4 Strategies for Creating Effective Museum Evaluations.

In our latest meeting of the Museum Mindshare community, we gathered to discuss the importance of evaluation within our institutions and our professional practices. At Gesso, we recognize the value of data and analytics in helping museum professionals make informed decisions about how to best serve their visitors. That’s why we built analytics and evaluation into the platform and the development process of Gesso’s mobile guides. It’s also why we created Museum Mindshare to support the work of museums by providing opportunities to share successes, challenges, and questions around how to measure the effectiveness of our programs and exhibitions.

In an effort to increase transparency across the field, this discussion focused on evaluation strategies and important lessons learned. As in most museum discussions, there are lots of issues and questions that our community is grappling with. Here’s what’s at the top of our minds:

1. Asking the right questions

Our community agreed that the trick to getting useful survey results is asking the right questions. We’ve all had experiences where we thought our questions were well phrased but resulted in answers that were unrelated to the survey or outside of our institutions control. There are firms that you can hire who specialize in survey design, but if you’re planning an evaluation on a budget then you may want to consider a DIY approach. For this, we recommend testing out the questions in advance with friends, family or other staff to see the kinds of responses you receive and whether that data can inform your decision-making. If you’re really short on time, think about how you would answer the questions yourself; if you struggle to come up with an answer, then it’s probably not the right question.

2. Considering your audience

When designing surveys it’s important to consider the audience you’re trying to reach and what you hope to learn from them. For example, some questions work beautifully for a youth audience but may fall flat on adult ears. Once again, it’s important to get feedback on your question design early in the process, before you begin collecting less-than-useful data. To that end, our community had some tips:

  • When evaluating a youth program, survey both participants and their parents to get a fuller picture of their experience.
  • When looking for feedback from non-visitors, libraries and festivals are good locations to approach individuals and learn more about why they don’t visit your museum.
  • And if time is limited, another great resource is your own staff, particularly those who work front of house and directly with visitors. Even informal conversations can reveal small ways to improve the visitor experience.

3. When to evaluate

When and how to evaluate is another question that came up during our discussion. Formative evaluations are typically conducted before an exhibition opening or a program roll out. Summative evaluation, on the other hand, is conducted at the end of your exhibition or program. Both can be incredibly valuable, particularly when writing narratives for grants and funders, but how do you choose which is most appropriate? This often comes down to budget and staff capacity. For example, if you’re designing an exhibition that will be on view for years, investing in formative evaluation can provide valuable insights on how visitors will receive your work and ensure the exhibition has more staying power. But for a short, temporary exhibition, a summative study can provide both evidence of engagement during the show’s run and learnings for how to improve future projects.

4. How do we compare?

The last topic on our minds is creating standards across the field that help museums to assess and measure success in visitor engagement. There are so many museums conducting independent visitor research and so often those results go unseen and undiscussed outside of our small circles of colleagues. It feels more pressing that museums share their learnings so that we all can benefit. But if we are all asking different questions, it can be like comparing apples and oranges. Our community is interested in the work of organizations like the Collaboration for Ongoing Visitor Experience Studies (COVES), that is working to unite museums around collecting, analyzing, and reporting data that will benefit the field as a whole. Their visitor survey is currently in use at over 30 participating institutions, aimed to provide meaningful data about visitor experiences across the country.

Thanks to those who contributed to this conversation by sharing your experience and expertise with our community.

Gesso creates accessible audio guides that museums of all sizes can set up in minutes. See how your museum can partner with us to host your mobile audio guide experiences.

Co-founder of Gesso, next-gen audio guides for cities + museums. Follow for latest insights on audio, museum tech, travel tech, and more. www.gesso.app