A formative evaluation at a natural history museum
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC) contracted RK&A to conduct a hybrid evaluation that was both front-end evaluation and formative evaluation. NHMLAC created a full-size prototype of a portion of Nature Lab, anexhibition that prompts visitors to think about LA’s urban nature and their connection to it, while highlighting the main idea that LA is a “biodiversity hotspot.” The prototype was installed in the space where the completed exhibition will live, and the evaluation explored visitors’ responses to the proposed exhibition content and interpretation approaches to help staff find common ground between the Museum’s intended messages and visitors’ understanding.
How did we approach this study?
RK&A conducted in-depth interviews with visitors about the Nature Lab exhibition to understand the following: visitors perceptions of LA’s natural environment, reactions to using animal stories as an interpretive approach for communicating that “LA is a surprising biodiversity hotspot,” what might inspire visitors to visit the Wildlife Gardens, and what might motivate visitors to participate in a citizen science project. RK&A chose in-depth interviews because they encourage interviewees to express their opinions and feelings and share with the interviewer the meaning they associate with proposed exhibition content.
What did we learn?
When describing LA’s environment, top-of-mind for many interviewees was LA’s cultural diversity and how busy or fast-paced the city is; however, when probed specifically about what lives in LA’s natural habitat, most interviewees mentioned plants and animals that live in Los Angeles. Nearly all interviewees saw a connection between the proposed exhibition content they viewed and the big idea of “LA’s Urban Nature”; many interviewees were able to identify the overriding message that there is more wildlife in LA than they think from the variety of animal story panels. Visitors had positive reactions to familiar landmarks woven through the stories, new facts, and hands-on opportunities embedded in the panels. Interviewees also responded well to the different approaches used to present citizen science projects, including the icon-illustrated three-step process that was on both panels and the scientist’s tips for finding lizards.
What are the implications of the findings?
Findings reveal that the main message of the exhibition (“LA is a biodiversity hotspot”) will likely serve as a powerful hook for visitors because it introduces new and surprising information about the place they live. Staff should continue to emphasize the fact that there is more wildlife in LA than people think, as this was an “ah-ha” moment for many interviewees. Additionally, staff might consider emphasizing why certain animals are “wildlife,” even though some people might not initially consider them as such. Findings suggest that the animal stories are successful strategies for helping visitors come to know the primary thematic messages; thus, staff should continue to use narrative as a primary interpretive strategy, interlacing information that visitors can appreciate as familiar and relatable. Responses to the citizen science interpretation suggest that varied methods will be successful for inspiring visitors to participate in research. Common strategies that seemed to engage and inspire visitors are: emphasizing why visitors’ contributions are valuable and how visitors will be recognized for their contributions; and streamlining the process so it as simple and straightforward as possible.