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"Even with a room of ten people there was a diversity of opinion."

A team of researchers at Deakin Business School (DBS) has completed a 12-month study into the role of the Islamic Museum of Australia (IMA) in both creating a positive image of Australian Muslims and fostering social inclusion.

The team consisted of, project leads and DBS academics Dr Ahmed Ferdous and Dr Fara Azmat, as well as 2015 DBS honours student Emma Winston and Professor Ruth Rentschler (UniSA).

Their interim report on the museum's role in ‘creating value’ was launched on 1 February 2016 to great acclaim by community leaders – Muslim, Christian and Jewish – and  was well received by political and government representatives, and philanthropists and IMA supporters.

An important part of the research centred on measuring the effectiveness of the museum’s ‘arts-based initiatives’ (ABI) – a very modern way of looking at how museums, art galleries and other creative endeavours influence the people who work there and their audiences.

Generally speaking, an ABI is primarily an experience-based process that uses one or more art forms to engage people both rationally and emotionally through participation, which can be active or passive.

The research took the form of running several complementary projects.

‘We interviewed stakeholders – including Jewish, Christian and Muslim community leaders, political and government representatives, and philanthropists and supporters – analysed the 750 entries in the 110-page visitor book, observed visitors, and held workshops,’ Professor Ruth Rentschler told the audience at the report's launch.

Testing for social value creation

Dr Fara Azmat, explains that the whole purpose of the value creation at IMA when it was set up, was for people to learn about Islam and get a better understanding of Islam.

‘The aim of our research was to measure the extent to which the museum created environmental value, social value or economic value. That is, whether there was any later or wider “ripple effect” from the work on reflecting the broader society.

‘We found that the social value created was far more important.

‘The IMA is helping with the creation of a better understanding of Islam, something that is quite topical at the moment,’ she says.

By way of a practical example, Dr Azmat mentioned that not just visitors, but indeed some of the researchers were amused to see light-hearted touches such as surfboards with Islamic art work, symbolising the meeting of two cultures.

Three sides to the story

DBS marketing lecturer Dr Ahmed Ferdous, also worked on the IMA research project.

In measuring the museum's impact ABI, Dr Ferdous explains that the team looked at three groups’ point of view: the stakeholders – people and organisations with a direct or indirect interest in the success of the museum – the employees of the Museum, its management, its patrons, the Victorian government, DFAT and the Islamic Council were top of that list.

The other two groups the researchers focused on were: visitors to the museum, and ‘non-visitors’ – with both Muslims and non-Muslims included in focus groups and interviews.

Dr Ferdous says he was pleasantly surprised at the results. ‘One of the reasons this research is very valuable is that even with a room of ten people there was a diversity of opinion,’ he says.

‘By speaking to the people who hadn’t visited, it was possible to get a feel for what the researchers called the “expectations gap” between what people thought they might see and experience at the Museum, versus the actual experience of visitors.’

The report from Deakin Business School staff should provide valuable and practical advice to the museum’s management on, for example, how to better communicate the value of their institution.

Further research

This research has certainly opened the window for further industry and community engagement. DFAT has asked to submit an official extended report on the team’s broader study to the Ministerial Advisory Council.

There have also been follow-up requests from Mr Cheema from Islamic Council of Victoria for further research.

The Deakin Business School research team is once again in discussion with IMA management, and with other funding bodies, looking to continue the project. The next stage would be to test for sustained value over time – known as an influence effect. In other words, to test if visitors felt as positively and willing to promote the museum some months later, as they were after first experiencing it.