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Browse Back Issues ASTC Dimensions: July/August 1998
Front-end studies: Where the museum and the community meet
By Lynn D. Dierking and Wendy Pollock

The following article appears in the July/August 1998 issue of the ASTC Newsletter. Lynn D. Dierking is associate director of the Institute for Learning Innovation, Annapolis, MD. Wendy Pollock is ASTC's deputy director.

As Mark St. John and Deborah Perry once suggested, "Science museums and other informal science education institutions are places where people can meet science—informally, directly, and on their own terms. Science museums thus serve as a bridge between the everyday world of the visitor and the world of science and natural phenomena."

Research that's done at the very beginning of the planning process—often called "front-end studies"—can help museums to build these bridges. Although front-end studies are most often associated with exhibition development, they are equally useful in planning programs, marketing campaigns, or entirely new institutions.

One of the things that's most helpful about front-end studies is that they force us to question our assumptions—about visitors, their understandings, attitudes, and beliefs; about how people learn and why they come to museums in the first place; about our accustomed approaches to exhibit and program design.

Questioning Assumptions: An Introduction to Front-End Studies in Museums is based on reviews of 35 written reports and interviews with people who together have carried out dozens of studies. In talking with them, Lynn Dierking and I noticed several things:

Any planning process is a learning experience for the team itself. Some planners, for example, assume that giving weight to visitors' perspectives will result in "dumbing down" the content. They may be surprised—like the curators at the National Museum of Natural History who assumed that people were interested only in the Hope Diamond, but found out they were actually interested in geology, too.

Although much research and evaluation work focuses on words—using methods like questionnaires and interviews—it's important to pay attention to attitudes, feelings, and beliefs as well. Some of the highly publicized public relations problems museums have experienced in recent years might have been avoided if attitudes, and the strength with which they are held, had been taken into account in advance.

Interests of marketing and education staff are often seen as at odds. But while one may be more interested in attractiveness and the other in accuracy, both will benefit from understanding better what's in the minds of people who may come to visit. The St. Louis Science Center found out that the name Gene Scene made young visitors think of the Gap (a clothing store); DNA Zone struck people as attractive, and they were also better able to predict what they'd find there, so the education staff was satisfied.

To be effective planning tools, front-end studies should have the support of senior management. And research and evaluation should be standing agenda items all through the planning process. Otherwise, they may get lost as time and money are stretched. Evaluators and researchers can help by writing their reports in plain English, and working with others on the team to consider their implications.

Finally, results of front-end studies are not a prescription for practice. For one thing, curiosity about a subject is something that may be awakened by a new exhibition or program, even though people didn't expect to be interested when asked in advance. Moreover, knowing where confusions are likely to lie doesn't solve design problems. Planners of Greenhouse Earth knew that many people think (erroneously) that the ozone hole is responsible for global warming; but they didn't expect people to interpret a hole in a plexiglas "greenhouse gas" layer around a globe as an ozone hole—which many of them did.

While front-end studies might initiate the dialogue with visitors, other processes continue it. During design and development, formative studies help in evaluation of prototypes and mock-ups and redesign for clarity, comprehension, accessibility, and ease of use. Summative evaluation, carried out after the exhibition, program, or other activity is complete, gives us a better basis for future planning and for assessing the value and impact of our institutions for the community and for funders and other supporters. The research we do at the beginning of the planning process is, at best, the start of an ongoing conversation with visitors—and the first in a set of methods that support and improve museum design.

Tips for conducting front-end studies
By Wendy Pollock
Keep it open-ended One of the goals of front-end research is to uncover, examine, and then set aside our own preconceptions about visitors so that we can see and understand more clearly what they know, believe, and are interested in. Open-ended methods such as semi-structured interviews and focus groups provide an opportunity for people to talk about topics freely and in their own words.
Use multiple methods To get at different aspects of visitors' understandings, feelings, attitudes, and beliefs, use a variety of data-gathering strategies. In addition to verbal measures such as interviews, written surveys, questionnaires, and think-aloud protocols, consider drawings, observations, and concept mapping.
Consider the context Collect data in a context that makes sense to people. Use objects and props. This may be particularly helpful if the topic is abstract, like biodiversity. If you are interested in finding out about people who are already visiting the museum, collect data there. You might interview visitors in a gallery or hall in which a related topic is presented.
Talk with different kinds of people—and enough of them How many people you include in your sample will depend on the number and complexity of your questions, the degree of rigor you're aiming for, your need to generalize the results of the study beyond the immediate project, and the realities of time and money. Studies for new institutions and major expansions are likelier to demand greater rigor and larger, more carefully constructed samples. But often informal quick-and-dirty studies are enough, in which case sampling may be a commonsense matter of talking with carefully selected people until you aren't getting any new answers.
Consider collecting data from people who don't usually visit the museum If you're interested in understanding better people who don't traditionally visit the museum, collect data outside of your institution. Community organizations such as churches, community centers, and libraries can provide entry points.
Consider collecting data in more than one location You may want to plan to collect data in a variety of settings, both within and outside of the museum. This is particularly important if you want to be able to apply your findings to a variety of situations—for an exhibition that will travel, for example.
Take visitors' attitudes and emotions into account Although many front-end studies focus on visitor understandings, it's also important to consider attitudes, beliefs, and emotions. For one thing, the way people feel about a subject— say, the common cold—influences what they know and how they learn. Moreover, taking stock of people's attitudes and belief, and how strongly they hold them, can help to avoid surprises, especially in planning exhibitions and programs about sensitive and controversial topics.
Try out and evaluate your data-collection plan and instruments As you develop your data-collection plan and instruments, try them out. Draft your questions, circulate them among your colleagues, try out the methods with people representative of your intended sample, and then revise the plan and the questions accordingly.

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