  See

Getting to grips with measuring social impact

Carol Scott - Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Providing evidence that museums create social value is essential for making the case to governments for continued public investment. Now, recent research for the Heritage Lottery Fund finds that social investors are also calling for the cultural heritage sector to ‘get to grips with measuring social impact’ according to Dan Corry, who presented at the recent Heritage Exchange Forum (14-15 July 2014, London).

With public investment in decline, engaging non-public, social investors is becoming imperative. But whether the funding comes from the public or non-public spheres, investors want to know what difference their contribution has made and whether it has achieved what it set out to do. Enter- the concept of ‘impact’ and how to measure it- subjects of long and vigorous discussions in the cultural heritage sector. 

As Korn argues in Museums and Public Value: creating sustainable futures (Scott 2013, 31-43), institutions can more easily measure impact when they plan for the difference they want to make, identify the results they are seeking to achieve and link measures to defined interventions. Individually, museums are starting to think about planning for social change with this intentional aspect in mind.

But what about other social impacts that are not the results of specific institutional planning? Do museums in general create value that accrues to the public realm? If so, where is the evidence and how do we capture it?

Getting to grips with social impact can start with existing data sets and the methods they use to capture evidence. The Taking Part survey, for example, has been collecting data on cultural and sport participation in England since 2005. Managed by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in partnership with English Heritage, Arts Council England and Sport England, it surveys nationally representative samples of adults and children at regular intervals each year. The data is longitudinal, allowing changes to be tracked over time and comparisons to be made between users and non-users.

For nearly a decade, it has collected baseline data on cultural participation using Subjective Wellbeing (SWB) methods that allow individuals to assign a numeric value to cultural experiences and to self- perceptions of well-being, trust, belonging and influence. Correlations can then be made between cultural participation and its impact on both individual well-being and the presence of other indicators of social capital needed to build healthy communities.

In 2010, Jones (2010, 13) used Taking Part data to test the assumption that the ‘... more individuals participate, the greater the benefit of overall participation to society’. Of particular interest was whether cultural participation has an impact on social capital in communities, specifically on the presence of ‘trust’. The study found that people who engage in cultural activities are 15% more likely to ‘trust’ others than those who do not (Jones 2010, 52). Evidence that participating in cultural activities can have positive impacts which accrue to the public realm is the sort of evidence that public funders and social investors are looking for when we make the case for the importance of cultural heritage.  

Taking Part and the Culture and Sport Evidence programme (CASE) are existing resources that merit our close attention. Our sector can ‘get to grips’ with social impact by mining this data more extensively to find out what other evidence it yields.

 Taking Part:

CASE programme:

How Far Will We Go? Reconciling public values and museum values

Carol Scott - Monday, May 05, 2014
Last week, I gave a keynote presentation about Museums and Public Value for FARO, the Flemish Interface Institution of Cultural Heritage (Belgium) which operates as an intermediary between the Flemish cultural government and the broader cultural heritage sector.

As so often happens when preparing a presentation, one discovers new questions within familiar territory. This is what happened to me when I was thinking about the role of the public in Public Value and how far we will go to acknowledge the public as authorizers of value.


If organisations are to create public value in their practices and use evaluative standards to measure their performance, then those values and evaluative standards must be authorised by the public.


What happens, then, when the values of an organisation and those of the public are at variance? When Moore talks about addressing ‘unmet social needs’ in the public realm as a focus for public value creation, it resonates strongly with the museum sector’s focus on the social impact agenda of museums. So what do we do when the public indicates that the social impact agenda is not what they value most about museums?


Britain Thinks 2013 research for The Museums Association provided a very interesting example of this variance between the intentions of the organisation and the value of the public. The research found that public strongly values museums and is aware that the current economic situation places them under extreme pressures. Addressing the facts, the public suggests that the best use of funding at this time is to ensure core functions such as conservation, interpretation and education and learning. These are the essential things about museums which the public value and they are rightly concerned about how much we can undertake as a sector in these economically stringent times.

So what does this mean for the social impact agenda? How do we address variance when we encounter it? How much do we value the public’s value?   



Blaug R. Horner L. and Lekhi R. (2006). Public value, politics and public management: A literature review. London: The Work Foundation.

Britain Thinks. (2013). Public Perceptions- and attitudes to- the purposes of museums in society. London: Museums Association.

Kelly G. Mulgan G. And Muers, S. (2002). Creating public value: an analytical framework for public service reform. London:  Strategy Unit, Cabinet Office.

Scott C. A. (2010). Searching for the public in Public Value: arts and cultural heritage in Australia. Cultural Trends, 19, 4, 273- 289.

Scott C.A. (2013). Museums and Public Value: creating sustainable futures. London: Ashgate.


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.