If we could read minds, we would know exactly what exhibits to choose to do next year, what programs to accompany them, how much text on a label is too much, too little or just right. We could know what hours to be open so that the most people would come. We would understand what topics appeal to teenagers, moms with young children, fathers who work the swing shift, and visitors from out of town. Unfortunately, we can’t read minds. Our best access to what is in the hearts and minds of those people that choose to visit us—and if we make the effort to find them, those who don’t—is by conducting visitor studies and evaluations. If we ask our visitors what they think about what we do and sometimes if we watch them use our museum, we can get some clues that will help us make good choices about exhibits topics, program formats, open hours and more.
Oh no! You’re saying to yourself—one more thing I have to learn? How am I supposed to find time to ask people what they think about our activities when I barely have time to take care of the collection, put up new exhibits, spread the word about our upcoming programs, pay the bills, raise money to pay the bills, and keep the bathroom clean? When you are running a small museum, your job is to juggle all these areas (and more) and you’re working just to keep the balls in the air. Can you really add one more ball?
Yes! Because that ball is going to help you decide which balls you really need to keep in the air and which you can set aside. The key to success is setting priorities – knowing which balls to juggle. And visitor studies and evaluation can help you make those decisions in a way that makes your institution more relevant, more appealing, and more valued by your visitors. It is not a silver bullet and it doesn’t let you read minds, but it will give you clues and insight into how to make what you do better for your visitors. It may very well make your current job a lot easier!
This excerpt is adapted from the Toolkit chapter "In Lieu of Mind-Reading: Visitor Studies and Evaluation" by Stacy Klingler and Conny Graft.
Conny Graft is a consultant in interpretive planning and evaluation for museums, parks, and other nonprofit organizations. Conny retired from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 2010 where she worked for 27 years as Director of Interpretive Planning, Director of Interpretive Education and Manager of Research and Evaluation. Before coming to Colonial Williamsburg, Conny worked for the Division of Historic Preservation in Fairfax, Virginia and was in charge of planning programs for four historic sites.
Stacy Klingler currently serves local history organizations as the Assistant Director of Local History Services at the Indiana Historical Society. She began her career in museums as the assistant director of two small museums, before becoming director of the Putnam County Museum in Greencastle, Ind. She chairs the AASLH's Small Museums Committee (2008-2012) and attended the Seminar for Historical Administration in 2006. While she lives in the history field, her passion is encouraging a love of learning in any environment.