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Evaluation: The Key to Museum Exhibit Success
Monica Post, October 2006
first published in Sept./Oct. 2006 issue of Exhibit Builder magazine
published with permission of Exhibit Builder magazine

What’s the difference between a tradeshow exhibit and a museum exhibit? Both types intend to induce an action from their audience, both types aspire to teach. So what’s the real difference? Is it in the delivery? No, museum exhibits are incorporating attention getting tactics to lure their audiences over to the exhibit elements. Tradeshow exhibits are incorporating interactive elements to increase dwell time. Although both industries might cringe at the thought, there really isn’t that much of a difference when it comes to exhibit design. Outcomes are critical to both. Whether the outcome is an understanding or an action, both industries want their audiences to take away something from their experience. In both cases, in order to improve the chances that the outcome is achieved, evaluation is critical.

Both industries understand the importance of evaluation, but now, as donors and patrons to museums are becoming more erudite, they are demanding credibility and accountability from the museum industry. Anecdotal visitor satisfaction is no longer an acceptable measure for a museum exhibit’s educational value.

Evaluation is the mechanism that helps designers understand their visitors' knowledge, vocabulary, misconceptions and preferred learning styles. It keeps them on track during the design and building stages and when all is said and done, it assesses how well they accomplished their task. Evaluation gives museums credibility in the eyes of donors and patrons and makes designers accountable and responsible for their visitors' experience.

Using evaluation throughout the exhibit development process saves time and money, contributes to the exhibition's effectiveness, and helps the exhibit achieve message goals. Evaluation advises donors and granting organizations that the museum is serious about making sure that their money is well spent and that the desired message outcomes are received by the visitors. Evaluation is an excellent tool to refer to when applying for exhibit awards. It gives measurable credibility to the museum’s assertions.

Evaluation is useful throughout the exhibit development process. At the planning stage, front end evaluation informs museums about their visitors' current knowledge, understanding and vocabulary of the subject that they plan to address. It reveals misconceptions, and advises of effective delivery methods.

During the design and build stage, formative evaluation keeps the message on track, refines the points and illuminates potential obstacles to effective message delivery. Formative evaluation employs inexpensive mock ups and prototypes that can be tested and refined so that more money is available to produce the most effective final product.

After all the work is complete and the exhibit is installed two other methods of evaluation are useful. 1. Remedial evaluation is usually done in house. When staff and designers recognize an obvious flaw or problem that can be repaired or modified, they are conducting remedial evaluation. Problems as simple as poorly lit areas and broken displays benefit from remedial evaluation. Remedial evaluation informs staff and designers where simple improvements and repairs can be made prior to hiring a consultant. 2. Summative evaluation also occurs after everything's built and the doors are open to the public. The true value in summative evaluation is found in planning for future exhibits. Summative evaluation informs staff about how well the exhibit works, if the visitors really do understand the intended message and if not, what messages are the visitors taking away from the exhibit?

In the competitive exhibit design world, incorporating evaluation into the design process shows the museum client that educational content and outcomes are as important to the designer as they are the museum client. Museums know that evaluation is the single, little stitch in time. It is the consistent, timely oil change that prevents an engine blow up. It's the proof that museum constituents seek and the validation of a job well done that staff and designers desire. The reward produced when evaluation is incorporated throughout the design process continues to payoff throughout the lifetime of the exhibition.


Monica Post is the Director of MPR Museum Consulting, an exhibit evaluation and design company that provides educational evaluation, design and redesign for future exhibits in zoos, science and nature centers, museums and other types of informal educational spaces.


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