Visitor Research for Exhibit Planning

We often use audience research to inform exhibition planning, which we did for the Africa exhibit at The Field Museum in Chicago. We also evaluate exhibits after they open to the public - in this case, finding out that both white and black visitors got the main messages, although black visitors enjoyed it more.

Planet of the Jellies, at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, was so successful that jellies became part of the permanent exhibits of the Outer Bay Waters wing.

The most common types of studies are:
Concept Planning (“front end”) Studies
Formative Evaluation / Storyline Testing
Summative Evaluation (perhaps including remediation)

Feature Story: Audience Research for Exhibition Planning
“The first jellies exhibit”

In 1991, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Executive Director and Director of Husbandry decided to do an exhibition about jellyfish (actually, scientists call them “jellies”). The reasons were several: aquarists had figured out how to capture these fragile creatures in the wild, had designed special kreisel tanks to keep them alive without damaging them by the usual water flow, were having success reproducing them, the animals are fascinating, the public knows little about them, and the ecological story is interesting (e.g., they migrate up and down in mid-ocean depths daily, they do so without eyes or a brain, they are a favorite food of turtles, and are about 98% water).

But the talented team of exhibit developers wondered what kind of an approach to take for the exhibition. Should they go for the “behind the scenes” story by turning the exhibit “inside out” and featuring the aquarists who were leading the world with innovations in this aspect of marine science? If so, they would show how jellies are cared for, fed, and put on public display – and doesn’t everyone like “behind the scenes” tours? Or should they do what they did with many other species that were unknown and underappreciated by the general public: cleverly tell interesting “animal stories” to reveal the behavior of these creatures and their predator-pray interactions with other animals? Well, they took stock of what they knew about the public’s perceptions. Jellyfish sting people; they’re not cuddly, and people want to avoid them. They’re not on most restaurant menus, and people wouldn’t see any commercial value in them. They’re not even good pets in home aquariums. Their brainstorming and questions led them to commission the Aquarium’s first “front end” study for exhibition planning.

Some of our projects for exhibit planning:

  • Kenai Fjords National Park Visitor Center, Seward AK: Formative evaluation of proposed interactive exhibits (collaboration with Amaze Design, Boston MA)
  • Boston Children’s Museum: evaluation of children’s and adults’ experience with the Children of Hangzhou exhibition
  • Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe NM:  evaluation of visitors’ perceptions of The Red that Changed the World, an NEH-funded exhibition about cochineal dye – its origins, the international trade monopoly, how it changed European art, and contemporary uses
  • Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, Lynchburg VA: a series of visitor studies as input to a new Interpretive Master Plan (collaboration with 106 Group, interpretive planners)
  • Independence Seaport Museum, Philadelphia PA: a two-season visitor study to profile the visitor audience and assess interest in interpretive themes and future exhibit ideas, informing the master planning process

When we work with exhibit developers and designers on “front end” studies, we try to start with two exercises. First, can you synthesize your interests and concerns in a ‘focus question’? Secondly, can you use our palette of topics about how this kind of research has helped with other exhibition planning? They did a great job creating a ‘focus question,’ which went like this: “We’re afraid that the public thinks jellies are worthless blobs of slime. Can you find out if that’s true, and if it is, what can we do to change their minds? We came up with four directions, if that’s any use to you.” A well-conceived starting point. And from our palette of topics, they chose two as their biggest concerns: Initial Impressions and Expectations, and Motivations to Visit (the other three are: Knowledge and Misconceptions, Interests, and Ability to Understand Key Concepts; different types of projects warrant different priorities).

So can you imagine what the results were? If you’ve never seen an exhibit of jellies, you probably can’t imagine why this would be interesting. But if you have seen them on exhibit, you know that they are amazingly beautiful and fascinating. Testing the four approaches in that first study, we found that ‘beauty’ was the key that would get people to be interested in jellies. In their brilliant exhibit – the first third of which was essentially a live art exhibit where visitors’ expressions turned to awe – starting the experience with the beauty of the animals stimulated interest in the marine science topics too: the ecology of jellies, how the stinging nematocysts work, and their unusual life cycle. We also found a huge difference in interest between people who had ever seen jellies in an exhibit vs. those who hadn’t – a harbinger that repeat visitors would be highly motivated to see jellies, but first-time visitors would need convincing.

After the initial exhibition, Planet of the Jellies (we also did formative evaluation studies and summative evaluation for that project), the Monterey Bay Aquarium went on to create a popular permanent jellies exhibit in their award-winning Outer Bay Wing (we did the summative evaluation), and most recently another fabulous exhibition, Jellies as Living Art (we did the “front end” research). We also worked with the New York Aquarium on their jellies exhibition, Alien Stingers (front-end, formative, and summative evaluation), and with the New England Aquarium on Amazing Jellies (front-end and summative evaluation) – but that’s such an unusual story that you’ll have to ask us about it separately.

“What do you do when the curator says ‘The next show’s on…jellyfish!’ but Marketing says ‘No way!’ and the Director wonders ‘Will the visitors think jellyfish are worthless blobs of stinging slime? Will they be totally repelled?’ You listen to your visitors. Not only did visitor research help ‘inform our intuitions,’ as Jeff Hayward says, it helped us avoid some costly mistakes. And the shows were terrific.”

“Planet of the Jellies marked the first time the Monterey Bay Aquarium had full evaluation of an exhibition: front-end, formative and summative. Our evaluator, Jeff Hayward, empowered the creative team by telling us “evaluation informs your intuition.” He also introduced us to the idea of audience segments, encouraging us to think about new audiences. ‘It’s essential to define the “segments” of the audience-the various types of visitors who come here,’ he said. ‘This must be done to avoid falling into the trap of planning for a “typical” visitor, which is likely to result in narrowing the audience, not broadening it.’ The idea of defining and describing audience segments, like ‘families with kids,’ was novel for most of the senior staff at that time.” — Judy Rand, Master Exhibit Developer, Monterey Bay Aquarium (now: Rand & Associates)

“Your front-end study for our Amazing Jellies exhibit was great – the most actionable research we’ve ever had.” — Comment from Billy Spitzer, Vice President, New England Aquarium, Boston