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Types of Evaluations

There are three main types of evaluation in visitor studies: Planning, Formative and Summative. Each has a distinct timing in the life of an exhibit, respectively: at conception, during the design and prototype process, and finally the end results. Although performed at different points of the development process, each is highly dependent on the goals and objectives of the museum in general and the exhibit specifically. So the first step, before any of the evaluations begins is to determine both broad and detailed goals. These goals usually tie directly into the mission of the museum in general, which should be continually referred back to during the design process.

A planning evaluation is performed prior to development of a given exhibit or program. The focus is on concepts and how the average visitor will interpret them. Exhibit designers must determine what concepts are above the level of comprehension for their audience, how best to present the information, and what subjects are of actual interest to the intended audience. This type of evaluation is not formal, but is quite important as it can eliminate working on a project that has little demand or will be too difficult for the target audience to comprehend. Planning evaluations are also useful for future exhibit development projects and should be considered part of the exhibit design research process.

A formative evaluation takes place during the actual development of an exhibit. Exhibit developers can take a prototype of the exhibit and test it with target audiences to see if they are going in the correct direction with design and message. Participants in this type of evaluation are sometimes debriefed on content of the exhibit, with the thought that if someone with content background can not comprehend the exhibit, someone without that background definitely will not be able to. Participants are asked their thoughts and suggestions about the exhibit in close-ended and open-ended discussion-type questions with the intent of improving the content and delivery of the project. Participant comments are very important, as exhibit developers should not lose sight of the audience for which they are ultimately designing.

Formative evaluations are also the phase in which usability tests factor. The physical aspects of an exhibit are just as important as the content. If a user has problems determining how to work certain aspects or labels of descriptions or instructions are not accessible to all visitors, an exhibit design team will want to know this before putting an exhibit up for a general audience. Usability tests allow for a small number of individuals to try the exhibit out and give feedback so that improvements on the design can be made before the exhibit is released to the general public. Similar to planning evaluations, formative evaluations are also usually not formal, but are indispensable to the exhibit creation process as they act as essential checks to the intended success of the exhibit.

A summative evaluation is the most common and formal of the evaluation types, particularly because it is often required from those funding the exhibit. A summative evaluation is performed after an exhibit has been installed for the general public and is often done by outside evaluators to assure a high level of objectivity. Visitors are timed during their various activities with the exhibit; usability tests are performed, as well as affective tests to see how the visitor enjoyed the exhibit and possibly what they learned. All these results are then presented in a formal report that may or may not be circulated external from the museum. Hopefully, the results and conclusions drawn will be used to make future exhibits better in all respects for the visitor.

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