CMEG at Chicago Architecture Center: Evaluating exhibits

I receive emails from the Chicago Museum Exhibitors Group (CMEG), and the organization recently announced a meeting dedicated to evaluating exhibits, entitled Everyone Evaluate. I’ve never attended one of their events, and this topic in particular intrigued me, so I decided to go. Evaluation of this sort does not factor heavily in my day-to-day work, so I welcomed the opportunity to learn more from the experts. Museums are known for exhibits, but more archives and libraries are organizing similar experiences in their own spaces. So perhaps I will be a part of exhibition design and planning in the future, and will therefore need to understand the basics of evaluation!

View of one of the exhibit spaces at CAC

View of one of the exhibit spaces at CAC

The newly rebranded and relocated Chicago Architecture Center (CAC) was host for the meeting. Dozens of folks from across Chicagloand attended, including those who work at cultural institutions, companies, and consulting firms. I felt out of my element in this crowd of exhibit and instruction designers, and I enjoyed sitting back and taking it all in. I recognized a few faces from the Art Institute of Chicago and DuSable Museum of African American History.

First Michael Wood, the Senior Director of Program Strategy, provided some information about CAC, its recent change of name, and its move to new facilities. After having spent half an hour or so wandering around the new exhibitions, it was interesting to hear about all the changes the organization has recently undergone. I have had the opportunity to visit their old space, attend some of their tours, and take advantage of the wonderful annual open house event they organize. The exhibitions and their space seem to provide a sense of harmony with their new identity, though Wood made it clear that changes have not been without challenges. He also introduced the topic of evaluation and told us about the agenda and format for the meeting.

Katherine Gean of Katherine Gean consulting was first to present on the topic. She provided a high-level view of what evaluation looks like in the context of cultural heritage exhibits. She first stressed the importance of figuring out research questions: what do I need to know, what do I want to learn, and how to I want to study it? Gathering information and data becomes much more straightforward when there are clear parameters about the goals of the investigation. Gean then explained the difference between quantitative (numeric counts, generalizable) and qualitative (descriptive exploration, not as generalizable) data gathering, and how sometimes combining the two through a mixed methods approach works the best. In fact, she said that often the pursuit of answering one question via one method (quantitative or qualitative) often results in more questions arising, and different methods needing to be employed in order to answer those questions. The process is therefore often iterative. She also provided some examples of types of methods within each category:

  • Quantitative: surveys, timing and tracking

  • Qualitative: interviews, focus groups, follow-alongs, observation, cognitive interviews

Evaluating awe at the MSI

Evaluating awe at the MSI

Jana Greenslit, who works at the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) was next to speak. She described their efforts to measure awe using in situ evaluation. Evaluation was embedded within the exhibit and overall museum experience, so they did not rely on post-visit surveys or interviews. Observation of visitors within gallery experiences were challenging given the nature of the research question. Measuring awe as a passive observer is challenging, since feelings aren’t always visible or apparent. Instead, Greenslit opted for a combination of experience sampling and eye tracking to help gather information to determine how awe-inspiring the museum experience is. The museum used cheap cell phones that they lent to select visitors, or had visitors opt in with their own cell phones for the experience sampling data gathering. One staff member was then tasked with texting these devices to ask visitors to rate their experience on a numerical scale as they were experiencing it. Greenslit also decided to use eye tracking glasses to help determine what visitors were looking at, what they spent the most time with, and what they were saying as they moved through spaces. Essentially, this technology allowed for observation in both qualitative and quantitative ways (through analyzing the footage and encoding it) without a museum staff representative needing to be present. It sounds as though they have reached some conclusions in regards to their original query, and hopefully the findings will be published on their website soon.

Timing and tracking map for one exhibition area at the MCA

Timing and tracking map for one exhibition area at the MCA

Rosie May, who works at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) presented last. May started by recommending reading the article ‘The Museum is Watching You’ in the Wall Street Journal, as it provides a helpful overview of evaluation and its value in museums. She then talked about how she began working at MCA in interpretation, and how evaluation played in important role in better understanding their visitors and their needs. Some of the initial questions she posed included:

  • What are visitors’ behaviors in the gallery spaces?

  • What interpretation tools (introductory text, videos, wall labels) do visitors use?

  • How to visitors construct meaning, how do they learn?

  • What is the value of the exhibit experience for visitors?

May opted to employ two methods to gather quantitative and qualitative data to help answer these questions. First, staff were employed to interview visitors after they experienced the galleries. A standard evaluation form was used to note the answers, and the interviews were recorded as well. A team of in-gallery observers were also used in order to measure timing and tracking in front of interpretation tools and the collections objects on display. May was able to see how visitors behaved in the space - how they moved where they spent their time. From this mixed methods approach, the museum learned that visitors struggle to navigate through exhibits, and that they want to know how long they should expect to be in an exhibit. Visitors expect wall labels to be next to every object on display, and they appreciate when these labels are concise and provide tools to help them look at an interpret objects. The data also revealed that visitors want active learning activities, since art museum exhibits tend to be fairly passive experiences. From all this information, the exhibitions team made concrete changes to improve visitors’ experiences in exhibits:

  • Since visitors spent on average less than a minute in front of labels, interpretive text have been edited such that it can be read in this amount of time.

  • Since standard tombstone information on the top of labels (donor information, identifying accession number) was found to be confusing, some of this information has been moved to the bottom of the label.

  • Locating labels next to their corresponding objects has been prioritized in exhibition installation.

  • Clearer wayfinding signage was produced and installed throughout exhibition spaces.

  • More exhibits are featuring rooms in which visitors can actively respond to ideas presented.

Everyone attending this event then had the chance to put some of this practice and methodologies to use. Wood provided us with a prompt from his institution in the hopes that the group could come up with concrete research questions and methods to help CAC. In short, there has been a shift since they have moved locations and rebranded, and many visitors seem confused about what they can do there, and what they should expect. We broke into teams to discuss and explore. My group ended up coming up with the following questions: what is CAC and what do people think CAC is; what do visitors want and are they interested in the exhibit experience? Interestingly, folks identified the first two questions as aligning more closely with market research than audience research. Both sets of questions are important for the organization to answer in order to clarify their services and better provide for their visitors. For the identity component, it was decided that organizing focus groups for staff, visitors, and non-visitors would be helpful in order to gather some qualitative data about mission and services. This market segmentation can provide additional insights. The group decided that eye tracking may also provide useful data, especially given the seeming visitor confusion inside the spaces. Finally, tracking and tallying specific visitor questions could help reveal perceptions or misunderstandings among visitors. The group decided that the identity questions should be a top priority for CAC, but that they could use concept testing in the future to help out with the visitor experience questions. The goal of pursuing these questions and gathering data through these different methods would be to find ways of changing for the better. This could result in improved messaging in advertising, clearer signage on the exterior of the building explaining CAC to visitors, and better communication across all services provided by the organization.

This event was an amazing learning opportunity for me. I walked in with some basic understanding of how evaluation works, and left feeling much more confident about the process and specific methodologies. And crucially, I more fully understand what the aims of evaluation are (answering specific research questions) and overall goals should be (improving the experience and services offered). Cultural heritage exhibitions are important experiences that help connect the public with information and ideas through the display of objects, visuals, interpretive text, and hands-on activities. It’s exciting to think about the ways in which these experiences can be improved through strategic and iterative evaluation. And it’s also worth considering all the ways in which this type of evaluation extends beyond exhibits in information organizations.

Archival outreach and advocacy at AIC

The Art Institute of Chicago celebrates the 125th anniversary of the opening of its Michigan Avenue building December 2018. This structure is the second home to the museum, but it is tied to the institution’s identity. There have been a number of campaigns produced to highlight this moment, and fortunately, the photographic archives have been featured through these efforts.

The museum’s social media platforms, including Instagram, have featured a number of images - sourced both from institutional archives and from outside repositories - and it’s been fascinating seeing the response. Though our department was not directly involved in the selection or sourcing of these images, these are some of the “top hits” in terms of iconic views of the exterior and interior of the building. The photographs have prompted folks to share their experiences visiting the museum, their interest in the landscape around the building in the early days, and their appreciation for a glimpse back in time. The response underscored for me the public’s interest in this institutional history.

Our department was more actively involved in the creation of a promotional video and behind-the-scenes blog post, both of which focused on the institutional photographic archives. For the blog, I worked with the communications team to provide information about the day-to-day tasks involved with working in the archives. Following a format previously used on the blog, I was given a set of questions about my job - more specifically, relating to the photographic materials themselves and what goes into caring for the collection. It was wonderful diving into the topic, trying to reflect on how to explain things to a broad audience. It’s easy to get caught up in jargon used in the field, so working with other staff was helpful in keeping that tendency in check. I also really appreciated the opportunity to explain some of the work that happens at the museum which many folks may not consider. So much of what happens at the museum is invisible to visitors - I think it’s important to let them peek behind the curtain. It humanizes the work, and people often seem excited to learn about it.

One of my colleagues from our department then teamed up with us to capture some images around the archives space. She photographed me looking through photographic materials, a sampling of media in the archives (formats, bases, etc), and our digitization station. I don’t normally enjoy being in front of the camera, but it was nice to partner with a talented photographer to highlight this collection. And, it’s worthwhile making visible the work of archivists, and not just the archives themselves. We then chose some highlights of digitized negatives to feature along with these documentary images, to help show the depth and breadth of content in the collection. You can read the full post and see the images here.

The second project involved a substantial amount of legwork to compile compelling images for a video narrative. I teamed up with the museum’s videographer to assess what types of images would work well. Many of the negatives and transparencies had to be digitized again - a substantial portion of previously digitized archival materials are small files and don’t meet our current standards - then edited, and formatted for prints. The video shoot featured these archival reproductions, as well as a small sampling of original large format negatives and 35mm slides. He also captured scenes around the archives room, and a few scenes including me functioning as archival caretaker. I was glad that he chose to include contemporary images our department is creating as a way of tying the past to the present. It also shows that the institution is thinking about the future as it reflects on its past.

The video project could have focused primarily on the images themselves, essentially functioning as a dynamic slideshow of sorts. Instead, the videographer understood how compelling the archives-as-collection are, and made the decision to feature the original materials, space, and work involved in caring for them as part of the story. History doesn’t preserve itself, intervention is necessary. It felt good to see that acknowledged in the final product, which you can find here.

On one hand, all these initiatives function as outreach in that they raise awareness of a collection largely hidden to the public. Folks who maybe hadn’t considered that institutional archives like this exist have the opportunity to see the amazing images that tell part of the story of the museum. Perhaps equally important in the second two projects was the chance to make visible archival work. Archivists are key to the proper management of collections like this one, to preserve and provide access to materials that help to tell part of our collective story. As such, projects that highlight the individuals that steward the collections help to advocate for this profession. I hope that these projects positively contribute to the growing number of online opportunities which feature the skills, knowledge, and passion of archivists.

Outreach: Marwen visit

This fall I had the opportunity to show a group of youths the photographic institutional archives at the Art Institute of Chicago. I have previously toured the space and explained the collection to staff curious about our holdings, visiting archivists, and interns. As such, most folks have had some background in cultural heritage or interest in pursuing it as a career. This was my first chance to connect the archives with this type of group, many of whom are learning about and often new to the range of professions that connect with the work of our department: photography and imaging, museum studies, and archives and information science.

The teens who visited were enrolled in a photography class at Marwen, taught by one of my colleagues in the department. Her focus in the class has been imaging as a means of telling stories, often involving personal objects (collections, archives) as a way of weaving a narrative. She brought the group to the museum both to show them how other artists have approached these ideas, but also to give them a peek behind the scenes of the work we do in our department: documenting the work of the museum and archiving those images for future use.

My colleague requested that I discuss my path to this line of work as well as what the job entailed. Given that many in the group are thinking about college and what they might want to do professionally, this was a fantastic opportunity to show them one way to arrive in a career like this one. I did not realize that museums, archives, and libraries had such a wide range of jobs within them until I started a few internships in colleges. I would love to make sure more folks area aware of these career options, as I have found this path to be so rewarding. With this in mind, I told them about my background in art and photography, volunteer internships, and professional experience working in several Chicago area institutions. I shared how my love of both history and imaging have blended seamlessly into this job, and how it affords me the chance to continually pursue curiosity.

Reproduction prints of AIC staff at work over the decades

Reproduction prints of AIC staff at work over the decades

She also asked me to gather some original archival materials and some corresponding reproduction prints to show the students. Though I mentioned the core topics covered in the archives (documentation of collections, exhibitions, programs, visitors) I tried to stick to three main themes within the prints to demonstrate to breadth of subjects: World’s Columbian Exposition images, gallery and architectural views, and documentation of museum staff at work. The last theme in particular connected to my discussion about the unexpected types of jobs one might find in a museum like this one. Even more interestingly, these views show how work has both changed and stayed the same over time. Being able to talk about the role of documentation through photography in a museum, for example, and see images that represent that work over time, in addition to touring our facilities today helps to tell a fuller story about this behind-the-scenes work.

I also pulled some original archival material to show where these reproduction prints came from, especially given this group’s interest in photography. I made sure a range of sizes and film bases were represented, including black and white negative, color negative, and color transparency materials. Though these students are using digital technology to create their images, it was clear they were still interested in and connected with these negatives and transparencies. Even within an archives which is fairly narrowly focused by content (institutional archives) and materiality (photography), there is still a fascinating degree of variety. I hope that these materials underscored that fact for the group.

Original archival negatives and transparencies

Original archival negatives and transparencies

Finally, we took a brief look inside the archives themselves - at the compact shelving, card catalog, and digitization setup. They were curious about how things were organized, how we find images, and how often things are lost or misplaced. They wanted to know about the oldest negatives and duplicates. They asked so many excellent and engaging questions! Curiosity brought me to this profession, and it was amazing to see how curious they were about so many aspect of this collection and the work involved in caring for it. My goal was to open their eyes to this fairly niche intersection of photography, archives, and museums if it was not previously on their radar, and to make it relevant to their interests. Given their excited chatter, and the fact that they wanted to linger even after it was time to go walk through the galleries, I hope that I was successful in those goals. This might have been my first outreach program for this type of group, but it certainly won’t be my last, because it was wonderful.