If you are seeking audience input for exhibit planning and design, you might be thinking about these concerns.
We’re planning an exhibition that has “issues” about visitor interests, expectations, misconceptions, etc.
We’re creating a traveling exhibition that we hope will be appealing to audiences at other types of sites.
We’re submitting a proposal to a foundation, seeking funding for an exhibition.
We’re looking for a good way to explain the difference between a ‘front end’ study, ‘formative’ evaluation, and ‘summative’ evaluation.
The most common types of visitor research studies for exhibit planning are Concept Planning (“front end”) Studies, Formative Evaluation / Storyline Testing, and Summative Evaluation (including remediation). Some of our projects for exhibit planning include:
Kenai Fjords National Park Visitor Center, Seward AK: Formative evaluation of proposed interactive exhibits (collaboration with Amaze Design, Boston MA) Boston Children’s Museum, Boston, MA: 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 Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx Zoo, NY: 15 years after opening their award-winning exhibition, Congo Gorilla Forest, EGAD (the Exhibits and Graphic Arts Department) wanted to examine visitor experience to determine whether revisions would be warranted.
National Aquarium, Baltimore, MD
Living Seashore Exhibition
Over the years, the National Aquarium created a number of stimulating visitor experiences to complement and enrich the original path created by Cambridge 7. In 2011, under the leadership of Director John Racanelli, a staff team was charged with developing a new gallery — one that would be grounded in the Aquarium’s mid-Atlantic context, present conservation as an important message, and reintroduce a touchpool experience which had been missing for a few years. Tall task. The outcome, led by Director of Exhibit Planning and Design Jenny Sayre Ramberg and created by a team that included Anna Simmons, Chad Tyler and Jessica Young, was Living Seashore — a 2200 sq.ft. exhibition designed to engage guests through multi-modal, interactive experiences and inspire guests to conserve the mid-Atlantic coast and beaches.
At this touchpool, we observed the interactions between staff and visitors for evidence of conservation messages.
The staff team did their own formative evaluation, but they wanted an outside independent analysis and critique of the effectiveness of the exhibition experience. PPD Research was engaged for a Summative Evaluation. Our research strategy addressed their goals of finding out: do guests understand the big idea and key messages? is the exhibit fun, engaging, and memorable? what proportion of guests are engaging in ‘conservation conversations’ at the touchpool? do guests know that the things they are learning and doing in the gallery apply in nature? (Yes, this staff was good at asking questions!) This scope of interests prompted us to use several methods including intercept interviews as visitor groups were leaving the exhibit space, observations of visitor-staff interactions at the main touch pool, tracking and timing of the gallery, testimonial mail-back cards, and a post-visit online survey.
Without a long discourse about the evaluation findings, we can say that we were able to identify numerous strengths of Living Seashore, assessed the interactive exhibits and exposure to conservation messages, and discovered that even after weeks had passed, visitors recalled and rated this exhibit experience approximately equally with the dolphins, sharks and jellies in the Aquarium (what a feat! congratulations to the exhibit team). They were also rewarded for their efforts with a national award from AAM (American Alliance for Museums): Special Recognition for Living Collections.