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Plants are up to Something

[2009]
A summative evaluation with a botanical garden
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, CA

The Huntington asked RK&A to conduct a summative evaluation to study the impact of Plants are up to Something, a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded exhibition in the Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory for Botanical Science.  The study was specifically designed to examine visitors’ behavior in the exhibition, including engagement with science; understanding of the overall exhibition message; and understanding of and attitudes toward plants.

How did we approach this study?

RK&A conducted the first summative evaluation of Plants are up to Something in 2006 and it revealed findings worthy of further exploration.  NSF provided additional funds for a second study that enabled us to more fully assess the impact of the exhibition by examining differences between Conservatory visitors and non-Conservatory visitors.  In August and September 2008, we conducted timing and tracking observations of 50 visitors in the exhibition and interviews with 195 visitors as they exited the Huntington—94 who had visited the Conservatory and 101 who had not.  Then we scored verbatim interview transcripts using a rubric that measured visitors’ learning and analyzed the data statistically to examine correlations among the interview rubric scores, visitation to the Conservatory, and visitor characteristics.

What did we learn?

We found that the Conservatory provides visitors—adults and children alike—with highly engaging experiences.  Similar to our 2006 findings, the current study found no differences in how adults and children behaved in the Conservatory.  Both age groups spent similar amounts of time in the exhibition as a whole and in each section, stopped at similar numbers of exhibits and sections, and were equally likely to visit the Plant Lab—an area concentrated with interactive exhibits.  Furthermore, adults and children were equally likely to use hands-on activities featuring science tools and skills, look at plants, and discuss exhibit content.

In terms of visitor learning, for each of the three exhibition goals, Conservatory visitors scored higher than did non-Conservatory visitors.  In other words, visiting the Conservatory correlates with more positive attitudes toward plants, greater understanding that plants are active not passive life forms, and deeper knowledge of plants.  It is particularly noteworthy that visiting the Conservatory correlates with all three goals, considering the myriad of variables that affect visitors’ attitudes and knowledge.  Moreover, none of our similar large-scale studies to date have found a program or exhibition that has positively impacted both visitors’ attitudes and content knowledge.

What are the implications of the findings?

These findings demonstrate the effectiveness of developing an exhibition around a core message and using that message as a filter to determine content and experiences for the final exhibition.  By staying true to the core message, Huntington staff ensured that each exhibit experience reinforced the main message and supported visitor learning.  We attribute the success of Plants are up to Something—both in providing engagement experiences and conveying content—to the Huntington staff’s commitment to using evaluation to inform their practice and ongoing learning.

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