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Conservation Experts Qualitative Research Report
November, 2001

Objectives | Sample and Methodology | Executive Summary | Conclusions and Implications | Detailed Findings | Appendix



As part of the development of the ten-year Strategic Plan for 2002-2010, The San Diego Natural History Museum is conducting several primary research studies. This report details the learning from qualitative research conducted among conservation and environmental experts in the San Diego area. Other reports will cover learning from educators, minority consumers, and minority community leaders.

The objective for this particular study was to ascertain perceptions about the Museum from the conservation/environmental experts. Specific issues the research addressed included:

  • The role the Museum plays currently in conservation and environmental education
  • The desired future role of the Museum in conservation and environmental education
  • Major environmental and conservation issues facing the region over the next ten years
  • The role of Museum research in conservation and environmental education efforts

The findings from this qualitative study will be analyzed together with findings from other primary and secondary research. Together, they will provide valuable input to the strategic planning process for the San Diego Natural History Museum.


Sample and Methodology

This study consisted of two, one hour long, telephone group discussions, moderated by Katie Feifer, the Director of Planning and Research at Campbell Mithun. Participants for the study were selected and recruited by San Diego Natural History Museum personnel. Please note that because the sample was selected by the Museum, there may be bias introduced into the findings to the extent that the sample is familiar to, and may be favorably disposed towards, the Museum. The sample included ten people who worked for organizations such as the San Diego Audubon Society, the San Diego Foundation, Sierra Club, San Diego County Parks, National Wildlife Federation, among others.

During the phone discussions, topics covered included perceptions of the current role the Museum plays in conservation and environmental education, as well as ideas about the role the Museum can and should play in these areas in the future.

A copy of the discussion guide used for this research is appended.

Interpretation of Qualitative Research
The findings from qualitative research are subjective and directional. The research is best used to generate hypotheses and insights which can spark ideas, provide an aid to judgment, or be used as input for quantitative evaluation. Qualitative research is neither representative nor projectable. Thus, great care should be used when drawing conclusions based on qualitative research.


Executive Summary

  • Respondents viewed the Museum's primary role to be one of education and awareness building regarding conservation and environmental issues.
  • Perceptions were positive regarding the Museum's current success in fulfilling this role, although most believed that the Museum could go further.
  • The Museum was thought to be viewed as an objective source of information for all, while truly being an "advocate" for conservation.
  • Outreach to the community, and making Dr. Hager the "face" of the Museum was noted as an effective strategy in educating various constituencies.
  • Research was felt to be another important role for the Museum to play. Respondents strongly expressed that the conducting of research adds credibility to the Museum as an institution. Which in turn could be brought to bear in its education efforts among the public.
  • As important as conducting research was the housing of specimens and data for use by scientists, conservationists, and others.
  • There was no criticism voiced by this sample of any of the efforts the Museum was currently making, nor any complaints about lack of effort. Indeed, participants applauded the Museum's relatively new focus on the region, and its efforts to highlight awareness of regional issues.
  • In the future, respondents wanted to see the Museum continue to focus on education and awareness about conservation and environmental issues. There was a desire to see the Museum go beyond presenting facts to encouraging people to get involved in the issues.
  • The sample hoped the Museum would make even greater use of outdoor and interactive exhibits to make its points more emphatically.
  • Many were desirous of seeing the Museum target adults in their education efforts, in addition to children, viewed as the primary target.
  • This sample foresaw an important role for the Museum in the area of conducting "big picture" scientific studies, and collecting information about the "big picture" of our region's plant, animal, and other specimens.
  • Land use, growth, and sprawl were the key issue most of the sample believed were critical for the Museum to focus on in the future. They felt it was vital for the Museum to impart a sense of hope, along with an understanding that each of us can make a difference in our future.

Conclusions and Implications

The San Diego Natural History Museum's focus on the Southern California/Baja region is relevant and crucial according to this sample of conservationists and environmentalists. They view the Museum as a powerful ally in promoting their cause, especially because the Museum is viewed as being "objective" and apolitical by virtue of its scientific orientation.

Through education and increased outreach, the conservationists imagine that the Museum can be an even more effective advocate in their fight to preserve open spaces, and to ensure responsible growth and land use policies. The only further step toward blatant advocacy that this group would wish for would be to have the Museum move beyond merely presenting facts to urging people to act on what they've learned, and get involved in efforts to preserve our unique habitats.

This sample was not expert in Museum exhibition development, and yet their instincts for the kinds of exhibits and programs that would be even more effective are similar to other museum-goers. They would wish for more interactivity, greater use of the outdoors, and even more outreach. While agreeing that children are important as a target for the Museum, the sample also urged that an effort be made against parents, as well as those in college and high school who could also become effective advocates for conservation.

None of the respondents believed that the pursuit of science or the maintenance of specimen collections was unnecessary. A few, in fact, argued that as more and more academic collections became "off limits", the Museum's collection became more and more important. However, overall, this sample disdained the pursuit of the more specific and perhaps arcane studies in favor of studies which provided a more global picture of the region - thereby helping to address the issues of development and land use with which most of the people were dealing.

This sample was surprisingly uncritical of the Museum's current activities and direction. The Museum and its staff have the support and admiration of at least this group of conservationists. Based on their comments, if the Museum's future direction was similar to its current direction, they would be well-pleased.


Detailed Findings

Perception of the Museum's Current Role

All of the conservation/environmental experts included in this study had a similar view of the Museum's current role. To a person, they believed the Museum was primarily in the business of raising awareness and educating people about local and regional conservation and environmental issues. This perspective was not surprising, given the focus of the participants' interest. Related to this, respondents were universally pleased that the Museum has decided to focus on this region rather than to diffuse its efforts to be global. In their minds, the current regional positioning only served to strengthen the Museum's ability to play a leadership role in conservation and environmental issues.

Part of the educational role of the Museum was thought to be delivered in the form of outreach to residents, developers and government officials who need to be educated about regional conservation and environmental issues. To this end, several noted that Dr. Hager has become the "focus of the museum", and that through his outreach he is becoming the face and the voice of the Museum.

The importance of the Museum taking on the educational role was underscored several times by respondents. They believed that the Museum was uniquely positioned to educate people, as they are clearly the "experts". Further, because they are broadly perceived to be "apolitical", the perspective offered by the Museum was felt to be more unbiased than that put forward by conservation groups or by developers.

    "In the past they tried to be apolitical. They were strictly factual.... It's a thin line they walk in not offending their funding sources..."

    "When people are talking about the vision or the Master Plan, it's completely different if someone from the Museum comes. They're seen as "educators" versus lobbyists..."

While remaining ostensibly neutral, though, these experts believed that the Museum in fact was an advocate for conservation and preservation, and did rally people to get more involved in issues pertaining to land use and resource conservation.

    "They have become the informal leader and experts in rallying people... through hikes and weekend activities... reaching out to the environmental community..."

    "The benefits are in outreach and education... to succeed beyond preaching to the converted that the preservation of wildlife is really the preservation of human life..."

The sample of this research thought it was important for the Museum to continue to be apolitical, yet to educate the community at large about the importance of conservation efforts. Most felt that at the present time the Museum did a good job of presenting the facts about our land and our resources, but could go further in this regard:

    "They're telling people about the area, but are not taking the next step... telling people why we need to conserve."

The second major role this audience saw the San Diego Natural History Museum playing was one of data collection and science. Respondents recognized that the Museum was a repository of information and specimens that are critical to the understanding and preservation of our region. One person noted that this role is becoming increasingly important.

    "Because over time, so many academic institutions have closed or set off their collections becomes harder to find ..."

Conducting science was seen as necessary in maintaining and building the Museum's credibility as an objective "expert" about our natural resources. And a couple of people pointed out that the scientific expertise of the Museum allowed it and its personnel to play a significant role in advocating conservation.

    "That's the importance of the BRCC (Biodiversity Research Center of the Californias). They can bridge the gap between policy and science research.... The experts there are suited to act as translators... they can provide a forum for discussion."

Both of the current perceived roles of the Museum - education and science - were viewed by this sample of conservationists as important methods of advocacy; albeit in an "apolitical" way. The ultimate benefit they saw was that the Museum could highlight for all the importance of preserving our habitats, reminding us of the responsibility we have to our environment.

This sample was not at all critical of the efforts the Museum was making. They applauded the focus on our region; the outreach efforts; the "translator" role the Museum took on when dealing with policy-makers, developers and conservationists; the outreach and educational efforts to the people of San Diego. They only expressed the desire that the Museum continue to do more of the same.

Future of the Museum

The two major roles currently played by the Museum were also desired for the future. The respondents in this study basically wanted the Museum to keep doing what it does now, only more and even better.

In the area of education and awareness building, the sample was interested in seeing the Museum build its role as an objective, credible leader on the subjects of land use, conservation, and resource protection. It was generally agreed that the key target to reach out to was children.

    "They need to take a leadership role... they have credibility and no vested interest... What they are doing is preparing the next generation for the future, pushing that message."

    "They should engage different age groups in interactive ways. They need to show them the implications for different activities.... They should start with the children... because then they will have the memories... if you make it interactive, and they have fun... state the facts and don't get preachy..."

During the discussion, one participant noted that although the children were important, reaching the middle-aged adults who currently directed policy and who could influence the future of conservation efforts was also important.

    "Children are important to start it up with. But there's a gap between the really young who go on field trips, and the really old people who attend lectures. They need to reach out to the middle: high school, college... with internships, to be a fellow, docents..."

    "Baby Boomers... get them to volunteer and become active in supporting conservation efforts."

    "The knee jerk reaction is children... but you don't want to be a children's museum... you're ideally suited to talk to parents about the idea of 'leaving a legacy' and planning ahead. They want to leave the world a better place for their children and grandchildren."

Respondents had several specific suggestions for things the San Diego Natural History Museum could do to improve their educational efforts. Some of the suggestions were drawn from experiences the sample had visiting other museums. Among the suggestions offered:

  • Provide information on conservation and environmental organizations, ways to get involved, as museum-goers are leaving the Museum
  • "Steer people in a direction so they know they have a responsibility."
  • "Showing individual families who go out for walks in the canyons that these canyons aren't just there... that they need to be preserved... that they can get involved and make a difference."
  • Have more exhibits outside (Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson) "It's a zoo for plants and animals, and all the interpretive exhibits are outside."
  • Do more walks and outdoor programs
  • Focus on biological and cultural diversity of the region, like the Tucson Museum on the University of Arizona campus.
  • Related to the above, consider including exhibits and information about Native Americans, and perhaps the Native American tribes with money could contribute to the programs "This could help them fight against the backlash that's being predicted against Native Americans from all the casino gambling ...
  • Higher profile of experts associated with the Museum.
  • Better use of interior space. Examples included the British Columbia Provincial Museum in Victoria and the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits
    "It's an outstanding use of interior space. It immerses you in the diorama." (B.C. Provincial Museum)
    "It's a nice set up. Everything is nicely displayed, like an art gallery." (Page)
    Several exhibits at the San Diego Natural History Museum received kudos from this sample as well, as examples of the kinds of exhibits they would like to see more of. Among those cited were the Ocean Oasis film, and the Door to the Desert exhibit.
    "Ocean Oasis is spectacular. It can have a big impact. It can be a real showcase."

While many suggestions were made with regard to the kinds of things the Museum could do to increase its educational efforts, much discussion also took place on the subject of scientific research and the role the Museum had in furthering scientific study.

Respondents believed that in the future it would continue to be important for the Museum to conduct research. First, research added to the credibility the Museum had among all constituencies.

Second, research, particularly "big picture" projects like the Bird Atlas, were seen as invaluable to those involved in issues pertaining to our regional habitats.

    "Now the museum does a lot to study specific organisms, specific taxonomies. And while that's important, they really need to have more big picture stuff... like the Bird Atlas... we can compare to where we were in the '20's."

    "Things that are in the Journal of Conservation Biology..."

    "Things like the Bird Atlas, showing the geographical and spatial distribution of plants and animals."

Among the respondents there was some debate about the value of the Museum's becoming more of a central "clearinghouse" for scientific information. Some thought the Museum was ideally suited to be such a repository, while others believed that such an effort would be redundant, and that basic science was more necessary.

    "Yes, it would be have collections of maps and data... they could figure out how to work together with other agencies to coordinate their efforts."

    "I cringe at the term (clearinghouse). There are already numerous agencies that compile information... we need basic research, especially on Southern California and Baja together that no one looks at today... and housing specimens."

Respondents also noted that the Museum needed to strike a balance between conducting science and doing education and outreach. As one person put it,

    "If you don't have the science, you don't have credibility. But if you only have science, then you are only an ivory tower, and you will have no public support."

Clearly, the more scientifically-oriented participants in the study wished for a slightly greater emphasis on science, while those closer to the "front lines" of public debate over conservation issues preferred a stronger emphasis on education of the public. Overall, though, all agreed that both were important to the future of the Museum.

There was general agreement among the conservationists and environmentalists concerning the key issue on which the San Diego Natural History Museum should focus: land use and growth; the implications of sprawl; and the need for open spaces.

    "We're ignoring it at our peril....We need to let people know that not everyone can live here."

    "Use research and science to get public support for the conservation of large areas of open space. Let them know that the cost is worth it."

    "Land use and growth... how we grow... that we have finite resources."

Respondents also believed it was important for the Museum to educate people generally about the importance of the region and our ability to make a difference in the future of our region.

    "Show that the future is in our hands... that it's not futile... how to keep our unique environmental identity, and that we have ways to preserve what's left. Give people hope."

    "Educate people as to the importance of the region so that they will vote to spend money on it."

It was clear that these respondents wanted the Museum to impress upon people the importance of conserving our land; helping them realize that we can make a difference; and imparting hope that even though much damage has been done, all is not lost.

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