Saturday, December 11, 2010

Behind the Scenes in Exhibit Development

Our goal of this blog is not only to share content about the history of western New York, but to also pull back the curtain on the exhibit development process.   The support of the Institute of Museum and Library Services has meant that the historical society has an opportunity to experiment with and learn about a number of new exhibit techniques that will take its work to a whole new level.

One of those techniques is the use of evaluation in planning the exhibit.  For a long time, museums believed that what they put out was right and that single point of view was what you, the viewer should just  passively absorb.  Picture yourself with a big funnel on top of your head where the museum poured in the knowledge--much like all education used to be.

But in recent years, museums have embraced the idea of front-end and formative evaluation as a way of learning about visitors and their interests.  It's focused around two critical ideas in museum work right now.  The first is free choice learning.  Unlike school, museums are places where you chose to go--and chose to learn.   Your choices of what to do in your free time are many and so learning in museums must not only be useful, it must be fun and engaging.   And at the same time, we each make our own meaning of what we see in a museum.  That's the second idea--the concept that it's a good thing that visitors make their own meaning of what they see.

Just think about what different people might think about the same object--say a flatiron.  A older homemaker might sigh with relief about no longer having to iron; a blacksmith might appreciate the ironwork; a child might wonder what the heck it's used for.   All those individual meanings are valid--but for interpretive exhibit developers, the challenge is find the way to tell a cohesive narrative that is meaningful to many kinds of visitors.

How do we do that?  Formative evaluation--which is just what it sounds like--evaluation while a project is formed--not just when it's finished.  Over the next few months, we'll be talking with focus groups about our exhibit concepts.  We'll want to know which characters interest you the most,  which are confusing, which seem important or irrelevant to the story of western New York.   We'll be interested in learning about what kinds of knowledge most visitors start with about the area's early history and what misconceptions might be out there.

It's an exciting part of an exhibit development process--every time evaluation happens I learn something new and surprising that informs my work as an exhibit developer.   To read more about another evaluation process, you can check out my blog The Uncataloged Museum.  And if you're interested in participating in a focus group, please let the staff at the historical society know!

No comments:

Post a Comment