Everyone Evaluate!

Chicago Museum Exhibitors Group Meeting on Audience Research

In developing her framework for judging exhibitions, Beverly Serrell, one of the founders of the field of audience research, said that she and her colleagues, “went from judging exhibitions, to judging ourselves.” When we conduct audience research, we not only determine whether our exhibits are visitor-centered, but also probe our own biases about who our visitors are and what they want.

Conducting research at the Shedd

While I am familiar with the importance of rigorous evaluation as a volunteer on the Shedd’s research team, the most recent Chicago Museum Exhibitors Group meeting gave me the opportunity to learn how some of Chicago’s other leading museums and research consultancies are assessing their visitors’ experiences.

In Situ Research at the Museum of Science and Industry

Jana on awe in museums

“In a lot of ways, museums are in the business of awe,” observed Jana Greenslit, Evaluator at the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI). According to Jana, awe “increases [our] ability to distinguish between strong and weak forms of evidence, increases outwardly focused attention, [and makes us less reliant] on pre-existing knowledge/experience.” Because awe undergirds so many of the ways we try to engage visitors, Jana wanted to know, “can we measure awe in a museum? If so, how does it change over time?” 

When determining which research method to employ, Jana realized that traditional exit surveys and timing and tracking would not work. While timing and tracking could show how long visitors spent at an exhibit element, it could not probe visitors motivations for spending time there. Additionally, surveying visitors as they left an exhibit or the museum relied on visitors’ memory of their experience, which is different from their actual experience. Visitors often only remember the highest peaks and lowest valleys of their visit, not their general feelings. They also often assess their entire experience based on their feelings about the last element with which they engaged.

Jana’s definition of In Situ Evaluation

Because traditional methods were not appropriate for Jana’s research, she turned to In Situ Evaluation as a way to assess visitors’ levels of awe throughout their time in the museum. In Situ Evaluation is “evaluation that is embedded within a museum experience as it is currently happening.” Jana collected visitors’ cell phone numbers and then texted them two questions during their visit. From the answers, Jana could analyze a “wide range of people’s levels of awe throughout the building.”

To get a more granular view of visitors’ experiences, Jana also employed eye trackers. Jana provided visitors with eye-tracking glasses that contained built-in microphones and video cameras. The eye trackers detected extremely subtle movements, recording details like each word a visitor read on a panel or how long their gaze lingered on a point on an artifact. The data allowed Jana to recreate a visitor’s experience “without the second-hand lens of an observer.” 

Jana’s eye tracking maps of the U-505 Submarine (left) and MSI’s entrance hall (right)

Research at the MCA

Rosie May, the Associate Director of Education, Interpretation, and Visitor Research at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), uses the tried and true methods of timing and tracking and exit interviews to get a better sense of how visitors use the MCA’s spaces. 

Rosie’s tracking and timing data

Through her research, Rosie discovered that many visitors felt their experience at the MCA was too passive. They wanted to do something, not just look. They also felt the MCA’s format was too repetitive. “It’s label, object, label, object, etc.,” Rosie said. In response, the MCA tested a number of innovative initiatives for audience engagement as part of the recent Howardeena Pindell exhibit. The MCA marketing team developed a pop up experience set in the year 1979, which was a turning point in Pindell’s career. The curators of the main exhibit created an “intrusive jarring space half-way through the exhibition,” providing historical context to Pindell’s 1979 shift. 

Rosie’s interview data about MCA exhibit labels

Research Workshop

After the presentations, each presenter took a group of audience members to workshop a real-world problem. Katherine Gean, Manager in Research & Consulting at The Sound, led my group through a lively discussion.

Resources for Exhibit Evaluation

If you’re looking to learn a bit more about research and visitor studies data, here are some resources to get you started:

Judging Exhibitions: A Framework for Assessing Excellence by Beverly Serrell

Beverly Serrell is one of the founders of the field of museum research and evaluation. Judging Exhibitions not only provides a robust framework for rating exhibitions, but also leads readers to reflect upon what it means to create visitor-centered exhibitions. 

Chicago Cultural Organizations Research Network (CCORN)

CCORN is a gathering of Chicago-area researchers who work with cultural organizations. They meet in person and online to share best practices, network, and advertise jobs. 

Visitor Studies Journal

Visitor Studies is a peer-reviewed journal created by the Visitor Studies Association (VSA). It is published twice a year and is packed with great research studies. 

Know Your Own Bone blog by Colleen Dillenschneider

Know Your Own Bone allows readers to compare their audience research to larger trends in the industry. Colleen Dillenschneider presents market research on museums and cultural institutions and breaks down complicated data concepts into accessible, digestible nuggets of wisdom.  

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