Summative Evaluation: Unshelved Exhibition
The San Diego Natural History Museum (The Nat) contracted RK&A to conduct a summative evaluation of the temporary exhibition, Unshelved: Cool Stuff from Storage. The priorities for the study focused on exploring (1) whether visitors understand that the museum has vast collections (and why); (2) how the low level of interpretation effects visitors’ experiences and understanding of the exhibition; and (3) visitors’ personal connections and emotional response to the exhibition.
How did we approach this study?
RK&A employed two methodologies for this study. First, RK&A conducted open-ended interviews with a total of 30 visitor groups. Interview participants were recruited as they exited the Unshelved exhibition using a random sampling protocol. Second, RK&A conducted timing and tracking observation of 25 visitors to the exhibition to gain additional context about the visitor experience. Observations were unobtrusive, so visitors were not asked to participate but selected randomly upon entering the exhibition. All data were collected over three days in February 2018. Data were analyzed quantitatively and qualitatively.
What did we learn?
Based on interview data, visitors generally understood the main themes of Unshelved. Results show that many visitors understand that The Nat has a large collection of specimens as a result of visiting. When asked how the exhibition communicated this concept, participants said this was explained through various aspects of the exhibition, such as exhibition interpretation, the design of the gallery space with utilitarian shelves and boxes, and the wide variety of specimens on display. Additionally, most visitors have a correct, if narrow, understanding of why The Nat has a collection of specimens and continues to grow that collection. Interview findings show many believed the purpose of the collection to be for scientific research and learning, while some said the collection preserves and cares for specimens. And findings indicate that visitors to Unshelved generally recognize that the specimens are authentic or “real”; participants referenced a few ways they knew this, including the realistic fur and feathers on the specimens and interpretive text or photographs in the exhibition. Results from timing and tracking suggest the limited interpretation strategy used in Unshelved did not result in a notably shorter dwell time compared to other, more traditional exhibitions at The Nat. Observations of 25 visitors in Unshelved show the time spent in the exhibition is on par with other exhibitions. Furthermore, the high rate of take-away of key ideas, as discussed above, indicates that this exhibition strategy can work well for the types of outcomes the museum aspired to in this exhibition.
What are the implications of the findings?
Overall, we consider the efficacy of the exhibition strategy to be a good one. As a result of the exhibition, visitors’ awareness of the Nat’s collections and its purpose is high, as is awareness that the specimens are real. However, if the museum hopes to deepen visitors’ understanding of the museum’s collections and utilization, it might consider additional interpretation about the collecting process—who does the collecting, what is collected, how, and where is it kept. Perhaps this strategy would answer visitors’ general questions regarding the specimens and help visitors create more personal connections by highlighting stories of individuals doing scientific work. This additional interpretation may also help the few visitors who had negative reactions to the specimens feel more comfortable with the exhibition. But, one of the greatest benefits to this exhibition strategy, that has less interpretation and interactivity than in the rest of the museum, is the curiosity it inspired in visitors.