Wednesday, May 5, 2010

How do you measure success? - another survey post

Here is a graph showing how the 42 children’s museums in our survey measure the success of their exhibits:

Why do the ways in which we measure success matter?

Why do the ways in which we measure success matter? What we measure is an indication of what we think museum visits can accomplish. For instance, when we are testing for vocabulary we are looking to see whether visitors will recognize the specific concepts that the museum has identified as the most important. When we measure family interaction we are prioritizing social interaction and dwell time, and hoping to build inquiry skills and family bonds. So what we measure is indicative of the deeper, underlying learning models we are using, and assumptions we are making about what is even possible to achieve.

The evaluation model an organization uses also speaks to its relationship with its audience. Does the museum see itself as a teacher, a resource, a mentor, coach, research assistant, partner, activist, other? The roles museums take on turn out to matter a great deal.

There are many learning models used in the museum field and many thoughtful people have written about this including Ted Ansbacher and Chantal Barriault. So I will briefly describe the 4 learning models that are most relevant to the evaluation criteria listed by our survey participants.

1. Content Transfer. In an information-driven model exhibits often demonstrate ideas and provide information. For such exhibits, success can be determined by testing whether visitors learned vocabulary and key ideas. Testing here might also look at whether visitors understand the exhibit to have a big idea, and whether that understanding is consistent with the big idea the planning team had in mind.

2. Skill Building. This is more common in museums that encourage inquiry, use a child-development framework, and promote risk taking. Testing in this model focuses on things like physical and social competency, creativity and self-expression, good judgment, and a willingness to ask questions.

3. Lifelong Learning. More and more children’s museums are focused not just on building visitors’ skills, but in igniting a sustained interest in seeking knowledge, setting goals, and active participation in their communities. This concept of lifelong learning is based on problem solving, wonder, and curiosity, but extends it beyond the immediate visit. To determine whether a museum is succeeding at this you might evaluate visitors’ inquiry behaviors, the number of times they touch base with the museum either in person or online, and whether they get more involved in the organization over time.

4.Transforming Attitudes/Changing Behaviors. This is perhaps the most difficult and the most exciting. The Holocaust Museum, for example hopes to convert visitors’ interest into direct civic and political action. Many exhibits on wellness and on the environment have transformative goals – to change the health or environmental habits and outcomes of their visitors. These impacts are seen in day-to-day life activities such as meal planning, recycling, philanthropic activities, community activism, etc. making them the most complex to measure and track.

Bringing this last goal back to children's museums, I know some that want to make adults better caretakers of the children in their lives. This isn't just about learning new words, or sparking interest in childhood. This is an ambitious agenda for social change.

So what about changing behaviors?

We did not hear of any museums that are pursuing longitudinal studies of their affect on visitors. We are seeing many museums interested in the appeal of their exhibits to diverse audiences. And we are seeing that most museums formal and informal behavioral evaluation do in the exhibit.

We have heard a lot about setting goals for changing behavior and we would like to hear from museums about this in particular – has your museum hosted an exhibit designed to change the way visitors act in their day-to-day lives? What strategies have you used? And how is it working?


Susan said...

John Falk has been doing some longitudinal studies of learning in museums. I believe he addresses some results in his new book "Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience.

Elizabeth said...

What a helpful succinct summary of how museums measure what we think we're accomplishing! I'm going to save this link to use as a resource in museum assessments.

Justine said...

Susan, Thanks for the reminder about John Falk's book. I'll certainly look and see what he has to say about studying museum impacts over time. I once asked around about whether there were any studies showing that repeat visitation added up to a kind of "critical dosage" where the museum could be shown to have significant impacts. No one could point me to any, although I did get one response that effectively said "its like learning a foreign language - more is better!" It is one of those issues that seems so clearly true, it hasn't been well studied.