Archive for August, 2014

25th Anniversary ButterflyLike me, you have probably seen dozens of friends and/or celebrities participating in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, may have participated yourself, or at least heard about it on the news. While the challenges have slowed since peaking about a week ago, they have reached broadly through my network. I was particularly surprised to see some of my non-American friends from the United Arab Emirates and Thailand participating just yesterday. An article from The Guardian noted in its headline, “The Ice Bucket Challenge for ALS is a gimmick—and it’s good.” The Challenge was intended to raise dollars for ALS research, and by all accounts, the ALS Challenge rings of success: as of August 26 date, the Challenge brought in 88.5 million dollars! True—raising dollars is an obvious output of the Challenge; however another is to raise awareness of ALS. The evaluator in me asks, “How much awareness has the Challenge actually raised (and how do we know)? Does raising awareness mean that people know the acronym ALS (but do they know what ALS stands for)? Does raising awareness mean that people know one fact about ALS? Do people know that it is a horrible disease that scientists are still trying to understand (and thus, that is why research dollars are needed)?


Raising awareness is often something museums desire as an end result for visitors who have seen an exhibition or attended a program. But raising awareness about something is an elusive concept—unless staff articulate what they mean by raising awareness. I have often heard museum professionals say that awareness is something that is hard to measure. But what I think is really difficult about measuring awareness is defining a realistic and appropriate lens through which to articulate awareness. For instance, if an exhibition wants to raise awareness of issues of social justice, is it successful in raising awareness only if everyone comes away with a thorough understanding of social justice issues in their community or strong feelings of advocacy for social justice issues? While I, curators, and exhibition designers may want to see everyone walk away from an exhibition about social justice take immediate action, it would be erroneous to say that is the only measure of success in raising awareness. I believe success is seeing any movement along a continuum from pre- to post-campaign, post-program, or post-exhibition. Certainly it is exciting and to see those big jumps across a continuum of awareness, but what I have learned along the way is that many people making little jumps or baby steps along a continuum are big successes.

My niece and daughter taking their baby steps together.

My niece and daughter taking their baby steps together.

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Today’s Throwback Thursday comes from deep in the RK&A vault – a study we did in 2002 for the National Museum of American History (NMAH) in Washington, DC.

For Which It Stands: The American Flag in American Life [2002]

Study Context

The National Museum of American History, Bering Center (NMAH) asked RK&A in 2002 to concept test ideas for For Which It Stands: The American Flag in American Life, a new exhibition that would feature the Star-Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired the national anthem. The study’s objectives were to examine:

  • The range of meanings people attach to the flag
  • How participants think their meaning of the flag has been shaped
  • Participants’ tolerance for different meanings of the flag
  • Whether seeing objects and images selected for the exhibition causes people to see the flag in new ways
  • Whether people understand the changing, complex meaning of the flag.


NMAH is part of the Smithsonian, and, as such, it tries to accommodate visitors from all backgrounds and of all ages. Like many other museums, NMAH wants to attract teens and appeal to adults. Therefore, we tested the exhibition’s concepts using focus groups. We conducted three focus groups with teens and three focus groups with adults. Sixty individuals participated in the six groups.


Through discussions about the exhibition panels, participants were exposed to new ideas and stories about the American flag, which broadened their understanding of the flag. Participants freely shared their personal stories about what the American flag means to them and everyone said they enjoyed hearing other people’s stories and ideas and thinking about the American flag in new ways. However, individuals’ personal meanings of the flag were not altered as a result of their experience.


Although exhibition planners initially had wanted the exhibition to change people’s meaning of the American flag, they learned that participants’ beliefs about the flag were shaped by unique experiences deeply rooted in their identities. RK&A’s audience research demonstrated that visitors bring valuable experiences to museums and their stories can add depth to other visitors’ museum experiences.

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25th Anniversary ButterflyAs we move further and further into the digital age, museums hold something that is becoming a rare commodity—real objects and artifacts. It may be hard to believe, but one day, many tangible objects may be obsolete, the way that printed photographs and airplane tickets are becoming scarce items. Instead of going on “digs,” future archaeologists may primarily use computer-driven devices to search for clues of our ancestors. In the distant future, I can imagine that museums will be magical places where people can see “the real thing.” …But wait, maybe they already are?


This is my third reflection—informed by what I have learned about museum visitors in all my years studying them. I have found that there are many reasons people visit museums, but I believe the primary reason, one that we may take for granted, is that they want to see “the real thing.” A common question heard in museums is, “is it real?” especially in regard to bones and historical objects. I have heard it in our research, but you have probably heard it too, or said it yourself while walking through a museum. Why do people ask this question? What underlies the need to know if something is “real.” As museum goers, can’t observing a replica of a dinosaur skeleton or a 17th century Dutch ice skate tell us just as much as the real thing? Maybe so. But there is just something about being in the presence of authentic artifacts and objects that is thrilling; maybe it has to do with feeling connected to other people, to the past, or to other parts of the world. Professors David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig say it best in their landmark 1998 national study, The Presence of the Past: “approaching artifacts and sites on their own terms, visitors could cut through all the intervening stories, step around all the agendas that have been advanced in the meantime, and feel that they were experiencing a moment from the past almost as it had originally been experienced—and with none of the overwhelming distortions that they associated with movies and television, the other purveyors of immediacy.”


Whenever studying museum visitors, I come face to face with their sense of wonder about and desire to get clDinosaur Sueose to (even touch) real objects. Whether evaluating text panels, interactive exhibits, touch tables, or ideas and concepts, visitors will usually keep coming back to the objects. As museum professionals, it is sometimes too easy to forget the centrality of the object when you are knee-deep in trying to interpret and contextualize something. We can get lost in these various mediums of interpretation, but visitors will usually remind us what they are really there for. For example, I was doing a study for a museum and historic site last year in which we were testing ideas for high-tech touch tables intended to convey information about the historic building the museum is housed in. I had gotten so wrapped up in testing all the information, that I had mentally pushed aside the museum’s biggest asset, the historic building it resides in. But visitors brought me back when they practically skipped over my questions about the touch tables and rather, kept circling back to the building itself—its authentic and tangible sense of history. Of course that is what they wanted to talk about and why they were there. This isn’t to say that interpretation of any kind is futile. But I believe it is important to keep reminding ourselves, as museum professionals, that interpretation should be used primarily to help visitors make sense of the objects and artifacts they are there to see—it’s really that simple.


The very reason I work with museums is because of my own sense of wonder and astonishment when it comes to objects and artifacts. Yes, I love studying people and how they learn and make sense of experiences, but I could do that in many different settings. I chose to do it in museums because of my own belief that we can learn so much from studying “the real thing.”

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