Tuesday, June 27, 2017

This summer, I’ve been working as an evaluation intern at Harvard’s Museum of Natural History. My main project so far has been remedial exhibit evaluation in the Next of Kin exhibit. Exhibit evaluation is how museums figure out what people are learning from exhibits, and the evaluation is remedial because it's taking place while the exhibit is completed in its final form and open to the public. The exhibit I've been evaluating, Next of Kin, is an exhibit on the anthropogenic extinction crisis. An artist from outside the museum designed the exhibit, and it primarily focuses on presenting endangered and extinct animals very directly to museum-goers in ways that force them to face, sometimes literally, the creatures humans have harmed. The exhibit includes artifacts such as a skeleton of the extinct Moa, a preserved ear from an endangered species of whale, and large, striking heads of different kinds of deer whose habitats are threatened. The exhibit has a lot in it, and there is a strong intended narrative about the role humans have played in mass extinction. To see which of the items are eliciting responses from visitors and whether the message comes through clearly, I track and interview visitors.
the deer heads positioned so that you look at them face to face
I track every third adult who comes into the exhibit to make sure my sampling is random. When the person I’m going to track walks in, I refer to a simplified map of the exhibit that has every point of interest marked as a location. When the person stops at one of those points, I start a timer to see how long the person stays there, then when that person moves on to the next point, I record that as well. By the end of even a quick trip through the exhibit, I usually have a sheet full of crisscrossing lines connecting X’s and numbers to mark what felt to the person like an intuitive way to move through the exhibit.
the view from the entrance to the exhibit
the map I use to mark down peoples' paths
After marking down someone’s movement pattern, I ask them directly what they thought about the exhibit. I have several interview questions that get qualitative data to match up to the quantitative tracking data. People are usually very open to being interviewed, and have interesting insights about the design, content, and layout of the exhibit even if they only walked through fairly briefly. Using this data, my next step is to analyze what people did and did not learn so that the artist who made the exhibit can use the information to shape future designs with the audience in mind.

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