United States Botanic Garden Visitor Research Study

January 31st, 2008 | EVALUATION

In 2006, the U.S. Botanic Garden (USBG) decided to conduct an institution-wide study of their visitors—why they come to the Botanic Garden, how they utilize the space, their level of satisfaction with the experience, and overall effectiveness of the USBG’s exhibitions and interpretation—in order to provide input to a strategic planning process that will align its living collections with its educational mission. To date, the only existing data characterizing USBG visitors was gathered in the early 1990s. Since then, the USBG has undergone a major transformation, including complete renovation of its 1933 Conservatory (completed 2001), preparation and implementation of an interpretive master plan, and restructuring its staff and programs.

The Institute for Learning Innovation (ILI), a non-profit research and evaluation focused on understanding free-choice learning, was contracted to conduct the visitor study collaboratively with senior staff at the US Botanic Garden. The study was not intended to be prescriptive, but rather provide the USBG with a rich picture of their visitors, their experience, and outcomes in order to guide the institution in future decision-making.

The central evaluation questions for this study were as follows:

  1. Who is coming to the USBG?
  2. Why are visitors choosing to visit?
  3. What is the nature and level of visitors.’ engagement in the experience?
  4. What do visitors take away from their experience at USBG?

Multiple methods were used over the course of a year (Fall 2007 to Summer 2008) to answer these questions, including observational demographics, cued timing and tracking of visitors, exit interviews, and individual room interviews. Researchers also used a previously tested framework of “enacted identities” or “entry narratives” based on visitors.’ motivations for coming to a free-choice learning setting, which identifies five visitor types: The Explorer, Professional/Hobbyist, Facilitator, Spiritual Pilgrim, and Experience Seeker. Looking across these four sub-studies, the following key trends emerged:

Visitors motivated by personal interests and “spiritual” renewal: The visitors to the USBG are coming largely because they are personally interested in plants, are plant “hobbyists,” and/or want to experience the beauty of the garden’s plants and flowers as a means of relaxation and renewal. Fewer visitors have a learning agenda (though those that do are focused specifically on learning about plants), or a social agenda.—that is, they are coming for the benefit of others, such as their children.

Visitors value the aesthetic, immersive experience of plants. USBG visitors were predominantly focused on enjoying the plant life and immersing themselves in “real,” authentic environments. They strongly appreciated the visual beauty of the gardens and the overall sensory experiences (sights, sounds, smells) of being there.

Visitors also value learning more about plants, but less so than experiencing them. Many visitors to the USBG were also interested in learning more about plants and ecosystems, and their relationship to human society, or they appreciated the educational aspect of the garden once they got there. While this agenda was most often secondary to the more affective ones, if present at all, it seems clear that visitors appreciate having both experiences available to them. That is, the US Botanic Garden is successfully providing both an aesthetic and an educational experience.

Visitors are extremely satisfied with their experience at the USBG. Both as an overall experience and by specific rooms/areas, visitors consistently conveyed extremely high levels of satisfaction. This suggests that there is no urgent need to change the exhibits and interpretive approach of the Conservatory from the visitor perspective.

Use of interpretive materials seemingly low, but may be sufficient. While the percentage of visitors using the extended labels and panels at first appears low, one must keep in mind that the Conservatory offers a great deal of interpretation and cannot expect visitors to utilize high percentages of them. Rather, visitors will choose to read about what interests them most; further, research supports the fact that few visitors to museums and museum-like settings are avid “labelreaders,” so other methods of interpretation are often necessary. That said, the study showed that there is some room for improvement in the interpretive approaches of the Botanic Garden, such as making content more simple and clear, placing signage in more .“obvious.” places (especially making sure it.’s not hidden behind foliage), and using visual designs that stand out more.

Visitors’ understanding of the “Big Ideas” is closely aligned with the USBG mission and goals. Despite the relatively low use of interpretive materials, visitors picked up on many of the key messages the USBG hopes to convey.—such as diversity of plant life and ecosystems, the importance of protecting and conserving habitats, how plants work, how people use and impact the natural environment, appreciating the beauty of nature, and experiencing environments and foliage that one may not experience otherwise (such as a tropical forest or desert).

Visitors had more trouble understanding themes/messages in individual rooms. Visitors were less likely to pick up on the intended theme or message of the individual rooms. Those who spent more time in the room or read more were slightly more likely to get a basic understanding of the theme, but generally visitors struggled to articulate what a particular room or area was about. This indicates that the USBG would need to find alternate strategies for conveying this information if these themes are considered important to their overall educational mission.

Appendix includes instruments.



Team Members

Jill Stein, Evaluator, Institute for Learning Innovation
Martin Storksdieck, Evaluator, Institute for Learning Innovation


Audience: Evaluators | General Public | Museum | ISE Professionals
Discipline: Ecology | forestry | agriculture | Life science
Resource Type: Audience Study | Evaluation Reports | Formative | Interview Protocol | Observation Protocol | Research and Evaluation Instruments | Summative
Environment Type: Exhibitions | Park | Outdoor | Garden Programs | Parks | Outdoor | Garden Exhibits | Public Programs