Last October, I joined RK&A as their newest Research Associate. I was quickly whisked up into the world of evaluation, meeting with clients, collecting and analyzing data, and preparing reports and presentations. As a busy period of late spring work transitions into another busy period of early summer work, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on my first eight months here.
Anyone who has spent much time with me knows that I am a quiet-natured person, contented to be the proverbial “fly on the wall,” but also intensely interested in observing and absorbing my surroundings. My interest in listening to and observing people and trying to understand their thoughts and actions took me down several different paths before I came to RK&A and entered the world of evaluation.
As a self-proclaimed people watcher, Anthropology seemed like a natural course of study in undergraduate and graduate school. While pursuing my master’s degree, I worked for several years as a research assistant in the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology (BARA) at the University of Arizona, a unit of the Department of Anthropology that focuses on research, teaching, and outreach with contemporary communities. During my time at BARA, I participated in several research projects that required me to conduct ethnographic interviews with Native American communities in Montana to document traditional cultural places.
At first, the prospect of interviewing others seemed very intimidating. My introverted nature and my feelings as an cultural “outsider” made these first interviews nerve-racking. However, working closely with my advisor, Dr. Nieves Zedeño, I learned many valuable things about interviewing, including the importance of making your interviewee comfortable and the power of patience and allowing for long pauses in conversation during an interview, among many other things. Moreover, I could see the immense value of these conversations and how qualitative and quantitative data can work together to make a strong case—for example weaving archaeological data with contemporary interviews to establish long-term Native ties to a traditional cultural property for a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. I carried these lessons with me after graduation when I moved to Virginia and began working in market research for the higher education sector. Interviewing became a larger part of my daily job, although I was now having conversations with various subject matter experts, administrators and stakeholders at colleges and universities to understand their challenges and successes rather than interviewing Native elders and tribal consultants.
Then, last year I joined RK&A as a newcomer to the museum evaluation field. Since then, I’ve worked on many projects that allowed me to flex new intellectual muscles and develop new skills, including becoming a stronger, more confident interviewer. In the process, I’ve become more aware of how to wield my introversion as an interviewing tool. After all, there is great value in knowing when to talk and when to listen (really actively listen), when to allow for that long pause before moving to a new question, and how to create a safe space where others feel comfortable sharing their honest thoughts and opinions. Understanding the virtues of these skills has helped me grow as an interviewer and an evaluator.
I’ve also enjoyed learning and reflecting on how to harness interview data to help museums understand their audience, meet visitors “where they are” in terms of the knowledge and experiences they bring to every museum visit, and push to clarify their messages so that visitors leave thinking a little differently than when they arrived (even if that change is small or only focuses on just one new idea). Interview data is unique from other types of data we collect, such as timing and tracking observations or survey responses, because it provides that essential window into what visitors are actually thinking. Interviews allow visitors to tell us, in their own words, what they find interesting or confusing or surprising, and lets them explore personal connections with a topic or idea that the interviewer may have never considered. It is rewarding to hear the excitement from our museum partners when they learn that a key message from an exhibit was well-communicated or realize that visitors are coming away with some ideas that were completely unexpected. I look forward to continuing to learn and grow as an interviewer and evaluator at RK&A!