It’s Only Natural… History
How do people want to engage with science content in a museum? Are they eager to connect with real scientists and work with real collections? With special thanks to the education and outreach team at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, we’re pleased to share findings from our 2009 front-end evaluation for an innovative new learning center at the museum.
The exploratory research, conducted in late 2009, was intended to inform planning for a new, 12,000 square foot facility being built at the museum. In part one of the study, we conducted qualitative, in-depth interviews with visitors at NMNH and other Smithsonian locations to explore visitors’ ideal museum experiences and their interest in engaging with this museum’s scientists, collections, and research.
In part two, we reviewed a wide range of “peer” institutions and programs in the US and UK to shed light on contemporary modes of public engagement with science and related content.
Slover Linett’s work on the evaluation was led by Sarah Lee, senior associate for museums, and was part of a multi-phase engagement that continued through much of 2010.
“We learned some new things about how visitors want to relate to natural history content,” Lee says, “and we also confirmed some things that are widely accepted in the field. Personally, I was most excited about being able to distill in one place the key elements of a highly engaging experience with museum content.”
Lee is referring to the report’s section on “What makes a museum visit interesting, memorable, engaging, or inspiring?” The six elements that emerged from visitors’ comments were:
- Relevance: experiences that enable visitors to relate the content inside the museum to their lives outside it;
- Customization: experiences that allow visitors to tailor experiences to their personalities, interests, or moods;
- Immersion: experiences that seem to take visitors out of the museum setting and transport them to another time or place;
- Dynamism: experiences of action, movement, and change — the process rather than the product of (in this case) scientific investigation;
- One-of-a-kind: experiences that feel rare and decidedly different from what visitors see and do in their everyday lives;
- Sense of wonder: experiences that introduce visitors to unexpected or novel ideas or sensory encounters, sparking “ah-ha moments.”
The report explores each of these elements in detail (pages 11–33).
We welcome questions and comments. Sarah Lee would be happy to discuss the research, and Shari Werb, NMNH's Director of Education and Outreach, would be happy to discuss the new space being developed at the museum.