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.