Archive for May, 2014

25th Anniversary ButterflyWe are excited to introduce a guest blogger this week: Johanna Jones, former Managing Director of RK&A’s San Francisco office.  Having been with RK&A for 14 years, Johanna contributed greatly to the company’s learning, and thus, we are happy she agreed to reflect as part our 25 years of learning series.


As I think back on my work at RK&A, like Stephanie, I am struck by an unintended outcome of the evaluation process; namely, that asking visitors questions about their experience can serve an important interpretive role in museums and for visitors. We don’t often think about the direct value of evaluation on visitors—rather we focus on evaluation as an essential step in the institutional cycle of learning (see reflection 2 for the cycle of learning) and in creating an intentional organization which, of course, benefits visitors. I would argue that the evaluation process itself—the very act of interviewing visitors—serves a powerful interpretative function. When visitors are asked open-ended questions about their visit, they are afforded the time and space to reflect on their experiences. The questions become a framework for thinking about their visit—beyond what they liked and didn’t like—that prompts them to consider “What does this mean to me?”openended question

I didn’t always see the direct value of evaluation for visitors. When I first started building my evaluation skills, the educator in me worried about imposing on visitors’ time by asking questions. I had some rocky starts—people have been so saturated with market research that they are wary of someone approaching them for feedback. But I quickly learned that if you ask visitors meaningful open-ended questions, you are usually met with meaningful responses. I remember a Vietnam veteran who cried when telling me what the American flag meant to him and the young children who were pumped to save the Condors (not exactly warm and cuddly creatures). I recall avid art museum-goers who were amazed to realize that they could interpret works of art for themselves and Twenty-somethings who expressed civic pride in a once beleaguered natural history museum. The more I talked to visitors the more I realized that the evaluations were not only fulfilling the institutions’ need to understand visitors but also visitors’ need to process and make meaning from their museum experience.

Now, as a museum visitor, I still use meaty open-ended questions. I ask them of myself and my family members when we visit museums. And, I must say, I find our conversations richer for it.

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seattle_kerry_parkWe are gearing up for an adventure in the Pacific Northwest – several members of the RK&A staff will be in Seattle later this month for the AAM annual conference and we are so excited! Be sure to look for us at the conference and check out our panels on Sunday and Monday:


Empathy Doesn’t Count: Measuring What Matters in Exhibitions

Sunday, May 18, 2-3:15pm

This session will provide examples from a number of different institutions that have endeavored to evaluate (i.e., measure) the seemingly unmeasurable aspects of exhibition design and interpretation.  Panelists will share methods and engage participants in thinking creatively about evaluation.

Stephanie Downey, Randi Korn & Associates; Jason Porter, Skirball Cultural Center; Lynne Azarchi, Kidsbridge Tolerance Museum; Sarah Cole, Carnegie Museum of Natural History


Stop, Collaborate and Listen: Making the Most of Evaluation

Monday, May 19, 8:45-10am

Ever use an expensive evaluation report to prop up a table leg?  Join panelists who have created and consumed museum evaluations for a fast-paced, jargon-free talk about getting the most out of evaluation – whether you’re an expert or a novice.  Then bring a sample project and try out what you’ve learned!

Renae Youngs, Minnesota State Arts Board; Emily Craig, Randi Korn & Associates; Betsy O’Brien, St. Louis Science Center


We will also be attending the CARE/PRAM Luncheon on Tuesday, May 20 at the Sheraton Seattle.  We look forward to seeing many of you at the conference and would love to catch up in Seattle!

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This week the informal science education community lost a dear friend and colleague. Alan J. Friedman passed away on May 4th. I had heard about his illness only a few days earlier. He had learned of it only two weeks before that. He and his wife Mickey were left with little time to prepare; and the informal science education community around the world, too, had little time to begin thinking about the unthinkable—a science world without Alan.

Those who knew Alan are left wondering, “Who will be our wise man? Who will be our champion? Who will say what needs to be said with charm and eloquence? Who will fight the fight that needs fighting?” Who will smile the way Alan smiled? Who will exude the cheery disposition we all need from time to time? And who will kiss the ladies on both cheeks?”

We are left with an eerie silence, an enormous hole in our informal science world. Alan had so many really good ideas that grew into really great projects that generated fabulous results. He was creative, smart, humble, and oh so generous with his time—to everyone who approached him; he was a truly nice guy—a real, honest-to-goodness mensch.



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25th Anniversary ButterflyI would like to dedicate this post to Alan Friedman, who passed away on Sunday. I wrote this blog post last week before I heard the news of Alan’s illness. In retrospect, it seems absolutely fitting that I honor him by telling the story of how I went from someone ambivalent about science to someone who now sees science as part of my everyday experience. I’m quite certain that what I describe below is at least partially the result of all the work Alan did in the field of informal science education, for which I am deeply grateful. 


As an evaluator, I am typically working with a museum around the idea of outcomes—the results they intend for their visitors. Sometimes, through the research process, we discover a museum has achieved outcomes it didn’t necessarily intend, but is delighted to have done so nonetheless. These are usually referred to “unanticipated outcomes.” In life, unanticipated outcomes happen all the time for lots of people in all kinds of circumstances.


I’ve experienced my own unanticipated outcome through my work at RK&A. As a consultant, I have the privilege of working with all types of museums all over the country. A typical result of my work is learning something new in the areas of art, history, or science. Over the years, I have learned the mostly unknown story of the hospitals at Ellis Island, how the book The Little Prince was written, and what a watershed is. These are just three of hundreds of examples. I guarantee, if it weren’t for my work, I wouldn’t have these learning opportunities. These examples are isolated and discreet, but one big unanticipated outcome has slowly become a part of me and how I see and experience the world—I have acquired an appreciation and understanding of science, especially the scientific process, that I didn’t have before and maybe never would have had, had I not pursued a career in museum evaluation and research.


It isn’t that I disliked or wasn’t curious about science before becoming a museum evaluator. My primary interests Stephblog7were more in the area of art, history, and culture. Prior to becoming a museum evaluator, I visited art museums and historical sites, not science centers or science museums. Science just wasn’t part of my everyday life. Thus, I’ll never forget my first project working for RK&A—I was to do a front-end evaluation for an exhibition about materials science, which I quickly learned involved concepts like atomic structure! I remember I stopped at Barnes and Noble on my way home that night and gave myself a crash course on atoms and how they affect the properties of different materials (this was in the Internet’s infancy, so I couldn’t simply Google “atomic structure and material science”). Through my preparation of the interview guide and activities, conducting interviews with visitors, and analysis of data, I learned more about atomic structure than I may have ever learned in school. I gained a true appreciation, based on understanding, for why certain materials are brittle and others are flexible, for instance. More than anything, and simply put, my work on various science projects over the years has sparked and nurtured a curiosity in observing the physical world around me and asking, “Why is that the way it is?”


The other day, I had a conversation with my nine-year old daughter that helped me realize that, over time, this unanticipated outcome has become deeply embedded with who I am today and has carried over to others in my life. I was telling my daughter about a new project at a natural history museum and casually asked her if she knows why scientists study fossils. She provided me with a pretty accurate and relatively complex response, saying that fossils are clues to the past and help us understand what happened thousands of years ago.   I was kind of blown away and asked with genuine curiosity, “How on earth do you know so much?” Her response: “Because I have a mommy who works with museums, of course.” I realized then that my (new) interest in science had become so much a part of who I am that it had, of course, rubbed off on my daughter (and my son too, actually). I now have two kids who beg me to stay up late Sunday nights to watch Cosmos. I’m sure they were probably born with an interest in science, but I am fairly certain their interest wouldn’t have been nurtured to the extent that it has if it weren’t for my own unanticipated outcome working as a museum evaluator.

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