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Front-End Research
Future Permanent Exhibits


Marianna Adams, Ed.D., Institute for Learning Innovation, Annapolis, MD
Nancy Owens Renner San Diego Natural History Museum
August 17, 2001

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0004253.
Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the
authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


To create meaningful exhibits, we must know our audience. Front-end evaluation is an opportunity to better understand our audience, test ideas, question assumptions, and adjust our course as necessary. Two studies provided valuable information about visitors' preferences, interests, and familiarity with key concepts. Future studies are planned to explore additional questions in greater detail.

Museum staff and volunteers worked with Dr. Marianna Adams from the Institute for Learning Innovation to conduct over two hundred interviews. The first study focused on visitors' preferences among the proposed future exhibits. The second study addressed visitors' interests and prior knowledge of key concepts to be expressed in our future exhibits. In this study, visitors were asked why they came to the museum that day. Responses were categorized across the following five dimensions:

Seeking a learning experience, want information (general or specific) or cultural content
41% (41)
A destination or attraction; To see something specific such as the new building or the Epidemic exhibition
35% (35)
Seeking fun, an enjoyable thing to do
32% (32)
An outing with friends and/or family
27% (27)
PRACTICAL In the area, had the time16% (16)

This finding is supported by other research conducted by the Institute for Learning Innovation, which strongly suggests that visitors come to museums for a variety of reasons that they do not perceive to be conflicting. Museums often engage in an internal debate about whether the experience should be focused on education or on entertainment. The research suggests that this is a non-debate. Visitors come fully expecting both kinds of experiences, as well as to fulfill a need to see something specific and to share that experience with family and friends.

Exhibit Choices

Of our proposed future exhibits: Journey through the Past (current working title Fossil Mysteries), Journey through the Present (current working title Habitat Journey), and Discovery Room, we wanted to know what exhibits visitors prefer most and why. Researchers interviewed 103 visitors with the following results:

Visitors' First, Second, and Third Choices for Proposed Exhibits

graph of visitor's choices

Visitor Choices—Weighted Mean

Bar graph of Visitors Choices

Although the Journey through the Past (Fossil Mysteries) is favored by the greatest number of visitors, a comparison of the weighted mean or "average score" shows a narrow difference between all the exhibit choices, suggesting that in the eyes of visitors, all the exhibit choices have merit. This was confirmed by visitor responses like "I'd visit all three!" Several patterns emerged in the visitor comments. In reference to the Journey through the Past (Fossil Mysteries, many visitors cited personal interest in or fascination with fossils; some specifically mentioned their interest in evolution. Several also feel that the subject of our region's past is unique to our Museum. Many mentioned their children's interest in dinosaurs.

Regarding the Journey through the Present (Habitat Journey), some visitors said they would like to learn more about what lives here and that it is important to understand our region. Some stated that learning about the past provides a context for learning about the present. Many visitors stated that there are other opportunities to learn about present-day habitats like the Birch Aquarium, the Zoo, and nature all around us. Some said that they were more interested in exotic places. This raises the question if the relative disinterest in local habitats indicates lack of appreciation and knowledge, and if so, what is the most effective way to engender appreciation and understanding?

The Discovery Room elicited numerous responses like "that's great for the kids", "hands-on is the best way to learn", and "that sounds like fun." Some adults and adult-only groups indicated that they would use the discovery room, others expect that it is designed primarily for children.

The results of this inquiry contributed to the decision to request funding from the National Science Foundation to implement the Journey through the Past (Fossil Mysteries). Additional studies will explore how we can clearly express our uniqueness to prospective visitors.

Reasons for First Choice Selection

Interest46% (21)Interest71% (12)Hands On/Interactive80% (24)

Specimens24% (11)Regional Relevance47% (8)Appropriate for Children50% (15)

Specific Exhibits22% (10)Specific Exhibits18% (3)

Unique to SDNHM17% (8)

Evolving Process15% (7)

Reasons for Second Choice Selection

Interest60% (15)Interest40% (15)Hands On/Interactive70% (26)

Specimens24% (6)Regional Relevance40% (15)Appropriate for Children43% (16)

Evolving Process24% (6)  Specific Exhibits14% (5)

Reasons for Third Choice Selection

Not most important/Can get elsewhere49% (11)Not most important/Can get elsewhere67% (24)Appropriate for Children72% (21)

Not My Interest35% (8)Not My Interest22% (8)Not most important/Can get elsewhere14% (4)

    Not My Interest10% (3)

    Hands On/Interactive10% (3)

Visitor Interests, Knowledge, and Learning Preferences
Through a series of 107 visitor interviews, museum researchers assessed visitor interest and familiarity with six fundamental ideas that will be expressed throughout our future permanent exhibits. Visitors were asked to sort these "big ideas" first by interest, then by their self-perceived ability to explain the idea, and to discuss their choices. Later, visitors were asked to sort several exhibit techniques based on the likelihood they would use those exhibit techniques in a museum setting, in other words an indication of their learning preferences. The results are as follows:

Number of Responses on 4-point Scale Across Topics for Interest

Bar chart of number of responses

Number of Responses on 4-point Scale Across Topics for Ability to Explain

Bar chart of Responses for Ability to Explain

Weighted Mean Scores for Interest and Ability to Explain

Bar chart of Weighted Mean for Interest and Ability to Explain

Visitors expressed greatest interest in fossils, geology, and evolution-primary themes in the Journey through the Past (current working title Fossil Mysteries). Of those three, they are least confident in their knowledge of geology. Future studies will explore how best to communicate geologic concepts to visitors.

Visitors seem only slightly less interested in the themes of biodiversity, climate, and the scientific process. They feel least confident in their knowledge of climate. Exhibit planners may need to devote extra attention to expressing these ideas. Several commented that they watch the Weather Channel, indicating their interest in weather and climate phenomena, and suggesting a possible source of inspiration for communicating weather and climate related ideas.

Very few visitors said they were not at all interested in the primary ideas planned for the future exhibits. The weighted mean comparison reinforces this finding and suggests that all the exhibit themes are interesting, to some degree, to most museum visitors.

Learning Preferences in the Museum Setting
To help us understand visitors' choices in museum exhibits, we asked what types of exhibits visitors would spend time with. We did not include "looking at objects or specimens" as a choice because that is expected in museums and our exhibit plan is based on an abundance of authentic objects. The selections represent the planned variety of exhibit techniques, and these findings will help us determine how to allocate exhibit space and resources. For example, if very few visitors are interested in playing computer games, we may choose to create fewer computer games that are tailored to the audience that will use them, and the games would reinforce content expressed in other media.

Preference for Exhibit Formats: "Would you use this in a museum exhibit?"

Bar chart of Exhibit Format Preferences

Preference for Exhibit Formats Weighted Mean


1Walk-through Scenes3.9

2Hands-On Demonstrations3.7

3Live Animals3.6

4Mechanical Model3.3
 Short Video
 Listen to Narration
 Talk with Interpreter

5Theater Presentation3.2
 Read Labels
 Get Information About Natural Sites

6Get Information from a Computer3.0

7Play a Game with Family or Friends2.9
 Audio Tours

8Play a Computer Game2.8

9Read Books in Museum for Information2.3

Visitors express the greatest preference for walk-through scenes, hands-on demonstrations, and live animals. They express the least interest in activities they feel will take too much time in the museum and/or which they could easily do at home, such as use computers, play games, use audio tours, and read books.

Demographic Data
Combined results from both studies, conducted in July 2001.
56% San Diego County residents, 44% non-residents
49% first-time visitors, 51% repeat visitors
50% female, 50% male
47% families with children, 29% all-adult families, 11% friends, 8% alone, 5% organized group
82% Anglo, 9% Latino, 4% Asian, 2% African-American, 3% Mixed-race, 0% Native American (researcher recorded)
39% 40-50s, 33% 20-30s, 17.5% 60+, 10.5% teens (researcher recorded)

Future Visitor Studies
In October 2001, staff from the Museum and the Institute for Learning Innovation will conduct a series of focus groups to delve into greater detail regarding the Journey through the Past (Fossil Mysteries). Following a presentation of the conceptual plan, discussion will be directed to ascertain visitor expectations, misconceptions, and alternative frameworks for understanding the primary themes in the exhibit. In addition, we will have the opportunity to test some of our exhibit ideas, to discover which ones are more or less interesting to visitors, and which ones need more work. We will also explore the classic museum conundrum-how to provide richness and depth without overloading visitors with too much information. We plan to meet with people from the following communities: museum members (families, separate play group/focus group with kids), seniors, educators, teens, special needs, Latino (Spanish-speaking), the marketing community, docents, our staff, and our Public Programs Advisory Committee.

Visitor research and exhibit evaluation are critical to the success of our future permanent exhibits. By working with leaders in the field of free-choice learning research, museum staff are exposed to the growing wealth of knowledge that is useful in planning meaningful exhibits while gaining a better understanding of our visitors, and how their interests, needs, and desires intersect with our mission.

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