Joyful Discoveries: Evaluating the Museum Visitor Experience

How many visitors drive the Bobcats in Construction Zone on a typical day? Do visitors in PlaySpace use the resources we create for them? If a child doesn’t get to go on stage during a KidStage play, how might that affect their experience during the show? If visitors use an exhibit in a way we didn’t design for, but they still have fun, is the exhibit a “success”?

At Boston Children’s Museum, where visitors choose their own route, create their own experiences, and construct their own meaning from all that happens during their visit, questions about evaluation and measurement can be challenging to answer. There is no such thing as a “standard” visitor experience, so the idea of “measurement” takes on a whole new meaning within the Museum walls. So how does Boston Children’s Museum go about evaluating programs, exhibits, and visitor experiences in ways that help meaningfully inform our practices or improve the museum experience for visitors?

As the Museum’s Evaluation Coordinator, my role is to implement evaluation projects that work to answer these questions while not losing sight of the inherently playful and open-ended nature of a museum visit. Here’s a little glimpse into how this work gets done at Boston Children’s Museum.

Observations: Visitors at Play

Cardboard 1 smWatching visitors explore, play, create, and interact – and taking good notes on what visitors are actually doing – is a crucial part of any evaluation project at the Museum. Are visitors using an exhibit component in the ways we thought they would? Do they appear interested and engaged? Are they having fun?

Last summer we spent time observing several special workshops created for an audience of older children and their families. We observed that during a music workshop, adults and caregivers took a backseat and watched their children explore sounds and create musical instruments. However, during an engineering workshop, adults and children actively worked together to build structures that would hold up against a simulated earthquake. As educators and program planners in the Museum, we now have a better idea of what kinds of activities engage both adults and children, because we took the time to observe real visitors engaged in real Museum activities.

Surveys: When We Want a Broader Picture

Sometimes, we need to collect data from many visitors, but we just don’t have enough time or staff members available to interview people in any open-ended way. Surveys are a great way to get a lot of information in a short amount of time.

Recently, we collected surveys from KidStage visitors, and what we learned opened up a host of new questions for us to explore. For example, we found that Friday Night visitors had more positive experiences in KidStage than Weekday visitors. Why might this be? These surveys helped us learn about visitors’ experiences in KidStage at a certain level, but we’ll need to continue asking good questions to really understand where we can continue to improve.

Interviews: Listening to the Visitor Voice

Boston Children's Museum Family Fest 2013Asking visitors to tell us about their experiences, in their own words, is a vital part of understanding how visitors actually experience the Museum. What do visitors think they’re getting out of a Museum experience? How are they connecting with exhibits and programs? What do visitors think is missing, or what could the Museum do to improve?

Recently Boston Children’s Museum celebrated Arthur the Aardvark’s 8th birthday. Some Museum staff were curious: How many visitors came to the Museum to celebrate with Arthur? To answer that question, we asked visitors a few short questions, one of which was the open-ended question: Why did you decide to visit Boston Children’s Museum today? We learned that nearly 20% of visitors came to celebrate with Arthur. However, allowing visitors to describe their reasons for visiting, in their own words, also taught us some interesting things about what gets visitors to the Museum. Many visitors were simply looking for something fun to do with their kids while visiting Boston. Others were using the Museum as a way to spend time together with family and friends. Learning about our visitors through these simple, open-ended questions helps us see our visitors in more nuanced ways, and helps us create experiences that can better serve the diverse needs of our audience.

At Boston Children’s Museum, we aim to “spark a lifelong love of learning” within our visitors. We also work to maintain this spark within ourselves, as the playful educators and experience creators we are. Evaluation at the Museum keeps us asking questions and seeking new insights from our visitors, which help us sustain our own love for inquiry and curiosity, and our own desire for “joyful discovery” in the work we do every day.

It Looks So Easy

May 1They make it look so easy. The NBA player going up for a lay-up. The jazz pianist improvising on stage. The cook who whips up a delicious soup in minutes. Experts make difficult tasks seem effortless. Maybe even so effortless that you are lulled into thinking – I could do that. And maybe you could, but only with years of practice. Good teachers in classrooms and informal educational settings like museums do it too. They make it look easy. But it’s not. A quick look around Boston Children’s Museum offers some examples.

Start with the Visitor Experience Associate who greets you. While he smiles and answers your question about how to use the lockers, his eyes are searching 360 degrees as groups of people pass by in multiple directions. He notes the toddler wandering into the bubbles exhibit by himself, ready to step in if no adult appears soon. He remains calm and sympathetic listening to a parent complain about traffic in downtown Boston, and gives a high five to a frequent visitor leaving for the day. And that’s just the first few minutes of his shift. Continue reading

Look Closer

Benjamin, Cranston, RI, Age 9 bruiserdog77@gmail.com Macro April 21 2015-033Working with our collections I was recently tasked with choosing objects to be highlighted in Boston Children’s Museum’s Macro Photography program. Macro Photography is an art form which can turn even the most mundane leaf or twig, which we might otherwise destroy without even noticing, into a treasure just by looking closer at it. With the hustle and bustle of spring in Boston, I cannot remember when I last stopped and looked at something simply to study it.  As I took the time to select objects for this program, I wondered which of them kids would be drawn to. I chose a brightly colored quail, whose feathers were filled with patterns and shapes. I chose crystals with many facets and ornate metal-work from Syria, thinking that kids would be excited by the artifacts’ intricacies. With the stage laid, objects picked, and camera ready I was still surprised by the depth and thoughtfulness of the first photographer. Continue reading

Fix-It Fest

Fix 1On Sunday, May 3 Boston Children’s Museum held our first Fix-It Fest, a one-day extravaganza devoted to construction, fixing, and creating. Inspired by Broken? Fix-It, a traveling exhibit from Long Island Children’s Museum, Fix-It Fest was the brainchild of educator Cora Carey. I sat down with Cora to learn more about this exciting event. She talks 21st Century Skills, the “magic” of making, and the challenge of overcoming the prevalent “disposable goods” mentality. And make sure you check out the Glue Recipe at the end of the interview!

 

What is Fix-It Fest? Continue reading

Wheelock Student Research at Boston Children’s Museum: Kitchen Conversations

Arthur 5

This post is part of our series of articles by Wheelock College students documenting their observations of the many different kinds of learning and adult-child interactions taking place at Boston Children’s Museum every day.  This post was written by students Kaitlyn Talbot, Nico Cantu, Becca House, Azeema Shaikh and Emily Lewis. 

In a Museum full of activities and spaces focused on the play of young children, what is the role of an adult?   Do they stand by and let the children explore the spaces for themselves or do they prompt the children on how to use different materials? As a Wheelock College research team we observed multiple times in two sections of the Museum: Arthur’s World and Children of Hangzhou.  While observing we considered these questions:

  1. What role does the adult take?
  2. How do children and adults interact in Children of Hangzhou as compared to Arthur’s World?
  3. With such rich content, what do children do in Children of Hangzhou?

Arthur 1In Arthur’s World, a little girl was playing with her nanny in the kitchen. The girl moved to the scale and asked, “What’s this?” The nanny replied, “A scale, so you measure the weight of different things compared to this,” as she pointed to the red can, labeled “20 oz.”, on one side of the scale. Continue reading

Observing your Children Learn and Play

Wheelock Intro photo 3By Wheelock faculty, Stephanie Cox Suarez, Erica Licea-Kane; student documenter, Angelina Amato; and Boston Children’s Museum staff member Kana Tsuchiya

In spring 2015, Stephanie Cox Suarez and Erica Licea-Kane led 20 Wheelock College undergraduate students to Boston Children’s Museum as part of a capstone course called “Making Learning Visible”. This course focused on documentation and visual arts for teaching, and students visited the Museum five times to document children’s play and learning. This is the first collaboration of its kind with this Wheelock College capstone course, and it has inspired us to continue to research children’s play and learning at the Museum.

Throughout this project, documentation methodology included observation and subsequent interpretation of learning processes and products of learning. This methodology helps teachers to reflect, deepen and extend children’s and teacher’s learning (more about Documentation practice is available here). Wheelock College student documenters observed multiple times at the Museum and worked alongside Museum staff to consider the following questions: Continue reading

Artifacts Telling Stories

Bark Painting - OI 86-10

Artifacts carry an array of stories from who used it, who made it, what was it used for, and even how it came to the museum. Boston Children’s Museum’s collection holds 50,000 artifacts with countless compelling stories about people, places, and things from all over the world. Sometimes, a story can be told from the donation of an artifact, otherwise known as “provenance”.

Recently, I digitized all of the Australian artifacts in the collection. Many artifacts come from a specific donation from the Melbourne Children’s Museum presented by the Indibundji Aboriginal Dance Group in 1986. The twenty-two artifacts from this donation include a boomerang, a coolamon (an item used as a cradle or bowl), a tjara (a shield), and jewelry. Aboriginal peoples from all over Australia made these artifacts during the 1980’s. The donation tells unique stories about the artifacts, Boston Children’s Museum, and Aboriginal cultures.

Continue reading

What’s Hiding in Collections? Ancient Egyptian Artifacts!

Contratto_blog imageIt’s been quite an exciting beginning to my internship at the Museum. The first month has gone by in the blink of an eye! I never guessed how extensive and diverse Boston Children’s Museum’s collections were. Lately, I’ve been drawn to the Museum’s ancient artifacts from Egypt, Israel, Greece, Iran and Italy, just to name a few. Ceramics, jewelry, stone carvings, lamps, wooden figures, and even mummy linen are some of the artifacts that are in the collection.

Recently, I just finished cataloging 213 Ancient Egyptian artifacts. Each artifact is unique and beautiful, but some of their stories are lost to time. The majority of the artifacts were gifted to the Museum between the 1920s and 1950s by Bostonians who traveled to Egypt. Other artifacts came from archaeological excavations that occurred in Egyptian cities such as Deir el-Bahari and Faiyum.

I’ve picked out a few of my favorite Ancient Egyptian artifacts to share with you. Continue reading

Getting To Know You

Image 1Many of you are probably familiar with our Visitor Experience Associates (VEAs, for short) here at Boston Children’s Museum.  These are the green-shirted floor staff you encounter at admissions, the information desk, and in many exhibits throughout the Museum. They are, without a doubt, the face of the Museum.  Many of them are students so there is a natural ebb and flow to their time at Boston Children’s Museum—many only work for the school year or just for the summer. As a result, we have certain times of the year that we are busy hiring and training new staff.

I have been the Science Educator here for 14 years and in that time I have trained many, many floor staff (who, over my time here have been called Program Assistants, Program Interpreters, Exhibit Interpreters and Visitor Experience Associates). I have my training spiel down to…well….a science, after all this time.  But that does not mean it is boring for me. Not at all.  Because even though I present the same information each time, the diversity of our staff means it is always a different experience for me. Continue reading

Keeping Up with the Cool Kids

IMG_2335“We love the museum, but even though Maeve is still having fun, Katie is starting to grow out of it.” This is a sentiment I am hearing more and more during my time in the Museum’s exhibits. Grownups will bring their child here for years and have the time of their life. Then their kid gets younger siblings, and they continue to come to the Museum with the new additions, and have the time of their life. But then their oldest child turns 7 or 8. He or she starts worrying that the Museum is too “babyish” and doesn’t feel like coming just to play with the younger sibling and parents.

Our visitors are always going to be growing up. That’s a given. We could choose to simply let them go, or we can try to capture the attention of these creative, thoughtful kids until the very last second! Continue reading