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Case Studies

Reinstallation of the American Indian Art Collection

[2003]
A front-end exhibition evaluation with an art museum
Denver Art Museum, Denver, CO

Study Context

In 2003, the Denver Art Museum (DAM) was planning a new permanent exhibition for its renowned American Indian art collection. In 1988, the Museum's installation of its Indian art collection was revolutionary in the art museum world. Building upon this strong historic foundation, the Museum's mission statement for this project was to celebrate and promote the ongoing vitality and diversity of American Indian artists and artistic traditions through an engaging and provocative presentation of its collection.

The exhibition's goal was to challenge prevalent stereotypes through a unique organization that would engage visitors with the art and the artists who created it. DAM staff used front-end evaluation as one tool to assess new methods for breaking down ingrained stereotypes.

Approach

The evaluation, designed collaboratively between RK&A and DAM, was commissioned by the project staff to solicit potential visitor reactions to the unique concept under consideration.

Findings

We conducted four focus groups: two with individuals who had attended an American Indian event in the past 12 months; and two with individuals who has visited an art museum in the last 12 months and who rated their interest in American Indian art as disinterested or neutral. Focus group participants struggled with the exhibition's innovative organization because it did not immediately resonate with their prior knowledge and understanding of American Indian art. Even when some accepted that the organization was different than what they were accustomed to, others sought a familiar entry point, such as geography (e.g., Southwest Indians).

Conclusion

RK&A's evaluation helped DAM staff to build crucial bridges with visitors. Many museums want to impart new ways of thinking about familiar ideas, but to do so successfully, museums need to greet visitors on familiar ground before they will feel comfortable embracing challenging concepts.

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