The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History (NMAH) contracted RK&A to conduct a summative evaluation of Places of Invention (POI), an exhibition funded by the National Science Foundation. The evaluation was designed to determine the extent to which the exhibition achieved its outcomes: 1) visitors identify the 21st-century skills that inventors practice; 2) visitors identify characteristics that support innovative communities; 3) visitors express interest in learning about inventions and/or inventors; 4) visitors see places around them (personal work and learning spaces, schools, neighborhoods, universities, and industries) as potential hot spots of invention; and 5) visitors see themselves as inventive.
How did we approach this study?
RK&A employed two methodologies: timing and tracking observations and in-depth interviews with control and treatment groups. Timing and tracking provide an objective and quantitative account of what visitors do in POI, including which components visitors use, for how long, and how visitors behave. Behavioral observations are useful for providing contextual information to help explain people’s cognitive and affective experiences. RK&A also conducted in-depth open-ended interviews to understand the meanings visitors make from the exhibition. The interview methodology is quasi-experimental with three study groups: 1) control group of NMAH visitors who had not visited POI; 2) treatment A group of NMAH visitors interviewed immediately after visiting POI; and 3) treatment B group of NMAH visitors interviewed by phone two weeks after visiting POI.
What did we learn?
Observed visitors spent a relatively short amount of time in the exhibition (median = 6 minutes 30 seconds) and stopped at few components (median = 9 stops at 63 potential stops). The videos, Skill Spots, Connections Graphics, and the Hub Meeting Place were ignored by most observed visitors and 1 percent submitted an invention story of their own at the HUB kiosk. From interviews, we found that POI had measured impact on one of its intended outcomes: Visitors identify characteristics that support innovative communities. There was no measured impact in other outcome areas, but note that visitors came in at high achievement levels so there was little room to grow.
What are the implications of the findings?
The study reveals that, while usage of the POI exhibition is low, the exhibition supports visitors in identifying characteristics that reflect innovative communities. This outcome was best emphasized through the overall conceptual framework for the exhibition, which some visitors identified as unique, and the exhibition design in general, with distinct pods dedicated to different places. While the depth of visitor engagement may be disappointing to curators and designers, visitors reported feeling content with their experience and noted that the concept behind POI was different from what they normally expect to see in an exhibition on invention. The exhibition seemed well-suited to NMAH visitors’ capacity (and for Smithsonian visitors in general) who often visit more than one museum in a day or two.
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