As evaluators, we work with museum professionals to collect data around problems they are facing, and not so surprisingly, museums often face similar problems. In my six years with RK&A, I have definitely seen trends, and certainly in RK&A’s 25 years, the company has as well. For this reason, I sometimes find myself wondering whether collecting more data around an issue is worthwhile. As someone who considers herself a life-long learner, the instinct is to say, “No, we don’t know enough; there is always more to learn.” But then I consider that, if there is enough existing and reliable information out there, our clients can save time and money but still make informed decisions. This consideration gives me pause as my intention is for the work we do to help museums do their work better.
I was recently feeling this way while conducting focus groups with teachers about barriers to fieldtrips and their needs for teaching resources. We have worked on many evaluations of museum-school programs lately in which we collected data from teachers about museum programs and professional development, including for Kentucky Historical Society, the National Air and Space Museum, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Indeed, during the recent teacher focus groups, I heard a lot of familiar trends—cost of field trips, curriculum links, lack of time due to testing. But as I listened to these teachers, I gained a new appreciation for the phrase “the devil is in the details.” For, while some of the barriers were the same as those I was expecting, there were nuances and specifics unique to the context of the Museum and its community that make a familiar issue particularly challenging—which I have found to be true with every evaluation.
So to the question, have we heard it all before when it comes to barriers to fieldtrip experiences? No. While there are certainly cases when existing research in the field can sufficiently answer a museum’s questions, more often than not, there are situational challenges unique to a museum and its community that are crucial to helping a museum address these challenges. Sometimes our work is about helping museums see the forest for the trees—identifying the big trends. But in the case of identifying barriers to fieldtrip experiences, I need to unpack every detail to help the Museum truly understand the barriers and identify recommendations. Like this Bruegel painting, it can appear messy and confusing but inspecting each detail is necessary for making meaning.