In this fast-paced century where many things compete for our attention and time, institutions must listen to outside voices so as to not lose potential relevance and worth – it is time for museums to listen! Fifteen institutions came together to do just that, to listen, and formed the Denver-Area Cultural Evaluation Network (DEN). Led by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS), these institutions are listening to those outside voices through evaluation at museums.

The group emerged in 2010 when DMNS sought out local professionals who were in charge of evaluation efforts at their museum, but were looking for training and to form a network of colleagues. DEN benefits from the already existing evaluation department at DMNS and collective experiences of all members. It has become a valuable source for professional development for cultural institutions in the area. The Molly Brown House Museum is among the many participants in the group which also includes: Buffalo Bill Museum & Grave, Butterfly Pavilion, Children’s Museum of Denver, Clyfford Still Museum, History Colorado, Colorado Railroad Museum, Denver Art Museum, Denver Botanic Gardens, DMNS, Denver Zoo, Four Mile Historic Park, Golden History Museums, Lakewood Heritage Center, and Longmont Museum and Cultural Center. In 2012, the Institute of Museum and Library Services granted DMNS a $245,000 grant for the two year project to make this all possible.

“Evaluating our offerings and responding to community needs is important to all museums regardless of size or scope,” said Nathan Richie, the Executive Director of Golden History Museums. “The collective, regional impact this grant will have on our capacity as institutions to understand and respond to evaluation will be like the tide that raises all ships.”

The goal of this group is to positively influence evaluate thinking, implementation and use. As museums gain knowledge, and skills needed to conduct evaluations, they will become better prepared to make informed decisions to engage and align with the needs of the community. Even though the partner museums are various in size and budget, DEN museums have found a way to work together for mutual benefit. Participants in DEN saw value in evaluation but many institutions lacked the know-how or confidence to implement evaluation in their own museums. The group began to share ideas and lessons-learned drawing on this amazing opportunity to collaborate together. In the first 18 months of the informal network, the group conducted three studies (a demographic survey, a visitor motivation study, and an institutional value assessment), talking to more than 2,500 visitors and jumpstarting the evaluation process in Denver. In just the first 10 months of the grant period, DEN has conducted an additional two city-wide studies.

The grant has three main objectives which support the projects overall goal – to positively influence evaluative thinking, implementation, and use in diverse Mountain-Plains Museums. The objectives include: 1) building evaluation capacity of Mountain-Plains museum professionals, 2) disseminating the process, outputs, and outcomes of the project, and 3) developing and disseminating a pilot evaluation toolkit for museum professionals in the Mountain-Plains region.

DEN believes the outcomes of these objectives will lead to:

• increased evaluation knowledge and skills,

• a positive affect towards evaluation,

• increased understanding of evaluation at an organizational level,

• the sustainability of evaluation practice beyond DEN and,

• the creation an evaluation community of practice among museum professionals.

In August of 2013, DEN showcased their successes at the Presidential Strand Luncheon at DMNS. The evaluator from each institution brought their CEO/Director to witness the work done by the group. This not only permitted evaluators from each museum to talk informally with their colleagues, it allowed the CEO/Director to see what was happening at other museums and how DEN has impacted them as well. As a testament to the importance of DEN, Mayor Hancock was also on hand to speak to the significance of the group and the cultural institutions within the city. He stated that Denver has the ability to become one of the great cultural cities and that DEN will help Denver move forward with that opportunity.

The Molly Brown House Museum has completed its first institutional study in early 2013. Through this study, the Museum was able to analyze the outreach programming given through the education department. The Museum was able to determine which programs were working and which needed some updating or work to make them relevant to today’s curriculum. Teachers responded positively to the surveys and gave the Museum valuable feedback. One teacher responded saying “I have never seen our students so focused and engaged! They have been talking about the experience for days now!” Another stated “Kids love building! The program puts Denver history into context”. As the Molly Brown House Museum moves forward with DEN, the Museum hopes to learn more about its visitor and tailor not only tours but other programming to their needs and desires.

Moving forward, the professional development, networking, access to cross-site and institution-specific data, resources, and support will radiate through the 15 partner institutions providing an informed picture of Denver’s cultural landscape. It will demonstrate to the institutions involved the most effective way to achieve museum missions and visions is to listen to community voices to inform this fast-paced centuries decision-making.

Do you hear that? Your audience is speaking. It’s time to listen!

Written by:

Jamie Melissa Wilms, Director of Education

Molly Brown House Museum