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Essential Evaluators: Let’s Keep Unlearning

Category: Alliance Blog
A graphic reading "Essential Evaluators" with the subtitle "Let's Keep Unlearning"

Essential Evaluators seeks to gather evaluators in a common space to dialogue, reflect, and support each other in a world upended by COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protest movement. This is a time of uncertain and unknown expectations in our professions, in our institutions, and in our communities. We invite you to join us as we rethink, revision, and ultimately redefine our roles as evaluators and our place in museums.

Other posts in this series:

Thinking about how to grapple with our world and what has shifted over the past year, we wanted to reach out to someone in the field to offer perspective, guidance, and critique—and maybe even inject a little positivity into our thinking. We were so honored that Peter Linett agreed to author an Essential Evaluators blog post. And we thank him for offering an honest and thoughtful piece that we believe should cause all of us to reflect on our purpose and assumptions, and to challenge ourselves and the very nature of our field.

–Laureen Trainer & Andréa Giron Mathern

Last month I attended a web conversation hosted by the Equitable Evaluation Initiative, a five-year project led by Jara Dean-Coffey and her colleagues to rethink the role that evaluation plays in philanthropy and the broader social sector. Their vision is to make evaluation a tool “for and of equity,” which means transforming not just its methods and mindsets but also the purposes to which it’s put and the kinds of change it leads to in the world.

Somehow I had never drawn that distinction between means and ends in my research and evaluation work, and I’ve found it revelatory. Doing something better than we used to—for instance, doing it more inclusively, more collaboratively, more sensitively and ethically—doesn’t mean much if the reasons we’re doing it and the impact it has on our communities lie unquestioned and ambiguous beneath the whole enterprise. In other words, equity has to lie not just in the how but also in the why.

As I wrestle with my role as a white male practitioner at a wrenching moment in our country and the cultural sector, I’ve been thinking a lot about that distinction. One of the things I’ve realized is that it’s almost entirely absent from the museum field’s evaluation discourse. Reading the previous posts in this series confirms this: They’re animated by sincere progressive concerns and full of urgent ideas about the processes of evaluation—participatory action research, digital storytelling, taking research ethics seriously, etc.—but for the most part they don’t interrogate the underlying purposes and power structures that those processes support.

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Some of this can be seen in the language, and I hope the authors won’t mind an example or two to illustrate the point. “After years of community partnership,” they write in the second post in the series, “the Museum was interested in gathering information about if respondents identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community.” Hang on. The museum was interested? What about that community—were they interested? Where does the impulse come from? Who or what has agency, and whose agency matters? The post continues:

“We worked with LGBTQ+ community members, whom we had developed strong relationships with, to help us examine whether gathering visitor demographics on these communities would be helpful or not. Through this partnership of trust and conversation, both internal and external stakeholders felt that a question on the visitor experience survey would help identify any gains in community visitation as well as ensure LGBTQ+ community members felt welcomed, important, and seen.”

We read such sentences every day without stopping to examine the ways power and purpose are embedded in the grammar itself. “To help us”? “Helpful or not” to whom or what? “Gains” by whom, and to what ends?

When we recognize that the agency and beneficiary of the work is usually the cultural institution or funder commissioning the study (or in some cases an alliance of the two), a mountain range of new questions becomes visible. Is the data-collection or dialogue process—whatever we call it, and however we approach it—giving to or taking from the community? In other words, is it extractive of the insights, identities, life experiences, and other assets of those community members? What do they get out of the study? Have their goals shaped the evaluation or research? Have their needs been prioritized? Or are they still, despite our rhetorical and methodological shifts, being construed as research “subjects” whose job it is to answer the questions we frame for them, to help improve or demonstrate the museum’s or foundation’s ability to achieve its aims? (One litmus test: If, in accordance with community-based evaluation principles, we share the report with them at the end of the study, will it be of use or even of interest to them?)

Those questions are most crucial to ask when the community in question is historically oppressed and disenfranchised—which is to say, has been ignored, excluded, patronized, pathologized, or otherwise harmed by the very kinds of cultural institutions and foundations now commissioning the research or evaluation. Even before COVID and the murder of George Floyd, such communities have all too often borne the burdens of being “targeted” for well-meaning social research or program evaluation efforts by all kinds of nonprofits, including museums. (See Chicago Beyond’s trenchant 2019 guidebook, “Why Am I Always Being Researched?”) Now, with the pandemic causing disproportionate suffering in communities of color and the unceasing revelations of white supremacy adding to the pain for many, researchers and evaluators need to work even harder and more self-critically to avoid being extractive.

Until recently, when others have challenged me or my colleagues at Slover Linett with those kinds of questions, we’ve answered that our work “gives people a voice,” including people who’ve been underrepresented in the past, and lets them shape a cultural experience or institution so it’s more relevant to them and their community. Now, though, I see those answers as self-justifying and hierarchical.

Why? Because they flow from an assumption that the museum is good, does good, and that therefore any gains of wider access, programmatic improvement, or successful advocacy are gains of the community rather than just the institution. But that’s exactly the assumption that most needs to be questioned as we envision a more just and equitable cultural sector after the pandemic, because:

  1. It calcifies the status quo of museums, making real change rarer and harder to achieve.
  2. It makes evaluation and visitor or community research of any kind, no matter how enlightened in its methods, essentially presumptuous and extractive.
  3. It privileges a historically European (i.e., white) form of culture and the myriad norms and hierarchies associated with it—behavioral, narrative, economic, architectural, civic, political, pedagogical, etc.

A great deal hangs on that third point, and I believe that we won’t make real progress toward equity unless and until we grapple with the fact that the idea of a museum—museumness, if you will—isn’t culturally universal or transcendent. It comes from a specific place and time and was adapted in the US by and for a certain class of (again, white) elites with their own cultural, economic, and social aims. In other words, all museums are “culturally specific” in the same way classical music is, or ballet—or, to leave the European categories behind, the blues or gospel or Gamelan.

Edward E. Greene, the board chair of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, recently summed up the common wisdom that emphasizes decolonizing museums’ processes in order to decolonize their content: “Who’s in the room influences who’s on the wall.” Sure. But how much of the problem will that solve if the very act of putting things on the wall in a specific context of purposes and behaviors—of removing those objects from use, ritual, celebration, storytelling, domesticity, nature, and so on—is itself a colonial tradition that’s not equally or automatically relevant to everyone? The fact that Greene is the first African American board chair in the MFA’s history and is working to bring “specifically Black and brown voices” to the table complicates but doesn’t obviate the point: Yes, content matters, but we also need to think about decolonizing the museum experience.

In that light, what are we really talking about when we talk about equity and inclusion in museums? Are we trying to project white cultural preferences onto BIPOC communities? How can the museum field learn more, and more humbly, about the cultural forms and norms that have evolved organically in those communities—again, without being extractive, colonialist, or prescriptive? What would it look like to examine and give up our definitional certainties and be radically co-creative about what a “museum” could be, could do, could feel like for all kinds of people?

And how can evaluation contribute to that?

Not easy questions, and I want to acknowledge that the earlier post in this series describing Heather Krause’s Data Equity Framework posed some similar ones. But that framework and Krause’s We All Count site don’t mention the risk of being extractive in our work, and it’s crucial. As evaluators, when we invite BIPOC Americans, immigrant communities, vulnerable populations, or other “othered” people into our evaluation studies, whose cultural ground are we meeting on? (Don’t say “common ground” unless you’re sure it is.) What assumptions about their values, goals, and vision are we making? What or where will be improved as a result of the study—in other words, where will all the energy and investment end up? And have we confronted not just our institutional and economic privilege but the museum field’s long tradition of emphasizing the community’s deficits over its assets and celebrating itself as the savior that can fill those deficits?

All this requires some serious unlearning, as education researcher and equitable evaluation expert Katrina Bledsoe, PhD, told me recently. “I’ve had to question, challenge, and change so much of what I learned in grad school in order to do this work in earnest,” she said, referring to the shifts required to pull social science methods out of their racist academic pasts and use them for genuine, equitable progress.

Amen. Let’s learn from the unlearning and help each other ask new questions, have new conversations with each other and our clients. This moment in our democracy and our field is both perilous and promising; we can help fulfill the promise. I welcome your questions, critiques, and ideas, and I thank Laureen, Andrea, and Rose for the mic—which I now pass to Jara Dean-Coffey, Katrina Bledsoe, and other leaders who have been doing this work far longer than I have.

About the author:

Peter Linett is president of Slover Linett Audience Research, a Chicago-based social research firm for the cultural sector, broadly defined to include the arts, museums, creative community development, public spaces, public media, science engagement, philanthropy, etc. During the pandemic, he and his colleagues have been helping lead Culture + Community in a Time of Crisis, a large-scale national audience and community research study funded in part by the Wallace Foundation and in collaboration with LaPlaca Cohen, Yancey Consulting, NORC at the University of Chicago, and other partners. He can be reached at

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  1. Thank you, Peter, Laureen, and Andrea! I have had so many moments lately where I have questioned the very core of what we do as evaluators and why. Unlearning is an excellent way to frame what I’ve been feeling. While it can be disorienting to “unlearn” I also find it incredibly stimulating to imagine another way of doing our work that puts equity at the center.

    1. Stephanie, thanks for sharing your experience – I think a lot of us are in the same boat, which makes this discussion even more relevant and important!

  2. Peter, this is so well thought out and written, and I appreciate you giving recognition to some of those that have been working on this issue for a long time. I encourage folks to read “Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples” by Linda Tuhiwai Smith, which was first published over 20 years ago. Westerner practitioners have so much to unlearn.

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