The San Diego Natural History Museum (theNAT) contracted RK&A to conduct a summative evaluation of Coast to Cactus in Southern California, an exhibition that focuses on the biodiversity of southern California. The goals of the evaluation were to: (1) identify how visitors are using the exhibition space; (2) understand how visitors use and what meaning they create from seven new types of spaces/components; (3) explore what meaning visitors make from their exhibition experience overall, and particularly to what extent visitors’ meaning-making aligns with the intended outcomes; and (4) explore the effectiveness of the various kinds of bilingual interpretation in the exhibition.
How did we approach this study?
RK&A used three methodologies to evaluate the exhibition. First, we conducted 100 timing and tracking observations to provide an objective account of how visitors use the space, including time spent and exhibits visited. Second, to understand how seven specific areas of the exhibition were working, we conducted focused observations of the areas and short-answer interviews (interviews were conducted in English and Spanish). Third, we conducted 40 in-depth exit interviews with visitors in English and Spanish to understand the meaning visitors made from the exhibition; we also asked visitors about the bilingual interpretation.
What did we learn?
Visitors’ use of the exhibition space is comparative to other exhibition spaces—dwell time and thoroughness of use is average. Visitors’ meaning-making in the exhibition is commendable, particularly related to the intended outcomes for the exhibition; more than one-half of visitors clearly realized the unique biodiversity and ecosystems of southern California, most named a personal story or memory that came to mind in the exhibition (although the depth varied), and most described how the exhibition showed change over time in southern California (although fewer linked the change to humans and the built environment). Responses to the bilingual interpretation are positive with an overall preference for the side-by-side presentation of bilingual text; however, there is a smaller but very vocal group of visitors who felt strongly connected to the Spanglish interpretative approach offered in the Desert at Night theater.
What are the implications of the findings?
Coast to Cactus was very successful as an exhibition overall, and there are several lessons that theNAT may apply to their future work. Of significant note is that the majority of visitors realized the exhibition’s big ideas and outcomes. While the exhibition has is a lot of content and visitors spent a modest amount of time in the exhibition, theNAT team ensured the content focused on and supported the big ideas—something that is difficult to execute when moving through the exhibition-development process. Additionally, some of the new types of spaces designed for the exhibition were largely successful, such as the Desert at Night theater that included very strong and effective visuals and promoted nostalgia for camping and being in nature. The bilingual interpretation used in the exhibition was also well-received. Given the findings from this study and those from the BERI report, theNAT should consider using the side-by-side interpretation technique as a model for exhibitions in the future as well as Spanglish interpretation, as an accent when appropriate.
See all San Diego Natural History Museum projects.