Museum Exhibition Design, Part VI

Mark Walhimer Exhibition Design, Museum Planning 2 Comments


Museum Exhibition Design, Part VI, Exhibition Evaluation

Museum exhibition evaluation is a balancing act.  On one side you have visitor comprehension and on the other side you have museum mission & museum revenue.

Museum exhibition evaluation is a process to answer the question, “what is the visitor gaining from an exhibition?”.  Museum exhibitions are a form of communication and museum evaluation is a method to analyze the communication of an exhibition or answer “What is the exhibition communicating to visitors?”.   Exhibition evaluation can be divided into four phases, front-end evaluation, formative evaluation, remedial and summative evaluation.

Front-end evaluation – Provides background about the visitors’ prior knowledge and experience and gather  their expectations regarding a proposed exhibition.  The primary goal of front-end evaluation is to learn about the audience before an exhibition has been designed to better understand how visitors will respond to an exhibition. This information can help assure that the final product will meet visitor needs and project goals.

The aims are to:

  • Define the exhibition objectives for use in the Project Charter
  • Gain an understanding of the visitors prior knowledge and interests related to the exhibition concept
  • Test theories about visitor behavior and learning
  • Identify visitor needs and how can these be met
  • Collect relevant information about audiences and any proposed ideas to help decision making

The methods used include:

  • Focus groups
  • Interviews and surveys, face-to-face, phone, mail, partial self-administered
  • Large and small scale sample surveys/questionnaires
  • Unstructured and semi-structured interviews
  • Informal conversations and feedback
  • Computer surveys, online surveys
  • Community days/workshops
  • Review of similar exhibition evaluations
  • Review of Market Research

Formative Evaluation – Provides information about how well a proposed exhibition communicates its intended messages. Formative evaluation occurs while a project is under development. The evaluator measures visitor responses to models, plans, or prototypes of the program or exhibit. A prototype is a working version of an interactive exhibit, label and it should closely resemble the final product, although it may be more roughly constructed.  The more developed the model or prototype, the more likely visitor reactions in the formative stage will anticipate their reactions to the final product.

The aims are to:

  • Seek feedback related to how well the proposed exhibition communicates the messages
  • Produce the optimum exhibition program within the limits of what’s possible
  • Provide insight into learning and the communication processes

The methods used include:

  • Prototypes
  • Semi – structured interviews
  • Cued and non-cued observations
  • ‘Workshopping’ with staff and/or special interest groups
  • Consultants and peer feedback

The formative evaluation process is repeated until the exhibition developers are satisfied with the items being tested.  Information from formative evaluation is used to make changes to improve the design of a program or exhibit before it is implemented.

Remedial Evaluation – Takes place once an exhibition is open to the public. It is useful in troubleshooting problems and informs museum staff and designers about improvements that can be made to maximize the visitor experience.  Remedial evaluation is useful for addressing problems that could not be foreseen during the development a program or exhibit, such as lighting, crowd flow and signage issues.

The aims are to:

  • Check that the program ‘works’ in a practical sense
  • Determine what maintenance/resources are needed
  • Improve the short or long term effectiveness of the program for visitors
  • Provide some early insights into how visitors use the program.

The methods used include:

  • Observations
  • Informal feedback from visitors
  • Feedback sheets
  • Surveys and interviews
  • Comments books
  • Staff feedback, especially “Front-of-house” and floor staff

Summative Evaluation – tells about the impact of a project after it has completed. lt is conducted after the exhibit has opened to the public or after a program has been presented. Summative evaluation can be as simple as documenting who visits an exhibit or participates in a program, or it can be as complex as a study of what visitors learned. Generally, the results of summative evaluation will be used to improve future activities through an understanding of existing programs.  Summative evaluation uses a variety of methods at the conclusion of an exhibition or program to check whether it delivered the messages that were intended and what learning occurred; how satisfied people were with the program; as well as the performance of the marketing strategy. It is conducted on the finished exhibit or program and its components, using a combination of internal sources (Project Team, other staff) and external feedback (visitors, special interest groups, others).

The aims are to:

  • Give feedback about achievement of objectives
  • Provide information on how a program is working overall, how people use it, what they learn from it, or how they are changed
  • Provide reports, plan for future projects, suggest research, identify problems with visitor usage, interest and learning, identify successful strategies, layouts, etc
  • Identify the relationship between the program costs and outcomes through a cost/benefit analysis.

Museum evaluation is part science part Art, a good evaluator uses scientific method, through interviews, observation and testing creates a hypothesis and then tests the hypothesis.  There is necessary level of trust with an evaluator, having worked with several great evaluators, they can gently “see” from the visitor perspective and can hypothesize solutions to test.

Sadly the museum field is not very good about publishing evaluation studies at the bottom of the blog post is a listing of resources with a few samples of museum exhibition evaluations.  Each evaluation study is designed to meet the specific needs of the institution, exhibit, or program.  Exhibition evaluation is a process that starts before exhibition design and continues throughout the life of an exhibition.

..and now the other side

What if you evaluation report comes back with glowing feedback and the exhibition is perfectly meeting it’s objectives, but the museum is empty?

I often think of exhibition development as a funnel, you feed lots of exhibition ideas into the top of the funnel and see what is comes out the bottom.  Museums need to review potential exhibitions for:

1. Mission:  Does the exhibition meet the museum’s mission and advance the field of museums and the exhibition topic?

2. Revenue: Will the exhibition be a draw for visitors?  Will the exhibition increase museum attendance?

3. Visitor Needs: Does the exhibition fulfill a community need?  Is the museum’s audience interested in the proposed content?

In the past I have proposed a matrix approach, create a matrix  of the museum schedule identifying each gallery over a period of three years then look at the proposed exhibitions at any period of time and see how each exhibition meets the museum’s Mission, Revenue and Visitor Needs.  Then you can start feeding the top of the funnel with new exhibition ideas and have the exhibition evaluator, CFO, community advocate and visitor advocate weigh in.  Often, it is good to assign a small amount of money to exhibition development to each new exhibition idea, then make decions once the evaluation team has gathered enough data to make decisions.

I have been watching with great interest the recent changes at MOCA.  Museums need to balance the academic with the popular.  With the recent changes at MOCA, it is clear that MOCA has slide too far to the “self interested” popular side of the spectrum.  I am sure that the Disco exhibition will be popular and I am confident that such an exhibition could have a positive exhibition evaluation.  But, is the exhibition meeting MOCA’s mission?, I would say “No”.  If the Disco show was to coincide with exhibitions that meet the museum’s mission it would be less upsetting.


Exploratorium Visitor Research and Evaluation
American Association of Museums, Committee On Audience Research and Evaluation (CARE)
Practical Evaluation Guide: Tools for Museums and Other Informal Educational Settings (American Association for State and Local History) by Judy Diamond, Jessica J. Luke and David H. Uttal
Australian Museum Association

Links for exhibition design phases:
Part I, Museum Exhibition Design – Planning
Part II, Museum Exhibition Design – Design Phases
Part III Museum Exhibition Design – Fabrication
Part IV Museum Exhibition Design – Installation
Part V Museum Exhibition Design – Exhibition Maintenance
Traveling exhibition design
Science Center exhibition design

Examples of each phase see “Museum Exhibition Design”

The steps of the exhibition evaluation is similar for Art Museums, Natural History Museums, Science Centers and Children’s Museums.  The differences are in the content development, the evaluation process is the same.

I have been part of evaluating exhibitions for Alcatraz Island, Muzeo, Mobius, Discovery Science Center, Chabot Science Center and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  Contact me if you are interested in help evaluating your museum’s exhibitions.

* Photo, Copyright Shutterstock Images LLC

Comments 2

  1. Remedial evaluation is the most important chapter you discuss in your article

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