How Do We Know That People Actually Learn at Museums?

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You may be like me in that every time you go to a new city you want to see a local museum (or maybe that’s a me thing). While you’re visiting our wonderful Indy attractions like The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, Newfields, or Conner Prairie, you may wonder how these places measure their impact. Museums are for learning, but are people actually LEARNING when they go to these places? One fun fact is that all of the Indy-area attractions I named have full-time internal evaluators. It’s up to us to show that museums make a difference, and we have a few unique tools up our sleeves to do so.

Evaluating the Museum Experience

The foundation of most museum experiences are exhibits. If you don’t read the signs in them, you’re not alone. As many museum evaluators will tell you, only a small minority of people read any of the signs. We know this because we observe visitors in these spaces. We have a special ethnographic method we use called timing and tracking. Evaluators using this method observe where people stop, what they do while they’re stopped, and how long they stay stopped. Most museum exhibits are evaluated with this method in my experience. It assumes that the longer someone stays in an exhibit the higher amount of engagement (and thus learning) they got from it.

With Conner Prairie’s exhibit Spark!Lab, which opened last year in partnership with the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center, I wanted to go deeper than timing and tracking. I wanted to know if people were experiencing the outcomes we had outlined in our theory of change for the exhibit. These basically amounted to: did going into this space make people think like an inventor? Unfortunately, mindreading is not among a museum evaluator’s unique skills. The best we could do is record people going into the space and listening in on their comments and conversations, using the walkalong method described by Skov, Lykke, and Jantzen in the Visitor Studies journal in 2018. Now that we’ve completed our data collection, we get to hear every time someone solves a problem, has a creative idea, or takes a risk in the space – it’s magical! And shows that the exhibit was worth the time, money, and partnerships it took to pull off.

Q+A About My Job

Q: What is my favorite project that I have worked on?

A: It’s no coincidence – my favorite project that I’ve worked on at Conner Prairie is the exhibit I wrote this blog post about (Spark!Lab). It’s the biggest research project that Conner Prairie has taken on completely internally, and I am so excited to share all that we have learned with you later this year!

Q: Where is my favorite place to observe guests?

A: I love passing by the Rigamajig kit in the hallway inside – our youngest guests always come up with the coolest ideas! Last week I saw a huge, six-foot tall crane that a child built using the kit.

I also always love exploring Prairietown and seeing the deep conversations have with our interpreter experts.

Q: What is my favorite festival at Conner Prairie?

A: If I had to choose one to go to, it’s A Merry Prairie Holiday. I love walking through 1830s Prairietown at night and seeing families prepare for Christmas. Our interpreters come up with such engaging storylines too – I remember one family who had an overbearing mother-in-law who wouldn’t leave, even when my stepdad stepped into the story and offered to give her a carriage ride back to Indianapolis!

A version of this blog post originally was written for AEA365, the blog of the American Evaluation Association. You can see the original blog post here.

About the Author

Karen Breece (she/her) is the Audience Research and Evaluation Associate at Conner Prairie. In her role, she oversees 20-30 research and evaluation projects annually. She strives to center the joy and well-being of museum visitors like you in everything she does. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Earlham College and a master’s degree in museum studies from Indiana University. In her free time, Karen enjoys making art, playing video games taking place in far-off locales, and of course, going to museums.