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Water is Life and Altered State: Climate Change in California

[2010]
Summative evaluations of two exhibitions for a natural history museum
California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, CA

The California Academy of Sciences (CAS) contracted RK&A to evaluate two exhibitions debuting in the CAS’s new facility.  One exhibition, Altered State: Climate Change in California, uses fossils, interactive technology, and live animals “to explore the science of climate change, the effects we may expect to see in our own backyard, and steps that can be taken to mitigate these dramatic changes,” while the other exhibition, Water is Life, explores the importance and diversity of water using the Steinhart Aquarium’s Living Collection.

How did we approach this study?

We believe that each evaluation study is unique and should strongly consider the goals and objectives of the exhibition, program, or other endeavor. As such, RK&A worked closely with CAS to identify its goals and objectives for each exhibition. Water is Life was focused on visitor learning.  In response, RK&A conducted a remedial evaluation to identify operational or conceptual shortcomings early in exhibition development, followed by a summative evaluation that employed a rigorous, modified pre-test/post-test design to measure visitor learning.  For Altered State, CAS sought to understand what visitors did in the exhibition, as well as what they took away from their experiences; thus, RK&A conducted timing and tracking observations and in-depth exit interviews.  

What did we learn?

While many findings were exhibition-specific, there were also two larger trends. First, both evaluations show that visitors had strong affective experiences in the exhibitions, although learning objectives were challenging to meet.  For instance, in the Water is Life evaluation, findings show that visitors who went to the exhibition demonstrated much greater interest in and concern for the natural world than visitors who did not see the exhibition.  However, there were few differences in the knowledge of visitors who went to the exhibition and those who did not. 

Second, visitors need a strong physical and conceptual introduction to exhibitions. In the Water is Life remedial evaluation, some interviewees described way-finding issues, and a few interviewees specifically asked for a better introduction.  Further, in Altered State, the open space exhibition design, with its multiple entry and exit points, likely contributed to low dwell times.

What are the implications of the findings?

The evaluations are a keen reminder that exhibition introductions are imperative. They can set the conceptual stage for visitors, and if they are well-conceived and executed, they can also convey overarching concepts, connect subthemes, and present the intent of the exhibition. On a similar note, while the open exhibition design offers visitors a free-choice learning environment, introducing some structure and direction might help those seeking to understand the exhibition’s “big idea” without compromising the free-choice quality.  Additionally, the studies reaffirmed that the unique value of exhibitions are the strong affective experiences they prompt.

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