Continuing a multi-year relationship with George Washington University’s Museum Education Program, the Deep Time exhibit development team enlisted a group of graduate students to conduct a visitor survey to test the effectiveness of two important exhibition elements. We are those students! We’d love to tell you a little about our research and some lessons we learned on the floor of NMNH.
A formative evaluation, such as this one, occurs before or during the project development and focuses on design improvements before an exhibition is built. This is particularly important for the Deep Time Fossil Hall because this exhibit will be on display for decades after it reopens.
These two areas of the exhibition explain big ideas and ask big questions, such as, “Will the past become our future?” and “How has Earth’s temperature changed over the last 56 million years?” The exhibit developer, Siobhan Starrs, asked us to explore what main ideas visitors understood from the panels, and if visitors struggled with any of the concepts or visual elements. With this in mind, our team came up with the following three evaluation questions:
- Which ideas and information are the most salient for visitors?
- Do the panels communicate the desired content in a way visitors will understand?
- What are visitors’ general impressions of the panels?
Lesson 1: Standing in between a kid and a Triceratops can be a dangerous business.
To answer these questions, we hit the floor, clipboards in hand. We approached visitors who were entering The Last American Dinosaurs exhibition and asked if they’d be willing to look over the new panels and answer a few questions. Standing in a must-see exhibition meant we had to do our best to keep out of the crowd’s way!
Lesson 2: People can get surprisingly giddy about the idea of a cat-sized horse.
Many visitors were extremely willing (some even excited!) to take a few minutes to help us out. How cool is it for your opinion to impact a permanent exhibition at the Smithsonian? Visitors think it is very cool! We learned a lot about which ideas were not clear, and which examples were the most memorable. For example, the evolution of the size of horses over millions of years was a big hit.
Lesson 3: Visitors are the heart of museums and the insight they provided will be invaluable to the exhibit development.
Finally, as emerging museum professionals finishing up graduate school, it was refreshing to reconnect with day-to-day visitors in the museum. As one of our teammates, Laura, expressed, “It was a pleasure to talk with visitors from across the nation and the world, and to gain insights into the diversity of those who come to the Smithsonian.” All of us were honored to facilitate the concerted effort the Smithsonian Institution makes to gather input from visitors in the creation of exhibits.
On July 22nd, we will present our findings and deliver a report to the exhibition development team. The Museum values the input of visitors and the valuable insights gleaned from the past GWU evaluation projects. The exhibition team will digest the findings and use them to improve the storytelling and design techniques to improve these areas of the exhibition. We look forward to seeing the final designs and exploring the Deep Time exhibition in 2019, this time as NMNH visitors.
Special thanks to Siobhan Starrs, Angela Roberts, and Amy Bolton for their guidance during the formative evaluation process.
By Liza Manfred and Lindsey Hale, The George Washington University