The United States Botanic Garden (USBG) contracted RK&A to study visitors’ experiences in the current West Gallery exhibition. However, after an initial meeting, USBG recognized that any changes to the West Gallery should be intentional and done in the context of staff’s aspirations for the whole Garden experience. Thus, the study evolved into a more holistic endeavor with two main goals: (1) collect data about visitors’ experiences in the West Gallery exhibition to inform redesign of the Gallery; and (2) study visitors’ experiences in the whole Garden in the context of the newly-articulated visitor impact statement: Inspired by the welcoming, sensory, and restorative experience, visitors appreciate the diversity of plants, value the essential connection between plants and people, and embrace plant stewardship.
Following the planning project, USBG contracted RK&A to conduct front-end and formative evaluations to inform the redesign of the Gallery and to determine how to best use this method to communicate the relationship between plants and people.
How did we approach this study?
RK&A facilitated a series of planning workshops with USBG staff to help them articulate the impact they aspire to achieve with their audiences. An Impact Framework resulted from these workshops. The Framework articulates the impact statement above, as well as audience outcomes and indicators which make the impact statement concrete and measurable. Guided by the Impact Framework, RK&A conducted a series of audience research studies and evaluations, as well as facilitated two Using Evaluation Results workshops to help staff reflect on findings and develop action steps moving forward. Continuing with the front-end evaluation, RK&A conducted 80 in-depth interviews with walk-in visitors (20 interviews in each of the four rooms). For the formative study, RK&A interviewed 40 walk-in visitors about new interpretative signage.
What did we learn?
The audience research study revealed many rich findings related to the Whole Garden, its audiences, and the West Gallery exhibition specifically, including visitor types that the Garden can use to inform their decision-making. Study findings indicated that visitors’ experiences are, in some ways, well aligned with the Garden’s desired impact and, in other ways, not as well aligned. Specifically, staff used study findings to brainstorm more cohesive interpretive themes for the Whole Garden and West Gallery exhibition. USBG staff then had two opportunities to leverage the themes: 1) for the Garden-wide interpretive planning project, and 2) Conservatory Room front-end and formative evaluation.
What are the implications of the findings?
This project highlights the all-important link between planning and evaluation. Too often, evaluation is conducted in a vacuum (i.e. one program or exhibition at a time) as opposed to considering the organization’s aspirations for affecting the visitor. USBG staff recognized the need to consider changes to the West Gallery exhibition in the context of their intentions for the Whole Garden experience. In doing so, they had baseline information about their audiences in the context of the impact they hope to achieve. Using that baseline planning as a foundation, the next two phases of evaluation findings created a structure for the Gallery redesign. All this information helps USBG staff understand the alignment between their aspirations and visitors’ experiences and how they might need to change their practice to achieve greater impact.
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