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Embracing Culturally Responsive Research & Evaluation Practice

AUTHOR: Angie Ong, Museology Faculty

evaluation students
Students conducting visitor surveys at MOHAI, 2016

Diversity, equity, and cultural competency are hot topics within the museum field today. And without exception, these concepts need to be top-of-mind for those of us working within audience research and evaluation. Because we champion the voice of the visitor, researchers and evaluators must be open to the many voices, perspectives, and beliefs represented in our audiences. It was therefore important that our Introduction to Museum Evaluation class spent time early in the Quarter considering Culturally Responsive Research & Evaluation practice. On Wednesday, January 11th, our class welcomed two experts in this field – Cecilia Garibay, Principal at Garibay Group, and Laura Huerta Migus, Executive Director of the Association of Children’s Museums. Through their research and advocacy efforts, these women have furthered the field’s awareness, understanding, and appreciation of cultural relevancy and its impact on our work as museum professionals.

The following are some of my takeaways from Cecilia and Laura’s talk:

“We are cultural beings”

Culture goes beyond race and ethnicity. It’s not just about demographic data that we collect in surveys. Culture is about behavior, affinity, experience, and context. Culture is not something some of us have and others don’t. We all possess it. We live culturally. Culture is about how we make sense of the world and every group we have an affinity to—whether it be at home, work, school; or with our family, friends, neighbors—has its own culture. And we often find ourselves, as Laura describes, “border crossing” or moving between cultures. Culture is therefore fluid, dynamic and incredibly nuanced.

“Research (and evaluation) is not culture free”

We usually think about research and evaluation as a technical practice, but because our work is human-centric and culture permeates everything we do as individuals, we should view it as a cultural practice. There is culture in every stage of the process. How we assess needs, design and conduct a research study, and how we interpret our data is fundamentally shaped by decisions we, as individuals, make. We decide what to make visible (or put in the foreground) and what to set aside in the background. Being culturally responsive acknowledges that the decisions we make have power.

“We all have baggage”

As researchers and evaluation practitioners, we must recognize that we have our own experiences, biases, and worldview. Our thoughts and actions are deeply shaped by the places we work in and the people we work with. Consequently we must be thoughtful and deliberate about how we interpret the data we collect. The results of research and evaluation are often predicated on a strategy of “agreement on what we can agree on” and as such, our work rarely uncovers a ‘Truth’ but rather posits a ‘truth.’ Therefore, we must be careful in understanding what our study can answer and what it cannot.

While all this could lead to evaluation paralysis, Cecilia and Laura, emphasize that it is perfectly okay to make decisions – to put certain things in the foreground and make them visible. But, we should equally be attentive to what we leave in the background and acknowledge that those things are equally valid.
You can follow Cecilia (@GaribayGroup) and Laura (@HuertaMigus) on Twitter.