Last week, Jennifer wrote about “what is a museum?” and this week, I’ll be jumping off of that by writing about how our visitors see museums and how we can understand their expectations. This post is basically an encouragement of more evaluation in our practice to better our understanding of visitors and their expectations of museums. While summative evaluation sometimes appears in the museum field, I think that formative evaluation is just as useful, but less common, in museum practice.

For the Tufts’ Museum Evaluation course this summer, each student had to formulate an evaluation plan to determine what visitors associated with museums and what the visitors expected to gain from their museum visits. My evaluation resulted in most people expecting the atmosphere to be quiet and contemplative while they observed old objects from afar. These answers echoed John Cotton Dana’s commentary of the museum in his book The Gloom of the Museum in 1917. This idea of the museum as a – well – gloomy steward of static objects has clearly survived, despite the fact that many institutions have wonderful programming and amazing, relatable stories that they tell.
Of course, in some cases, a reverent museum atmosphere might be the best choice for a specific institution, but it certainly isn’t the only choice. Institutions can also use evaluation with their marketing to make sure that their audiences know about the programming that already exists.

Mostly, institutions should be responsive to their surrounding communities, and they can use evaluation to do so. Specifically, formative evaluation allows the institution to gather information about the needs and desires of the community before pouring time and money into projects. Summative evaluation can provide useful information about success of the project in meeting its goals, but formative evaluation really provides the opportunity to set goals that are in line with what visitors hope to see. Formative evaluation also makes it clear that the institution values the input of their visitors because the organization is making a concerted effort to gain insight into the wants and needs of the people who it is serving.

My class on evaluation and my interviewees’ views of museums have encouraged me to incorporate more formative evaluation into my practice, which I have found to be incredibly useful, and I encourage you to do the same!