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For Which It Stands: The American Flag in American Life

[2002]
A front-end exhibition evaluation with a history museum
National Museum of American History, Washington, DC

Study Context

The National Museum of American History, Bering Center (NMAH) asked RK&A in 2002 to concept test ideas for For Which It Stands: The American Flag in American Life, a new exhibition that would feature the Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired the national anthem. The study's objectives were to examine:

  • The range of meanings people attach to the flag
  • How participants think their meaning of the flag has been shaped
  • Participants' tolerance for different meanings of the flag
  • Whether seeing objects and images selected for the exhibition causes people to see the flag in new ways
  • Whether people understand the changing, complex meaning of the flag.

Approach

NMAH is part of the Smithsonian, and, as such, it tries to accommodate visitors from all backgrounds and of all ages. Like many other museums, NMAH wants to attract teens and appeal to adults. Therefore, we tested the exhibition's concepts using focus groups. We conducted three focus groups with teens and three focus groups with adults. Sixty individuals participated in the six groups.

Findings

Through discussions about the exhibition panels, participants were exposed to new ideas and stories about the American flag, which broadened their understanding of the flag. Participants freely shared their personal stories about what the American flag means to them and everyone said they enjoyed hearing other people's stories and ideas and thinking about the American flag in new ways. However, individuals' personal meanings of the flag were not altered as a result of their experience.

Conclusion

Although exhibition planners initially had wanted the exhibition to change people's meaning of the American flag, they learned that participants' beliefs about the flag were shaped by unique experiences deeply rooted in their identities. RK&A's audience research demonstrated that visitors bring valuable experiences to museums and their stories can add depth to other visitors' museum experiences.

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