Summative Evaluation: Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection Exhibition

July 1st, 2010 | EVALUATION

The New York State Historical Association (NYSHA), the parent organization of the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, contracted RK&A to conduct a summative evaluation of the Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection exhibition. The Thaw exhibition is a traveling exhibition of the artworks collected by Eugene and Clare Thaw, which were donated to the Fenimore Art Museum in 1995. The exhibition highlights art from a variety of tribes and geographic regions. The evaluation was conducted at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), the first museum to host the exhibition, so that the NYSHA could make recommendations to other host sites based on the findings. In April 2010, RK&A conducted 34 interviews with visitor groups to the exhibition. Interviews were audio recorded to facilitate analysis. The Thaw exhibition was a tremendously successful exhibition; visitors left the exhibition with the messages that NYSHA intended. First, visitors articulated deep appreciation for the artistry and craftsmanship of American Indian art—one of the goals of the exhibition. This emerged immediately in the interview process, indicating that the idea was most top-of-mind as well as inspiring. Second, the exhibition strove to convey the message that American Indian arts of the various regions are different from one another. Not only did more than one-half of interviewees articulate this message during the interview, some demonstrated a concrete understanding of how the arts were different, including that American Indians used the materials available to in order to create the things they needed. For instance, one interviewee described the resourcefulness of the Seal-Gut Parka in the Arctic and Sub-arctic section; the American Indians needed to stay dry, and so, they used the seal intestines available to them to create waterproof clothing. The successes of the exhibition are strongly attributed to the design decisions of the NYSHA along with the CMA. The design helped visitors appreciate the artistry of the objects because it encouraged visitors to look at individual artworks. Each artwork was spaced apart from the next, and rarely did two or more artworks share a display case; several artworks were displayed in cases or on pedestals in the middle of the gallery space, allowing for visitors to view the works in the round. Additionally, the exhibition presented cultural context in the exhibition text rather than overtly through exhibition design. For instance, instead of displaying clothing on life-like mannequins, as is often done in a natural history museum, the artworks were displayed on wire frames that were barely visible; this was a visual cue for the visitor to focus on the artwork itself. Design elements also provided visual cues that helped visitors acknowledge the diversity of American Indian art. For instance, art was presented by region. Each region was displayed in its own gallery space, and each gallery space was painted a color that evoked the palette and feelings of the region, such as a maize color in the Great Plains section and an icy, grayish-blue color in the Arctic and Sub-arctic section. Further, the section panels explicitly identified the region by superimposing the text onto a photographic representation of the region and its vegetation, such as redwoods in the California and the Great Basin section and deciduous trees in the Northeast Woodlands section.



Team Members

Randi Korn & Associates, Inc., Evaluator, Randi Korn & Associates, Inc.
New York State Historical Association, Contributor


Audience: Adults | Evaluators | General Public | Museum | ISE Professionals
Discipline: Art | music | theater | Education and learning science | Social science and psychology
Resource Type: Summative
Environment Type: Museum and Science Center Exhibits