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A Big COVID-19 Pivot: The Museum Assessment Program Goes Virtual

Category: Alliance Blog
Exterior of a low modernist building behind a running fountain
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum was gearing up to participate in the Museum Assessment Program when COVID-19 hit. Here's how the museum's staff and assigned Peer Reviewer adapted to the circumstances. Photo credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum

The Museum Assessment Program (MAP) is one of the most valuable programs offered by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) for emerging institutions, museums undergoing structural change, or organizations looking to improve one or more areas of their operations. MAP helps institutions bring their policies more in line with AAM Core Standards and current professional practices. In normal years, it is a rewarding exercise in self-study and reflection for both the museum and the Peer Reviewer assigned to carry out the assessment.

But 2020 was not a normal assessment period, as the novel coronavirus pandemic created new, unexpected challenges for host institutions, Peer Reviewers, and MAP staff. Thankfully, all parties reacted with the professionalism, empathy, flexibility, and patience needed to maintain a successful self-assessment by participating institutions. The lessons we learned this year will hopefully prepare next year’s participants for an even better experience, should some virtual visits still be necessary. In that light, we wanted to share some of those lessons we learned as a Peer Reviewer and museum staff member who completed an assessment virtually.

Anastasia Wallace, Education Manager, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum:

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum (IMSM) decided to undertake the Education and Interpretation MAP assessment because we felt we needed to build a solid foundation for all future education initiatives. IMSM has been around for a while, but has never considered education and interpretation individually and strategically. With the recent addition of multiple staff members to our team, including the very first Education Manager (myself), we felt this was the best time for the assessment, and that it would be a great way to organize and prioritize. (This was my first experience with the MAP process, but IMSM had participated in the Collections Stewardship MAP in 2018.)

When our internal IMSM “MAP team” first started to draft out goals for the assessment, we had so many ideas that it was hard to narrow down to just three, as the program application requires, but eventually we were able to identify the following to prioritize for now: We wanted to prioritize areas of focus for program, audience, and exhibit development while considering our current available resources. We wanted to use the assessment as a starting point for formal written education and interpretation plans, including use of our space, by integrating museum core standards and industry best practices. Finally, we wanted to develop a plan to become a premier education destination by leveraging our natural connection to STEM education and career pathways. Throughout the assessment process there have been many new “goals” that have popped up, and we are excited to get started on mapping out (pun intended) how we want to move forward.

Dr. Matthew White, Peer Reviewer:

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Being a Peer Reviewer is a challenge, a pleasure, and a responsibility. This was my third time serving as one, and it was as rewarding as the first two. We all have a responsibility to give back to the museum world, and meeting and working with other professionals around the country is always a pleasure. It’s a wonderful opportunity for any museum professional. Participating is always a challenge, however, since it requires Peer Reviewers to put their daily responsibilities on hold while they immerse themselves in their host institution, travel to its site, and follow the visit with a comprehensive report. In some ways, it’s like attending an AAM Annual Meeting, only with assigned advanced readings, homework, and a lengthy essay exam. On top of that, this mixture of challenges, rewards, and responsibilities was amplified this year as the pandemic restricted our movements and forced us to adjust on the fly to changing circumstances.

Anastasia Wallace:

Our process started in the beginnings of shutdown and the initial COVID panic. As a museum, we had to prioritize logistical issues and figure out how we were going to work from home. As we settled into weekly virtual MAP team meetings, we started the long process of finishing part one of the self-assessment MAP Workbook. Our MAP team, while small, took on the mighty and daunting task with great enthusiasm. We navigated how to keep focused while going through pages of questions and activities, and we laughed more than we cried! We had support from our Director, who unfortunately made the decision to step away from the museum in July. This threw the whole staff for a loop and impacted the MAP process. While she was not on the MAP team, our Director had an involved hand in the workbook and was a part of many discussions and activities in the process. Any time that a museum has a switch up in staffing it can be difficult, and this was compounded by COVID reopening issues.

The team was upset that the physical site visit by our Peer Reviewer Matthew was cancelled due to the pandemic, but we are proud that we were able to figure out a way to keep communication open and engaging as we crafted a virtual MAP experience. While an in-person visit would have allowed Matthew to see our museum and give him more context, the virtual “visits” meant we could spread out meetings and work with Matthew to develop other ways for him to interact with staff and show him our programs and policies.

Matthew White:

The Peer Reviewer’s role during this process changed in only one important aspect: the cancellation of the physical site visit, which is the most important part of the information-gathering experience. But we successfully substituted the intensive, immersive experience of the two-to-three day physical site visit with a series of video meetings spread out over a month. This had the effect of giving me and Anastasia more flexibility to set up meetings and allow for follow-up one-on-one discussions. The implementation of an online survey helped gather other data and allow for broader participation from those associated with the museum.

On the other hand, though, this made for a less immersive experience than usual, leaving out some impressions and non-verbal interactions that are an important part of any interpersonal experience. Photographs of exhibitions, videos from the museum, and even Yelp and Trip Advisor reviews are helpful to form an intellectual interpretation of the host institution, but they are no substitute for taking a physical tour of the museum, meeting with outside stakeholders, and getting to know the institution’s community. In past site visits, I have met with enthusiastic partners and supporters. Passion like that is harder to assess from a video conference. There is also value in touring the community as a visitor to get unmediated feedback from local stores, restaurants, tourism volunteers and staff—even cab and Uber drivers and other frontline workers—and this is ultimately unavailable from afar. To make up for that, both the host program and the Peer Reviewer needed to work harder and more creatively to fill in gaps of knowledge and experience.

Anastasia Wallace:

Even before a final report and findings from Matthew, the IMSM’s MAP team felt the entire process was beneficial and enriching. The discussions we had with different staff and the activities that we worked through were enlightening. There were many questions in the MAP Workbook that we, as a museum, had just never asked ourselves. The entire process gave us an excuse to really sit down and examine many aspects of our museum that we had never looked at closely. We learned that we all had preconceived notions of how different staff members viewed the museum and our operations, and at many times the MAP team was pleasantly surprised that most staff did in fact agree with each other on many topics. We were able to find common ground on different issues that before we felt there was disagreement, which is a wonderful added bonus!

The pandemic threw something of a wrench into the normal proceedings of the MAP experience, but any lessening of some benefits of the process was more than made up for by alternative procedures and extended discussion. And it would be foolish to discount the tendency of crises to pull people together and help them to form bonds. In many ways, the experience of the pandemic strengthened the relationships between the Peer Reviewer and the MAP team. Without that experience, this blog post would probably not have come together, for instance.

If we were to do anything different in the MAP process, we would probably start our weekly meetings earlier than we did and possibly include the Peer Reviewer earlier for better, more sustained communication and mutual support. The team did not fully appreciate the amount of work that was going to go into the MAP Workbook and, while we did receive an extension of time, we would have benefited from our team meeting more frequently. And, of course, we would have loved for our reviewer to be able to come see us in person!

All in all, the MAP process provides an amazing foundational document in the workbook. Already, conversations are starting that would not have started before, and we have the MAP process to thank for this. It was an eye-opening and thorough experience that we are very glad we went through.

As our MAP team continues to do our workbook activities and plan how to take action and implement some of our new ideas, we are looking forward to the next step of the MAP process, which is to receive our Peer Reviewer’s Final Assessment Report and begin strategically building a solid foundation for our museum’s future education initiatives.

The Museum Assessment Program (MAP) is now accepting applications for five assessment types! AAM’s MAP has helped more than five thousand museums of all types strengthen operations, plan for the future, and meet standards. Participating museums go through a one-year process of self-assessment, institutional activities, and consultative peer review with a site visit and recommendations. Find out how your museum can go to the next level! Application Deadline is February 1, 2021.

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