BISE Week: Beverly Serrell on A Review of Recommendations in Exhibition Summative Evaluation Reports

Greetings! I’m Beverly Serrell, museum exhibition consultant, evaluator, and developer with Serrell & Associates in Chicago, Illinois. As a practitioner, I am very interested in finding helpful information to improve my practice in the planning, development, and assessment of exhibits. When the Building Informal Science Education (BISE) project invited me to look at their database and investigate a question of my choice, I was most curious about recommendations in summative evaluation reports. Did the advice, (e.g. recommendations or suggestions for improvements) compare to mine? Were there trends that could be shared and applied?

I started my report by looking at 50 summative evaluation studies in the BISE database that were coded as including “recommendations.” Further sorting brought the list down to 38—with a diverse selection of science disciplines, (e.g., botany, zoology, astronomy, biology, ecology, geology, and health sciences).

Lesson Learned: Orientation was often the single biggest challenge to get right in exhibitions. Using a bottom-up method of review, the issue that emerged as most common included the need for better orientation within an exhibition. Recommendations for improvements to orientation came from problems related to the various physical and psychological needs of museum visitors. Two other suggestions were closely tied to orientation: more clarity in conceptual communication and better delineation of exhibit boundaries. These recommendations and more are discussed and examples are given in my full report, “A Review of Recommendations in Exhibition Summative Evaluation Reports.”

Hot Tip: Criticism is about the work, and the work can always be improved. Whether to include a section on recommendation in an exhibitions summative evaluation is somewhat controversial. Some evaluators think that it is the client’s job––not the evaluators––to interpret the data, and that making recommendations for improvements can cast a negative light on the institution and hurt its reputation with funders. It is important for evaluators to make sure at the outset of a project that the client is eager to hear the thoughts of an experienced evaluator.

My advice for making recommendations in summative evaluation reports is to go ahead and make them. Without couching them in meek tones, be specific and give the context and evidence for why the recommendation is being made. Evaluation is recognized today as a valuable part of the process; it’s no longer us (evaluators) against them (designers, curators, etc.).

My favorite example of an exhibition report with numerous indicators of success and a balanced offering of practical suggestions for improvements is Sue Allen’s 2007 summative evaluation of “Secrets of Circles” at the San Jose Children’s Museum.

The American Evaluation Association is celebrating Building Informal Science Education (BISE) project week. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from members of the BISE project team. 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 evaluators.

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