So often we evaluators are asked to measure outcomes or results, which of course align with our expectations. When we conduct an evaluation and the results are positive, an organization can wave its flag; and ideally the whole museum field benefits from learning why a particular exhibition or program is so successful at achieving its outcomes. During my time as an evaluator, I have learned that there is enormous value in walking before running. Because measuring results sounds compelling to museums and their funders, museums often jump over important evaluation processes and rush into measuring results. Accordingly, staff, in a moment of passion, forgo front-end and formative evaluation—those early stages of concept testing, prototyping, and piloting a program—that help staff understand the gaps between the intended outcomes for their audience and the successes and challenges of implementing a new project.
So, when we are asked to measure results, we always ask the client if the project has ever been evaluated. Even then, we may pull the reins to help slow down our clients enough to consider the benefits of first understanding what is and is not working about a particular program or exhibition. More often than not, slowing down and using front-end and formative evaluation to improve the visitor experience increases the likelihood that staff will be rewarded with positive results when they measure outcomes later. In fact, when an organization’s evaluation resources are limited, we often advocate for conducting a front-end and/or formative evaluation because we believe that is where all of us will learn the most. It is human nature to want to jump right in to the good stuff and eat our dessert first. We, too, get excited by our clients’ passion and have to remind ourselves of the value of taking baby steps. So, one of the many lessons I’ve learned (and am still learning) is that when it comes to evaluation, encouraging practitioners to walk before they run (or test before they measure) is key to a successful project and their own personal learning.