Reflection 8: Visitor Meaning-Making Through Evaluation

25th Anniversary ButterflyWe are excited to introduce a guest blogger this week: Johanna Jones, former Managing Director of RK&A’s San Francisco office.  Having been with RK&A for 14 years, Johanna contributed greatly to the company’s learning, and thus, we are happy she agreed to reflect as part our 25 years of learning series.


As I think back on my work at RK&A, like Stephanie, I am struck by an unintended outcome of the evaluation process; namely, that asking visitors questions about their experience can serve an important interpretive role in museums and for visitors. We don’t often think about the direct value of evaluation on visitors—rather we focus on evaluation as an essential step in the institutional cycle of learning (see reflection 2 for the cycle of learning) and in creating an intentional organization which, of course, benefits visitors. I would argue that the evaluation process itself—the very act of interviewing visitors—serves a powerful interpretative function. When visitors are asked open-ended questions about their visit, they are afforded the time and space to reflect on their experiences. The questions become a framework for thinking about their visit—beyond what they liked and didn’t like—that prompts them to consider “What does this mean to me?”openended question

I didn’t always see the direct value of evaluation for visitors. When I first started building my evaluation skills, the educator in me worried about imposing on visitors’ time by asking questions. I had some rocky starts—people have been so saturated with market research that they are wary of someone approaching them for feedback. But I quickly learned that if you ask visitors meaningful open-ended questions, you are usually met with meaningful responses. I remember a Vietnam veteran who cried when telling me what the American flag meant to him and the young children who were pumped to save the Condors (not exactly warm and cuddly creatures). I recall avid art museum-goers who were amazed to realize that they could interpret works of art for themselves and Twenty-somethings who expressed civic pride in a once beleaguered natural history museum. The more I talked to visitors the more I realized that the evaluations were not only fulfilling the institutions’ need to understand visitors but also visitors’ need to process and make meaning from their museum experience.

Now, as a museum visitor, I still use meaty open-ended questions. I ask them of myself and my family members when we visit museums. And, I must say, I find our conversations richer for it.

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