Museum Evaluation (and why it terrifies us)

Lines of cubicles, mid-year work reviews, and sweaty palms – what do you feel when you hear the word evaluation? Visitor studies have gotten a bad reputation in the museum world, and despite the benefits, many are still weary about evaluation. From surveys to focus groups, qualitative to quantitative, visitor evaluations can help institutions get a better idea of who is coming through their doors and what they are looking for in a museum experience.

I’m currently working on a collaborative project between the New York State Historical Association and the Cooperstown Graduate Program to help re-think some “evaluative misconceptions” and help museum studies students appreciate the role that visitor studies play within our field. This past week, consultant Conny Graft, came to talk to the first year CGPers about evaluation to get them prepared to take front end surveys for the museum’s Native American outdoor interpretive site, Otsego: A Meeting Place.

Conny Graft, working with CGP students in Introduction to Museum Education

Conny Graft, working with CGP students in Introduction to Museum Education

So, why should museum evaluation excite us instead of terrify us?! Conny explained that evaluation can help us plan out our programs and exhibitions in order to make sure they are mission driven. Visitors studies are the first step, not the last step in the planning process. Why do we need to evaluate? Not only are museums visitor driven institutions, they are filled with people (hopefully)! And with visitors, nothing ever goes as planned! Front end evaluation such as prototyping, surveys, and interviews, can help a museum staff get a better idea of what their audience feels about a certain topic or what might go “unexpectedly” in an exhibition. At a recent museum I worked at, staff members created a durable clay pot to put in a hands on children’s exhibit. Grown men and women banged the thing on the ground, tossed it against a wall, and kicked it across the floor without any damage before it went into the space. The first day on exhibit, the children filled the pot with play corn and tried to lift it – CRASH. A million tiny pieces (and no injuries later) the benefits of prototyping interactives with your actual audience was clearly demonstrated. Point proven.

I know, I know – you sitting there at your desk thinking, I am doing ten million things and have no budget to add on an expensive set of protocols for evaluation. Start with what you can do. Small evaluative practices, even a demographic survey of your visitors to find out who your audience is, can greatly benefit your institution. When approaching the topic with your staff, don’t worry if a few of them start to sweat! Reassure them that this form of evaluation won’t negatively impact them, it will just lead to  a more inclusive learning environment and a better museum experience for all visitors!


About catebay

Informal educator working in the world of art. Interests in public programming and community advocacy. Loves learning about people, collecting blue mason jars, and consuming Swedish fish.
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3 Responses to Museum Evaluation (and why it terrifies us)

  1. Pingback: Grocery Stores | Fresh in the Field

  2. museumsaskew says:

    I’m in the midst of this right now. I’ve been working with a small museum with an even smaller budget to get them excited about evaluation. And it’s working – perhaps even a little too well. Now the problem is helping them focus-in on the most important things to evaluate, since we can’t explore all the great questions they’ve come up with!

  3. catebay says:

    I’ve found that asking yourself the question “what do I want to learn and what am I going to do with this information” is always a great first step. Knowing where you want to go from the start can really help.

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