Saturday, September 20, 2008

It's Never Too Late to Evaluate!

I facilitated a session at the AASLH conference called, Six Museums, Six Years, Six Exhibits, about a collaborative project of six Finger Lakes organizations to develop six exhibitions about summer in the Finger Lakes (you can learn more about the exhibits here). Museum educator Mari Shopsis gave a terrific overview of the evaluation she developed for the project. I wanted to recap her talk here as a great example of how small museums can undertake an evaluation process.

We came to evaluation fairly late in the process, after some extensive planning and then a hiatus while more funds were generated. Mari reminded me that her first questions about the project were variations of, "are you serious? Are you prepared to listen to what people have to say? Is there still any room to make changes based on the evaluation? Yes, I assured her, with some trepidation as I thought about the schedule. After some discussion, our goals were to:
  • Determine whether visitors understand exhibit titles & themes in the same way that exhibit team intended them
  • Provide a picture of potential visitor concerns, interests, and associations with exhibit themes.
  • Provide visitor feedback for exhibit team, allowing team to refine concepts and presentation strategies before finalization and fabrication
We ended up with three types of evaluations that fell somewhere between front-end and formative:
  • One-on-one survey & assessment of visitor interest, administered in three cultural/museum sites across the Finger Lakes
  • Prototype interactive components with family and youth groups
  • Use likely visitor focus group to assess success of “tweaked” titles and concepts
All of these methods were useful and all revealed different types of information. The one-on-one survey--which was done at locations different than the six museums--really gave us information about what people thought the exhibits would be about, based on our descriptions, and how interested they would be. We used that information to re-shape several titles and interestingly, found that the exhibits of greatest interest to the project team were the least interesting to the public (a cautionary tale for all of us). In practical terms, it meant we had to work a bit harder to make those particular topics--issues of public access and the use of Native American imagery to promote the region--more interesting and accessible.

After that initial work Mari then met with a small group to discuss the tweaked titles and concepts. From that discussion we framed all six titles, and all were a From ...To.... construction, such as From Steamboat Landing to State Park, to give a clear sense that these were historical exhibits with a contemporary connection. And yes, they all also had colons, which we had hoped to omit.

I've written about the interactive prototyping in an earlier post. The format Mari developed was incredibly helpful in refining both language and activities. As a result, our final simple interactives connected more strongly with family audiences.

Mari ended her presentation with three conclusions that provide great reasons for evaluation in projects. The process doesn't have to be elaborate and complex, but I continue to be amazed at how few museums choose to interact with their visitors and potential visitors in this way. It's not that hard, but does require a commitment to the process and a willingness to listen--and act upon--feedback.

So remember:
  • It’s never too late to evaluate!
  • Evaluation can help to identify themes that resonate for visitors & concepts or wording that confuse or mislead them
  • In large collaborative projects, an outside insight into the visitor’s perspective can provide objective information to resolve conflicts or help make difficult decisions
Above: Labor Day sack race at a cottage community on Seneca Lake, 2006, Photo by Drew Harty

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