Museum Educators Next, Part III: Incorporating Visitor Voices

In my first two posts regarding what’s next for museum educators (September 17 and October 1) I promised to take a look at some of the skills educators should be cultivating so that they can contribute more effectively to the museum’s role as an informal space for learning and engagement.  It happens that I’ve been talking with Allison Wickens, an energetic and innovative museum educator, about doing a guest post on a topic that she thinks is essential to her work.

K. Allison Wickens, posing with Mr. Zip, describes herself as a mid-career professional. She’s been in her current position for six years and counts as inspirations her interests in history and learning in informal enviornments


Allison, who is Director of Education at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, proposed discussing how important and useful it is for educators to be able to conduct evaluation with visitors–the availability of professional evaluators notwithstanding.  I thought these practical tips on how to incorporate the visitor voice were a timely and useful educator’s tool to discuss, so am happy to turn this page over to her:

Making an Evaluation Impact on your Museum: Tips for the Educator 
By Allison Wickens



I love my job, in part, because it gives me daily opportunities to think about the diverse and rich ways people learn.  As education director, I am responsible for seeing that our museum offers high quality learning experiences, and I can’t do it without the contributions professional evaluators and audience researchers give to the museum field.



But, when I find myself talking to my colleagues about my appreciation for some interesting analysis I gained from a recent study I find many of them start to look discouraged, and I can see their thoughts form the words: “nice, but…evaluation is so expensive!”



I first want to jump to the defense of the evaluation professionals and say, “well yes…isn’t it quality you want to pay for?”  We should be glad that there are experts committed to helping us understand how visitors learn in our museums.



But I know some education departments have an annual operating budget that is dwarfed by the cost of a single front-end study.  Don’t let the expense stop you from thinking evaluatively. I’d like to push past the initial barrier of the price tag and talk about the ways to get visitor input and evaluation study results into the work education practitioners do every day.



    1. Never stop advocating for visitor studies funding in your museum’s operating dollars.  Acknowledge its worth with your co-workers.  As museum professionals who value making visitor-accessible exhibits and programs, we must be vigilant in strategic meetings that address budget requests.  On the rare occasion that the museum receives an unrestricted donation, earmark it for evaluations instead of starting a new program; use incoming funds to make your current offerings better, not just offer new ones. 



  1. Find ways to balance your staff and skill resources with those of expert evaluation professionals.  I’ve worked with some external evaluators who share the burden of data entry, data collection, participant recruitment, and literature review with me, the client, in exchange for fewer hours of their expert team on the job.  Not only does this lower the cost, it also gives our team the opportunity to gain new skills and perspectives for evaluation.
NPM educator Becky Daniel conducts a visitor study….



…and shows how much fun it is!




    1. Extend professionally conducted evaluation results in new or different directions.  Whether done for your institution or another, look at ways you can use pre-existing research to inform your current decision-making and practice.  We had a grant-funded evaluation for one of our tour programs in 2007, and we’ve returned to the skillfully honed outcomes and analysis to inform our staff-conducted surveys and analysis each year since.  Yes, still reaping the benefits or our investment 5 years later. 



    1. Recognize and act when non-statistically valid, but immediate, visitor feedback can really push a project forward.  Just because there are great professionals in this field doesn’t mean that you aren’t qualified to bring to a project some visitor opinions that can fuel the decision-making discussion.  Once, on an exhibit team, I was trying to decide the most visitor-friendly way to highlight the role of aircraft in mail delivery in the 1930s.  We had two great stories, and debated the merits of each: shipping live eggs to Alaska or distributing the latest boxing match footage to movie houses across the nation.  Which one to choose?  A quick pop onto the floor, and it was pretty clear the answer was “Chickens!”  Visitors didn’t make the decision, but allowed me, the educator on the team, to integrate their voice into our discussion. 


Chickens! The live-egg shipping case displayed after a quick assessment of  visitor interest.




  1. Get your staff and volunteers involved in data collection, even if you can’t formally analyze it.  As valuable as a final report is in a visitor study, some of its greatest impact can be on the people involved in the data collection.  I’ve been known to conduct visitor research with absolutely no interest in the final results.  One purpose is a training exercise for our docents.  I ask them to observe and then talk to visitors about their experience (with a guiding worksheet and proper signage).  This serves as fuel for a follow up discussion about the museum visitors. During our family festivals, we ask our volunteers to look for intended outcomes and observable behaviors while they run their activity tables. Yes, it helps us to know if this activity, for example, is getting parents and children to interact, but more importantly, it helps volunteers understand this is a behavior they should support and reinforce with their interactions with the visitors.
Volunteer Charlotte Brown talks with visitors about their experience with a hands-on activity.



    Knowledge of visitor learning and motivation is empowering if you are developing museum programs, tours, or exhibits.  Professional museum evaluators bring these skills to their work with museums, but they do not exclusively hold that responsibility for our profession.  Museum practitioners, particularly those in the education department, must always be thinking about new and creative ways to gather and integrate visitor input into their projects.  There is always a way, and the impact is invaluable.


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