Carol Scott

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?

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