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Visitor StudiesEarth Sciences

Geology, Gems, and Minerals Hall
National Museum of Natural History
Washington, DC
Study conducted by Lynn Dierking and Dana Holland, Institute for Learning Innovation, Annapolis, Maryland
July-August 1993

Purpose and methods:
Three types of information were gathered in the old hall during storyline development and planning for a new hall. (1) Demographic data was collected to determine seasonal fluctuations and verify patterns observed in an earlier phase of front-end research. (2) Focused interviews were conducted to determine how long visitors had been in the building and what exhibits they had visited prior to coming to this hall. (3) A hands -on interpretive cart was used to assess visitor understanding of topics and concepts in preliminary plans for the new exhibition.

Sample size:
40 visitor groups were interviewed
482 visitor interactions were recorded with 280 individuals at the interpretive cart

Major findings:
Approximately 46 percent of the visitors were adults, either alone, in couples, or in all-adult groups; another 45 percent were in family groups, while the remaining 9 percent were children in the gallery by themselves or in all-child groups. The development team was particularly surprised by the large numbers of adult visitors. When visitors were interviewed about where this visit fit into their overall stay within the museum there were also some surprising findings: only 35 percent were "doing the museum," wandering until they "arrived" at the gallery, while 18 percent indicated that this was their first gallery to visit and another 30 percent were visiting it second after first visiting the Paleontology Hall. In other words, visitors were self-selecting to visit this hall because of high interest in earth sciences.

Visitors interacted with the interpretive cart in one of two ways. Allowing for multiple responses, 74 percent of interactions were in the form of questions, and 41 percent in the form of statements. This finding was unexpected, particularly visitors' desire to tell the researchers about their experiences with the topic. Most conversations focused on concrete qualities of the rocks and minerals, with visitors noticing, making statements, and asking questions about the size, color, shape, "prettiness," and other obvious qualities of the specimens. Researchers also collected data on actual specimens to be in the re-designed exhibition, and these data proved useful as developers chose specimens to communicate certain ideas. Some specimens clearly were better bridges to move visitors from focusing on concrete attributes to more abstract concepts. One of these was the mineral malachite, the most observed and discussed of the specimens. Visitors were fascinated by its color and shape, which seemed to lead naturally from concrete observation to questions about its formation and chemical composition, questions rarely asked about other specimens.

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Other studies on Earth Sciences:

American Museum of Natural History
New York, New York
Study conducted by museum evaluator Ellen Giusti
March 1996

Purpose: To investigate potential content for a new exhibition about diamonds

Methods: Focus groups

Findings: Association with diamonds is economic, with the misconception that diamonds are mined in deep pits under conditions of extreme hardship and a negative association with South Africa.

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Geology and Planetary Science
Cleveland Museum of Natural History
Cleveland, Ohio
Study conducted by Shoup and Associates, a Cleveland marketing firm
October 1995

Purpose: To investigate what makes a good museum visit, explore visitor interest areas for geology and planetary science, and find out general perceptions for the new The Reinberger Hall of Earth and Planetary Exploration

Purpose: Focus groups

Findings: Participants were uniformly interested in the beginning of the universe, the Big Bang, and how planets are formed. They knew little about these topics, but desired an interactive experience.

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Greenhouse Earth
Franklin Institute Science Museum
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Study conducted by exhibit developer Jenny Sayre Ramberg
September 1990

Purpose: To determine baseline information and understandings visitors have concerning global warming and the greenhouse effect and what they would expect and like to learn in a traveling exhibition on these subjects

Methods: Open-ended interviews

Findings: Most visitors had heard about global warming and the greenhouse effect. There was considerable confusion about the relationship between ozone depletion and global warming, with two-thirds of the visitors believing the ozone hole was the cause of global warming.

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Mesozoic Monsters, Mammals, and Magnolias
University of Nebraska State Museum
Lincoln, Nebraska
Study conducted by Dana Twersky and Cybele Londono, evaluators; and Judy Diamond, assistant director for public programs

Purpose: To investigate elementary school children's knowledge and perceptions of dinosaurs in preparation for a new exhibition gallery

Methods: In-depth interviews

Findings: Elementary children continued to hold many out-dated beliefs about dinosaurs, in spite of having been exposed to a school curriculum that tried to correct misconceptions. Ethnically diverse students aged 8-12 believed that dinosaurs were cold-blooded, that all large animals of the Mesozoic were dinosaurs, and that they were slow and stupid.

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Powers of Nature
Franklin Institute Science Museum
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Study conducted by Minda Borun, director of research and evaluation; and Caren Garfield, intern
July 1995

Purpose: To gather information for a proposed traveling exhibition about extreme natural phenomena such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes for the Science Museum Exhibit Collaborative

Methods: Questionnaires

Findings: In general, visitors were familiar with the phenomena, but knew little about their causes or the basic physical forces involved.

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Stormy Weather
Collaboration including Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, National Museum of Natural History, St. Louis Science Center, National Severe Storms Laboratory, and National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration
Washington, DC
Summer 1994
Study conducted by Randi Korn & Associates, Alexandria, Virginia

Purpose: To better understand visitors' perceptions and their baseline knowledge of severe storms for a traveling exhibition on severe storms

Methods: Questionnaire and in-depth interviews

Findings: Adults and children saw storms primarily in terms of their impact on human life. Although some visitors understood the scientific causes of storms, most discussed them in non-technical terms.

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Thunderstorm Detectives
National Center for Atmospheric Research
Boulder, Colorado
Study conducted by Ross J. Loomis and Andrej A. Birjulin, University of Colorado

Purpose: To assess general interest in weather hazards and aviation, reactions to planned content of traveling exhibition (to be shown in both museums and airports), and potential exhibit impact on passenger fears of flying; and to compare museum and airport sub-samples regarding these assessments

Methods: Open-ended interviews (utilizing text, photos, and an interactive) and forced-choice survey, with museum visitors and users of a small municipal airport

Findings: Most people said they would stop to see an exhibition about weather and aviation. Areas of most interest included prediction; causes and/or formation of weather phenomena; and tornadoes, windshear, microbursts, and wind.

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Watersheds and Environmental Stewardship
Seattle Aquarium
Seattle, Washington
Study conducted by Dana Holland and Lynn Dierking, Institute for Learning Innovation, Annapolis, Maryland
May 1997

Purpose: To investigate people's familiarity with and interests in the concepts of watershed and stewardship and related topics, as well as their receptivity to different types of aquarium experiences

Methods: Questionnaires, semi-structured interviews, focus groups, and student drawings

Findings: Highly consistent findings across methods, which articulated and expanded upon each other. People's primary interest in the aquarium related to experiences with "the real," including interaction with and information about live animals; "non-real" computer-based experiences were not appealing to most. Watersheds were most meaningfully appreciated as being a collective of different types of connected ecosystems ("habitats," "places in nature") where particular animals and plants live. People were highly supportive of stewardship messages, and felt tough issues and dramatic images were warranted.


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