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Madagascar!

[2009]
A summative evaluation with a zoo
Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx, NY

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) contracted RK&A to evaluate its new exhibition, Madagascar!, located at the Bronx Zoo.  Madagascar! showcases the wildlife and landscapes of the world’s fourth largest island.  Built in the historic Lion House, the exhibition transformed the interior, while preserving the historic building’s Beaux-Arts beauty.  The exhibition offers opportunities to see the island through the eyes of a conservationist at various interactive stations.

How did we approach this study?

RK&A worked with WCS to clarify its goals and objectives for Madagascar! and to identify criteria to measure visitor outcomes.  We conducted a summative evaluation that employed a rigorous, modified pre-test/post-test design to measure visitor learning and attitudinal changes.  Through in-depth open-ended interviews, we explored visitors’ attitudes toward and understandings of threats to Madagascar and its animals as well as knowledge of WCS’s conservation efforts on the island.  We then scored the interview data using rubrics and compared the achievement of eight objectives by visitors who had not seen the exhibition to visitors who had seen the exhibition.

What did we learn?

Findings demonstrate that the exhibition was extremely successful at achieving its goals. Statistically significant findings showed that visitors who experienced the exhibition gained the following new knowledge, ideas, and beliefs, including: 1) enhanced interest in the animals of Madagascar based on knowledge of their habits, environment, and endangered status (versus interest based solely on novelty);  2) knowledge that Madagascar’s environment and animals are threatened, especially by the loss of trees; and, 3) an understanding of why conservation scientists (including those from WCS) are in Madagascar: to study the animals and environment so that they can implement appropriate conservation strategies toward its protection.

What are the implications of the findings?

Even though recent public discourse on global warming has grown substantially, the general public’s familiarity with environmental issues still tends to be vague or even ill-conceived.  Yet, findings demonstrate that Madagascar! shifted visitors’ knowledge of conservation science toward a more accurate, specific, and concrete understanding.  These positive findings are remarkable when one considers how difficult it is to change people’s knowledge and attitudes, particularly in one relatively short visit to a single exhibition.  Through experiences in exhibitions like Madagascar!, visitors assimilate new ideas and perceptions with their pre-existing ideas and perceptions and create new meaning.  The exhibition effectively utilized simple low-tech interactive exhibits; large-scale video walls; live interpretation; and intimate, close-up looks at animals to connect visitors to the environments and wildlife of Madagascar.  Evaluation results have shown that zoos can be appropriate environments for moving visitors beyond the novelty of seeing wild animals to developing an understanding of where the animals come from, why they are important, and how conservation efforts can protect them. 

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