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The impact of exhibition evaluation on setting priorities for museum education

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"'Extremes: Life in Subarctic Canada' - The impact of exhibition evaluation on setting priorities for museum education" Research paper presented at the ICOM CECA Conference 'Museum Education in a …

"'Extremes: Life in Subarctic Canada' - The impact of exhibition evaluation on setting priorities for museum education" Research paper presented at the ICOM CECA Conference 'Museum Education in a Global Context: Priorities and Processes' in Reykjavik, October 2009


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  • 1. ‘Extremes: Life in Subarctic Canada’ – The impact of exhibition evaluation on setting priorities for museum education Introduction In this paper I will introduce the research that was carried out to assess visitor engagement with the special exhibition ‘Extremes: Life in Subarctic Canada’ at the National Museum of Scotland. I will introduce the different methods of assessment that were used, some of the key outcomes, and will conclude by reflecting on the implications that these outcomes may have for museum education in a global context. ‘Extremes: Life in Subarctic Canada’ presented the culture of the Tlicho, an indigenous community in the Northwestern Territories of Canada. The exhibition focused on their resourcefulness in living off the land and their close relationship with the environment, including coping with the very harsh Subarctic climate, as well as their successful campaign to claim their land and the right to self government. It was a very intimate exhibition, both in terms of the space – it was displayed in a relatively small gallery – and in terms of building up a connection with our visitors. The exhibition was targeted at an adult audience, and aimed to encourage visitors to reflect on not only their values and attitudes towards indigenous communities, but also on their own lives, situations and environments. Our objectives included challenging preconceived perceptions, inciting admiration and surprise, and prompting visitors to reflect on their sense of identity and community, and to revaluate their own environment. Exhibition Objectives • Challenge preconceived perceptions about indigenous communities. • Admiration for the resourcefulness of the Tlicho. • Surprise at what can be done with natural resources. • Reflection on own sense of identity and community. • Look at own environment in a new and different way. Figure 1 – Selection of exhibition objectives for ‘Extremes: Life in Subarctic Canada’ For the past few years we have been using the Generic Learning Outcomes, known as GLOs, to evaluate our exhibitions. For those of you unfamiliar with the GLOs, here is a very quick overview: Figure 2 – The five areas of the GLO framework (modified from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council). 1
  • 2. The GLOs are a framework developed by the UK Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) to help demonstrate the overall impact that museums, archives and libraries have on people’s lifelong learning. The GLO framework recognises the multiplicity of learning as a wider concept beyond the mere acquisition of facts, and comprises the five areas you can see here: • Attitudes and values – which can e.g. include perceptions, attitudes or opinions towards other people, or increased motivation or tolerance • Skills – which can e.g. include physical skills, communication skills or information management skills • Knowledge and understanding – which can e.g. include learning facts or information, making sense of something, or making links between things • Enjoyment, inspiration, creativity – which can e.g. include having fun, being surprised or being inspired • Activity, behaviour, progression – which can e.g. include what people do, have done or intend to do There is no hierarchy between these areas, and all are considered equally important. The GLO framework developed out of an understanding that museum education and learning is about more than just introducing people to new facts and information, but also impacts on other areas of the visitor experience. While the 'Extremes' exhibition did cover all five GLOs to some extent, we focused in particular on the area of ‘Attitudes and Values’ both in the exhibition itself and in the subsequent research. The main impetus for this research and its particular focus came through the new permanent world cultures galleries that are being created as part of the major refurbishment happening at the National Museum of Scotland. We recognise that museum education is not just about formal learning with a facilitator, but also about allowing people to learn for themselves, so we wanted to see whether the approach from the ‘Extremes’ exhibition was something that could work for the new galleries. Methodology We had a three-fold approach to our evaluation: - An exit survey with questions inspired by the GLO framework, - Mind maps, which were carried out both before and after a visit and aimed to measure a change in visitors’ understanding and attitudes, and - Exit interviews which allowed us to get more qualitative feedback on some of our questions. We also drew on the visitor comments books, which are a standard part of all our special exhibitions. However, it was the first time that we transcribed and analysed all comments from the books, which are usually scanned for some sample quotes and then kept on file for reference. As well as recording the comments themselves in a spreadsheet, along with the place that the relevant visitors were from, if given, all comments were then coded according various categories. For example, all comments were coded as to whether they were positive, negative or neutral. Further categories included whether the comments mentioned any interpretive aspects of the exhibition, e.g. photographs, audio-visuals or handling objects. Finally, there were some categories that had emerged through recurring comments or types of comments, e.g. whether visitors had a personal connection to Canada or the Subarctic, or whether the comments showed a change in attitudes, values or perceptions. As well as giving easy access 2
  • 3. to all visitor comments in the future, as these are now searchable by category, it also allows us to quantify visitor comments according to our learning objectives and compare these with the outcomes from the other methods. Figure 3 – Extract from ‘Extremes: Life in Subarctic Canada’ Visitor Book feedback spreadsheet But to get back to our main research methods, I would first like to give you an overview of our exit survey. For this we chose only five questions, and the main focus of the questions was on a change in visitors’ attitudes, values and perceptions: 1. What did you find out in the exhibition that you hadn’t known before? 2. Do you feel that this exhibition has inspired you in any way? 3. Has the exhibition challenged your perception of indigenous communities? 4. Do you think that this exhibition has prompted you to reflect on your own way of life? 5. What did you find was most surprising about this exhibition? We also asked some demographic questions at the end to put the responses in to context, such as their age, where they were from, and whether they had ever visited the museum before. I would like to explain in a little more detail the method of the mind maps. You may have heard references elsewhere to ‘personal meaning maps’ or to ‘fulfilment maps’. 'Personal meaning maps' focus more on how much a visitor learns during their visit and any changes in their understanding and perceptions, that is the meaning they take from the relevant exhibition. 'Fufilment maps' focus more on visitors' expectations and in how far these are fulfilled during 3
  • 4. their visit. We just refer to them as mind maps, as we usually include both aspects of the visitor experience when we use this method. Which ever emphasis you choose for your mind maps approach, the method relies on interviewing visitors who have not seen the relevant exhibition before, to ensure that their pre- and post-visit responses are genuine and unbiased. Therefore, the first step was to ask a few screening questions to make sure the visitors fitted the profile. It also works better if the visitors cannot see any of the exhibition, so we approached them for their pre-visit interview just before they entered the exhibition. Once we had the right people and they had agreed to be interviewed both before and after their visit, we asked them about both about what they were expecting from the exhibition, and their previous understanding of and attitudes towards the Tlicho or other indigenous communities, based on what they had seen or heard in the past, as well as on any publicity for the exhibition they may have come across. We recorded this information with a blue pen. Figure 4 – Sample Mind Map: Part 1 At the end of their visit, we interviewed them again. At this point we reviewed with them the comments they had previously made and asked them to annotate these, as well as adding in additional comments. We recorded this information with a red pen. 4
  • 5. Figure 5 – Sample Mind Map: Part 2 We then transcribed the mind maps and coded the pre-visit responses according to emerging themes, e.g. all comments relating to the cold climate in the Subarctic, and summed these up in a table. Pre-Visit Post-Visit Winter/ Cold weather conditions (10) – cold, snow/ cold weather in winter/ bad weather, ice/ harsh wind Traditional lifestyle (4) – log huts, hunting/ traditional way of life/ eskimo communities, igloos, fishing/ husky dogsleds, snowshoes Figure 6 – Extract from table summarising pre-visit mind map responses So in this example, ten respondents commented that they associated the Subarctic with cold, wintery weather conditions, and the table also shows some of the individual responses given. We then coded the corresponding post-visit responses, and correlated these to the pre-visit comments. 5
  • 6. Pre-Visit Post-Visit Winter/ Cold weather conditions (10) – cold, Hot & cold weather conditions (8) – didn’t snow/ cold weather in winter/ bad weather, ice/ think of hot weather/ bad snow in winter but harsh wind hot in summer/ didn’t realise it’s also hot in summer/ harsh winters and hot summers too/ wasn’t expecting the summer bits Traditional lifestyle (4) – log huts, hunting/ Traditional lifestyle (6) – Cool that they still traditional way of life/ eskimo communities, hunt and use animal bones/ interesting to see igloos, fishing/ husky dogsleds, snowshoes it still carried on/ no dogsleds anymore/ they did not fish through holes like I thought/ no igloos, and no dogsleds anymore/ Before I thought they were Eskimos Figure 7 – Extract from table summarising pre- and post-visit mind map responses So in this example, we can see that eight out of the ten respondents who had associated cold weather with the Subarctic were surprised to learn that the climate there is very hot in summer. Processing all the mind maps in this way, we were able to compare the expectations, understanding and perceptions of visitors before and after their visit. Finally, the exit interviews were essentially a combination of the survey questions and the mind map discussions, and their purpose was to talk a bit longer and deeper with visitors. They were not done with the same sample of people, but were done at a later stage and so enabled us to pick up on points and issues that had arisen from the mind maps and surveys, and to probe further on these. Key Outcomes So, what were the outcomes of our research? Let us first look at the outcomes of the survey: • 88% found out something new • 42% were inspired by the exhibition; 42% had their pre-existing interest reinforced • 36% had their previous perceptions challenged; 45% had their positive perception reinforced • 63% were prompted to reflect on their own life • 91% were surprised by something in the exhibition Is it significant that 88% of visitors found out something new about a little known community that live in a very remote corner of the world? Or that 91% of visitors were surprised by something in the exhibition? To me, the most significant – and the most exciting – outcome was the 63% of visitors who said the exhibition had prompted them to reflect on their own lives in one way or another. This was mirrored in the responses from the mind maps and the exit surveys, as well as the visitor comments books, which all showed that the exhibition had prompted reflection and a change in attitudes, values and perceptions in many of our visitors. The use of questions, photographs showing everyday lives and activities of the Tlicho, and personal quotes by members of the Tlicho community – including quotes in their own language – all contributed to engaging visitors on a deeper level. Figure 8 shows just a few examples of visitor responses we collected. 6
  • 7. “I was impressed that they still make clothes and make use of hunting for survival and resources.” (mind map) “It shows how unresourceful we are in comparison, how reliant we are on manufactured goods.” (interview) “They are much more self reliant and we have become dependent.” (interview) “We have been so far removed from this way of life, where you see where your food, clothes etc. come from because you make them yourself. If only we lived that sustainably.” (comments book) “We allow ourselves to be limited by using the weather as an excuse.” (survey) “We could be more community led like them.” (survey) Figure 8 – Selection of visitor responses to the ‘Extremes: Life in Subarctic Canada’ exhibition Admiration for the resourcefulness of the Tlicho was one of the main perceptions that emerged during the research. Visitors said the exhibition made them consider how we live our lives in Britain and our society’s continued dependence on materialism. The fact that the exhibition detailed the Tlicho’s use of raw materials was contrasted with the “throw away” society in the UK. Many of the photographs in the exhibition featured contented members of the Tlicho community, which gave the impression that this was a happy community despite the fact that they lived in extreme conditions. This made visitors question how our society seems less contented despite the fact that people have so much more than the Tlicho in terms of possessions. The exhibition also prompted visitors to reflect on their sense of identity and community and to draw comparisons with the Tlicho. They felt that the Tlicho had a very strong sense of community, whereas many of the visitors felt more isolated in their own communities, not knowing or interacting with their neighbours. For some visitors, the exhibition provoked nostalgic memories, as they reflected on when their grandparents had taught them traditional skills such as sewing and knitting and how this had created a bond between generations. However, it also made visitors realise how fortunate we are, in comparison to the Tlicho, to have access to education and health services. Conclusion What the research has shown is that the ‘Extremes’ exhibition evoked a high level of emotional engagement with our visitors and a deeper level of understanding. Many visitors arrived at the exhibition with preconceived stereotypes or a very removed view of the Tlicho culture, which in their eyes was fairly exotic and did not have much relevance for them. However, many came away from the exhibition having discovered that the Tlicho were a resourceful community from whom we, in the UK, could learn much. One of the difficulties in representing cultures in a museum is to avoid ‘exoticising’ cultures and making them into caricatures of themselves. From our research, we have drawn the conclusion that a priority should therefore be to get visitors to think about world cultures not only in terms of ‘the other’ and the differences between them, but to also focus more on the similarities. The 7
  • 8. process for achieving this would be to encourage visitors to think not only for themselves, but also about themselves, e.g. by evoking emotional responses through images showing cultures in comparable everyday situations, or including the own words of living cultures in gallery text. The outcomes of this research have given us something to build on and are actively informing other exhibitions. In terms of the refurbishment, these outcomes have allowed us to step outside the traditional approach that the museum has historically always taken, and are informing how we are taking forward the new permanent world cultures galleries. These will have a strong focus in getting visitors to reflect on themselves - e.g. in a gallery called 'Facing the Sea', which looks at the cultural diversity of Pacific communities based on their island/ coastal life and their relationship with the sea, visitors will be prompted to reflect on their own relationship with the sea if they live in coastal communities. This is particularly pertinent for our local audience, since in Scotland the sea and the coast are never far away. We believe that encouraging visitors to think not only for themselves, but also about themselves, is crucial for 21st century museum education in a global context. Jenni Fuchs, Visitor Studies Officer National Museum of Scotland j.fuchs@nms.ac.uk Acknowledgements The initial research and report for the exit surveys and mind maps were carried out with much assistance from Matthew Masterton, Visitor Studies Intern; the initial exit interviews were carried out by our external consultants Scotinform Ltd, and parts of the conclusion from this paper were drawn from the final report they delivered. Thanks also to Chantal Knowles, curator for ‘Extremes: Life in Subarctic Canada’, for advising on the initial draft for this paper, and the Sheena Muncie from Scotinform for giving feedback on the final draft. 8