ACA Week: Amy Grack-Nelson on Museum Evaluation Terminology and Methods

Hi, I’m Amy Grack Nelson, a doctoral student in Quantitative Methods in Education at the University of Minnesota and an Evaluation and Research Associate at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Science museums offer their audiences a wide range of learning experiences including interactive exhibits, media, and programs. As a program evaluator by training, there were new terms and methods I had to learn when I started working at the museum. Many of these were around evaluating exhibits, which is the focus of today’s blog post.

Lessons Learned:

Terminology – We are all familiar with the terms formative and summative evaluation, but museum evaluation includes two additional types of evaluation: front-end and remedial.

  • Front-end evaluation occurs during the exhibition planning process, before formative evaluation. Front-end evaluation can be used to understand visitors’ knowledge and misconceptions around an exhibition’s topic and gauge their reactions to different ideas for exhibition experiences.
  • Remedial evaluation occurs immediately before summative evaluation. In the case of exhibitions, evaluators typically study a near completed exhibition to see if any minor tweaks need to be made to exhibits and if the arrangement of exhibits should be altered to optimize visitor experience in the exhibition.

Methods – Science museum evaluators use a number of data collection methods to understand how people interact with an exhibit and its content.

  • During cued interviews, evaluators invite visitors to use an exhibit and interview them afterward. This sets up what is considered an “ideal” visitor experience since these cued visitors are likely to spend more time interacting with the exhibit than an average visitor. This method is used during formative evaluation to quickly identify exhibit content and interactives that need to be improved.
  •  Uncued interviews occur with visitors who have naturally chosen to interact with an exhibit. Visitors are unobtrusively observed and invited to participate in an interview after they have completed their experience with the exhibit under study. This method is often used after cued interviews to see if additional issues come to light when visitors use an exhibit without any prompting.

  • Timing and tracking is an observational method used to study visitors’ natural movements and interactions through a group of exhibits or an entire exhibition. Evaluators typically record visitors’ paths through an exhibition, what exhibits they stop at, how long they stop at an exhibit, and behaviors they demonstrate at the exhibit.


  • My favorite place to find out what is happening in the world of science museum evaluation is Informal Science. This online repository has over 500 evaluation reports from the informal learning field.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Arts, Culture, and Audiences (ACA) TIG Week. The contributions all week come from ACA members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluator.

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