Formative Evaluation: African Art Reinstallation

February 4th, 2015 | EVALUATION

The Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) contracted with RK&A to conduct a formative evaluation in preparation for the reinstallation of its African art collections, one part of a large reinstallation project currently underway at the Museum. How did we approach this study? This evaluation explored visitors’ reactions to and understanding of the BMA’s potential approach to the African art reinstallation, employing the temporary exhibition Hand Held: Personal Arts from Africa as the base for visitor discussions. The museum used the exhibition Hand Held as an opportunity to explore different interpretive strategies for the reinstallation. RK&A conducted 31 open-ended interviews with groups of visitors who visited Hand Held. In addition to responding to the exhibition specifically, RK&A asked interviewees to comment on six themes that the BMA was considering for the reinstallation. What did we learn? When interviewees were asked what they thought the exhibition was trying to show or tell visitors, more than one-half recalled a broad message that was not specifically related to African art and culture. Yet, when further probed to talk about the exhibition, nearly two-thirds provided concrete examples of what they learned about African art from the exhibition, with the majority speaking about the beauty and ornate detail of everyday objects and a few mentioning symbolism. The text and images on the labels were the strategy visitors found most important to their exhibition experience because they provided cultural context for the objects, and in particular, they explained or showed Africans using the objects. When shown six potential themes for the reinstallation, visitors expressed interest in all of them, with “Identities” and “Global Connections” being mentioned the most. For instance, visitors like the theme Global Connections because they believed it would show the endurance of African art and culture as well as demonstrate that African art is not primitive, which some felt is the stereotype. By comparison, visitors had mixed reactions to the theme “Everyday Beauty,” with some finding it insightful to African daily life and others finding it typical and prosaic. What are the implications of the findings? It is not so surprising that visitors had difficulty identifying messages that they took away from the exhibition, as visitors from one culture and time period may have difficulty fully understanding works of art from another culture or time. Interpretation like text and labels can provide cultural context and help visitors feel satisfied and accommodated. As the BMA moves forward, it may further consider how to use interpretive and display strategies to help visitors gain context for the works of art. Additionally, structuring the African art reinstallation by theme as the BMA intends can create powerful learning experiences. As visitors thought about the themes in relation to reinstallation, it became evident that uniqueness was an important quality to visitors (e.g., new way to look at African art). Yet, thematic organizations can also challenge visitors to draw connections between what may look like disparate works of art and the themes so the BMA may consider (1) how many themes the exhibition space can adequately accommodate, (2) how many themes people can process at any given time, and (3) how to further utilize interpretive and display strategies to help visitors connect the objects to the themes.



Team Members

Baltimore Museum of Art, Contributor
Randi Korn, Evaluator, Randi Korn & Associates, Inc.
Amanda Krantz, Evaluator, Randi Korn & Associates, Inc.


Audience: Evaluators | General Public | Museum | ISE Professionals
Discipline: Art | music | theater
Resource Type: Evaluation Reports | Formative
Environment Type: Exhibitions | Museum and Science Center Exhibits