Formative Evaluation: Native New York Exhibition

November 15th, 2016 | EVALUATION

The National Museum of the American Indian, NY (NMAI-NY) contracted RK&A to conduct a two-phase formative evaluation of the museum’s upcoming Native New York exhibition. The study’s objectives for walk-in visitors and teachers were to understand their baseline knowledge, what piques their interest, potential barriers (confusion or misunderstanding), strategies to help make personal connections, and how/if they understand exhibition outcomes (such as appreciate who Native Americans are today and understand that Native peoples have powerfully shaped and defined New York’s geography, economy, and cultural identity over time).

How did we approach this study?
RK&A conducted two phases of evaluation. In the first phase, we conducted two 90-minute focus groups with 4th and 7th grade teachers and instructional designers, as well as interviews with walk-in visitors. The second phase consisted of one focus group with teachers and interviews with walk-in visitors. In all three focus groups, teachers were shown a PowerPoint presentation and printed booklet of preliminary exhibition materials. RK&A guided teachers through the materials, asking questions from the interview guide and additional probes along the way. In the first phase, walk-in visitors were shown a condensed version of the materials shown to focus group participants, and RK&A guided participants through the materials in the booklet, asking questions from the interview guide and additional probes as necessary. Walk-in visitors in the second phase of testing viewed a condensed version of the materials at their own pace and participated in the interview when finished.

What did we learn?
In both testing rounds, perhaps not surprisingly, educators have a solid foundation in understanding native people and the issues and ideas surrounding them. Walk-in visitors, however, demonstrated very simplistic understandings of native peoples and thus many of the exhibition materials were confusing. Most walk-in visitors felt the exhibition primarily emphasizes the past and struggled to make concrete connections to today, and most struggled to understand how native peoples have defined New York over time. Educators were also excited that the exhibition will emphasize native peoples’ contributions to New York and the important role native peoples have played in shaping American democracy because it echoes their goals in the classroom. For some (especially instructional designers), the messages of “survival” and “pride” are overshadowed by the idea of native peoples’ decline and struggles. Likewise, in both rounds of testing, walk-in teachers and walk-in visitors felt the exhibition can do more to emphasis native peoples’ value in shaping New York and America over time. The second round of testing showed that, while teachers’ baseline knowledge and comfort is strong, findings suggest teachers tend to default to discussing “Native Americans” generally (as one group rather than framing them as a variety of distinct cultures). While walk-in visitors were enthusiastic about the “personal” contemporary stories featured in the exhibition, many remained uncertain of their relevance to non-native peoples and New York City today.

What are the implications of the findings?
Findings reveal opportunities for the museum to better support teachers in understanding native cultures’ complexities both in the past and today and of New York’s native nations specifically. Since teacher responses indicate tension between following a more historically-based curriculum and the desire to teach students about contemporary native peoples lives, NMAI should consider ways to mitigate this so native peoples’ contributions over time are clear and so the contemporary stories do not feel like an add-on. Similarly, to support walk-in visitors, the museum should consider providing concrete examples of how native peoples’ lives and traditions might be relevant to non-native visitors’ lives in more than superficial ways (e.g., walking past a street named after native peoples) to help illustrate this idea.



Team Members

Cathy Sigmond, Evaluator, Randi Korn & Associates, Inc.
Stephanie Downey, Evaluator, Randi Korn & Associates, Inc.
Sam Theriault, Evaluator, Randi Korn & Associates, Inc.


Access and Inclusion: Ethnic | Racial | Indigenous and Tribal Communities
Audience: Educators | Teachers | Evaluators | General Public | Museum | ISE Professionals
Discipline: Ecology | forestry | agriculture | History | policy | law
Resource Type: Evaluation Reports | Formative
Environment Type: Exhibitions | Museum and Science Center Exhibits