In 1999, the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) was in the early stages of developing an exhibition about conserving ocean wildlife. RK&A conducted a front-end evaluation to help the Aquarium develop and refine a main message for the exhibition. The final exhibition, called Vanishing Wildlife, opened in 2001 and is on permanent display.
This exhibition's goal is to increase visitors' awareness of and concern for ocean wildlife and to inspire them to take simple steps to help conserve these animals—for example, by buying sustainable seafood and by joining an ocean conservation group. In 2003, RK&A conducted a summative evaluation to document visitors' use and impressions of Vanishing Wildlife immediately after viewing the exhibition and, again, several months after their visit. In particular, the evaluation examined visitors' use of two printed cards available in the exhibition: the Seafood Watch card helps visitors choose seafood that is caught or farmed in ways that protect ocean wildlife, while the Ocean Allies card lists information on a variety of ocean conservation groups that visitors can join.
To conduct the study, RK&A worked with the Aquarium staff to design three research strategies, including unobtrusive timing and tracking of visitors inside the exhibit; on-site exit interviews with visitors; and telephone interviews with visitors two to three months after they had seen the exhibition.
Findings showed that Vanishing Wildlife increased visitors' awareness and knowledge of the specific threats facing ocean wildlife. More importantly, visitors' heightened awareness stayed with them months after their visit, as did their level of concern. The study also found that visitors were more likely to use the Seafood Watch card than the Ocean Allies card. For example, although none of the visitors contacted said they had joined an ocean conservation group in the months following their visit, 51 percent said they had used the Seafood Watch card.
Changing visitors' conservation-related behavior is important to zoos and aquaria. To determine whether zoos and aquaria are making a difference, follow-up studies must be built into the evaluation framework. Working with MBA from this project's outset helped RK&A design a summative evaluation that responded to Vanishing Wildlife's primary goal and MBA's core mission.