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How do museums know the best ways to present information to the public? Most of them have excellent exhibit developers who have experience creating compelling, informative exhibits. But every exhibit has new challenges, and there may be different ideas within the planning team about what will work best. To help make these decisions, exhibit developers in general, and the ocean hall team in particular goes to its audience – the visitors.

Visitors in the Rotunda
Visitors in the Rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History. Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

Front-end evaluation – straight from the visitors' mouths

The first type of evaluation an exhibit team conducts is called a front-end study. For the ocean hall, the team surveyed visitors to find out what they knew about the ocean, what they would like to know, and what ideas they had for an ocean exhibit they would like to visit. The ocean hall front-end study was completed in December of 2003. It found that visitors:

  • appreciate the ocean in general and specific to recreation
  • are more interested in the ocean than in most other science topics
  • have a broad but superficial understanding of the ocean
  • frequently talked about and looked for human connections to the ocean, particularly as they relate to current issues

Overall, the study showed that visitors will enter the Ocean Hall with an appreciation of the ocean and a desire to learn more.

Formative evaluation – a work in progress

Man looking over ocean
Man looking out over the ocean. Image courtesy: Geri-Jean Blanchard

Later, when exhibit designs are well underway, a team wants to know how well those design concepts will work with the intended audience. This kind of evaluation is called formative testing, and it helps to “form” the exhibit. Working with an audience evaluation firm, the Ocean Hall team developed a list of questions and concerns that it wanted to test. One example focused on how to express the depth of the ocean, its vastness, and its vertical zonation. Most of the ocean is open ocean, far from shore, deep, dark, and very cold. The exhibit team hopes to communicate this concept through its “vertical water column,” a large element in the central part of the ocean hall. The team planned the column to demonstrate an overall sense of the depth of the ocean, that it is divided into three major zones, and how deep each zone is. They also wanted museum visitors to understand some of the differences between the zones and the kinds of organisms they might find in each one.

Take it to the visitors

Graphic of water column
The ocean hall core team developed this prototype water column graphic to illustrate how little of the ocean's depth is pentrated by sunlight. Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History

To figure out how to make the vertical water column work best to accomplish its intended goals, graphic artists developed a half-size prototype of the graphics that were planned for the column. Then, the Ocean Hall core team educator took it out for a spin; it was taped to a wall near the current Life in the Ancient Seas exhibit. Over a period of several days, visitors were solicited to volunteer to look at the column and were asked questions to determine if the prototype was meeting its goals.

Analyzing results

After listening to many visitors, team members looked carefully at the interview data they had collected. Several things became clear. Most importantly, the column worked. Most visitors did understand its main points. They could state that the ocean has three zones, and that there are differences in the amount of light and types of animals that live in each. But a change was needed; the prototype used stacked Washington Monument icons as a scale for depth. Not everyone recognized this symbol. So the graphics staff refined the original design to more clearly communicate the scale of the ocean's depth.

From draft to final work

Using this process for numerous pieces of the exhibit, including text, charts, graphs and interactive elements, the ocean hall team has been able to ensure that the Hall communicates what they intend it to and that its messages are clear to visitors. The results – what you will see in the Hall – are refinements of many rough “drafts,” critiqued by visitors long before opening day.

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