C.2 Assessing Exhibits

How well does a current or proposed exhibit address the cultural needs, challenges and opportunities of individuals that surround the museum?  How well does it address issues, themes or topics that are relevant to individuals and communities? What makes this exhibit exemplary? What can be learned from this initiative?

Case Study: Evaluation of The Human Factor

lookingahead2To illustrate how the Critical Assessment Framework (CAF) can be applied to a sustainability exhibit, the following is a post-hoc evaluation of The Human Factor exhibit, which occupies the last 25% of a 1200 square-meter Life Sciences Gallery at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.   The evaluation is based on selected criteria from the CAF, indicators that were derived from these criteria, and feedback from visitor studies.  Most of these studies looked at the entire exhibit, but this assessment deals mainly with displays known as the Towers of Power.

All photos are the property of the Royal Saskatchewan Museum and are used with permission.

Strategies for Public Engagement

The Life Sciences Gallery was developed to foster an enhanced appreciation for nature and a deepened sense of concern about the scope and pace of human activities.  To this end, the exhibits try to instill a sense of wonder about wild plants and animals; to encourage personal reflection about our dependence on nature; and to stimulate discussions and actions that might put individuals and communities on a sustainable path.

LSG golden eagleThe Gallery houses over a dozen natural history dioramas and many smaller exhibits that show how living systems, including the Earth, maintain a “dynamic balance.” The exhibits are arranged along a linear tour of Saskatchewan from north to south, followed by a look at distant locations that are used by animals that migrate through the province.  The tour continues through The Human Factor exhibit, which shows how humanity’s ecological footprint is knocking the global ecosystem out of balance.

worldviewtreeThe Human Factor consists of interactive displays that show how the global effects of human activity have developed (Time Tunnel), how the Earth functions and is being stressed as a global ecosystem (Living Planet), how global pressures are rooted in human values, beliefs and actions (Causes of Stress), and how individuals and communities can chart a more sustainable course (Looking Ahead). 

towers6The Causes of Stress area includes seven sculpted Towers of Power that represent concentrations of social and political influence in Western societies.  Each tower includes a human figure, selected objects, a youth-oriented computer program, interpretive panels, and railing quotations that reflect the tower theme.  Everything except the text panels and touch-screens is coated with a textured grey material for artistic reasons and to discourage rough handling. 

student at CWLA computerThe tower themes are drawn from ecological psychology, where the industrialized worldview is identified as the root cause of unsustainable values, beliefs and actions.  The topics addressed include: the effects of physical isolation and social autonomy, reluctance to recognize limits, faith in science and technology, consumerism, neocolonialism, economic expansion as a measure of progress, and the effects of social and economic disparities. 

footprint tower guy1The Towers of Power are followed by displays that are cautiously optimistic about the future.  One of these displays, known as the Tower of Hope includes an ecological footprint calculator where visitors can calculate the size of their own footprint and see how their choices affect it.  There is also a display called Our Dreams where sculpted clay art pieces show idyllic future scenes that were created by grade-school children.  Each scene is associated with a voice-over provided by the children, explaining why they think their topic is important.

lsg-0006-mMore information about The Human Factor and associated programming visit the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.

Strategies for Studying Visitor Response

Visitor observation – Museum staff have many opportunities to observe visitor responses either directly or via security cameras.  These observations are noted, but not in any systematic way.

Exit surveys – For 18 months after The Human Factor opened (July 2001), written exit surveys were used to collect impressions from people who had been on guided or self-guided tours.  These surveys asked: what aspects of the exhibit stood out, what feelings were noticed and why, whether people remembered reading about ecological footprints, and how they would describe an ecological footprint to someone else.

CWLAtower-screen-1Computer usage – The computers in the tower displays are logging the number of times that their on-screen buttons are pushed.  This information does not suggest why the buttons were pushed, but it does provide feedback about which programs hold the visitor’s attention. 

Photos Day 1 078Directed studies – Responses to The Human Factor have been examined through a number of research projects.  In one of these projects, the students who created the Our Dreams display in grade school were asked to reflect on the experience 5 years later through art and writing.  In another, adult volunteers toured the exhibit while wearing heart-rate monitors.  The largest project involved a Youth Forum on Sustainability program, where high school teachers and students were brought together with local experts to plan and carry out student-led action projects.  The Human Factor exhibit was used to catalyze the Forum process, including teacher workshops that focused on the tower displays.

Overall, my studies of The Human Factor suggest that the exhibit successfully stimulates personal reflection and may lead to enhanced awareness about climate change, social injustice, and other sobering problems.  Visitors tend to slow down and become visibly subdued as they move into the first part of the exhibit, and groups often engage in reflective discussion around the Towers of Power.  Strong emotional responses are also suggested by heart-rate studies, an indication that visitors are deeply moved by the content and presentation.  Other sources of feedback suggest that insights associated with the exhibit may be transformative for some visitors, but more longitudinal and comparative studies are required. 

Performance Indicators based on CAF Criteria

Individual Level

CAF: Stimulates intrinsic motivation 

Indicator:  Subsequent actions that reflect, but are not suggested by the content of an exhibit or program.

CSSU Objects closeupFeedback:  Two incidents show that The Human Factor towers can foster internally-motivated ideas and actions.  After examining the tower called Can Science Save Us, a male visitor decided to add an object to the display.  He came back with the object some time later, successfully attaching it to the tower with a glue gun he had brought along.  I have no information about this visitor or the thing he added, since I learned about the incident only after the object had been removed and the tower repaired.

The second incident involved a high school student from one of our Youth Forum programs.  He had taken part through a school that is dominated by students from working-class families, and had helped with a project designed to enhance his school’s reputation.  He chose to visit the Museum several months later and brought along a friend and his friend’s son.  The three of them spent at least 30 min in The Human Factor where the student used the ecological footprint program to show his friend why he should be concerned about sustainability issues.  Student had become teacher.  This observation is exceptional partly because of the student’s background; it’s likely that he had had little to do with the Museum prior to the Youth Forum program.  He had also chosen to come to the Museum on one of the first warm days of spring, the sort of day that offers many other options for people his age.

CAF: Encourages personal reflection

Indicator: Volume and frequency of vocalizations, combined with facial expression and body language.

Feedback: People in a reflective mood tend to be quiet with a thoughtful look on their face, and deliberate in their movements.  This describes how many adults and older teenagers engage with the tower displays, including the computer games.  The noise level in The Human Factor also tends to be much lower than in the natural history dioramas.

CAF: Affirms, challenges, deepens identity

Indicator: Statements or actions that reflect personal commitment or revelation 

"Water Lady" by Fabre Pingert

"Water Lady" by Fabre Pingert

Feedback: Some of the students who developed the Our Dreams display seem to have been deeply moved by the experience.  When asked to reflect on her contributions and how she had been affected, one young woman produced the painting shown here.  She wrote, “I hadn’t really thought of making my passion, my career, my life.  This is my “Water Lady.”  One day she will speak out, one day she’ll make the difference, one day I’ll stand up…”

CAF: Contributes and/or generates new insights 

Indicator:  Statements that reflect a sense of discovery or a shift in perspective.

Feedback: After examining the Towers of Power as part of Youth Forum teachers workshop, one participant talked about seeing their students’ project in a new light.  He questioned whether “our project [is] actually going against sustainability in that what we are doing is very energy intensive.”

CAF criteria: Demonstrates relevance and makes connection to daily life.

Indicator: Comments or other responses that reflect deep emotion.

Feedback: Experiences that touch on deeply held beliefs, e.g., faith in technology, can give rise to emotional responses, both positive and negative.  Exit surveys about The Human Factor report many strong emotions, including anxiety, sadness, anger, hope, and happiness.  One visitor noted that the exhibit left him feeling like he had “a ball in my throat” while another man was moved to tears by the Our Dreams display.  Strong emotional responses are also suggested by heart-rate studies.

CAF criteria: Helps deal with complexity and uncertainty 

Indicator: High frequency of use, despite a focus on complex issues.

Feedback: The computer programs in the Towers of Power deal with complicated topics, yet they are heavily used, including one where  a step-wise story shows how over-dependence on agricultural pesticides can result in a “technology trap.”  The completion rate is well over 50%, meaning that most people who start the program see it through to the end.

Community Level

CAF: Encourages social interaction and debate

Indicator:  Frequency of in situ or post-hoc discussion about a relevant topic

Feedback: Most visitors appear to engage with the towers as individuals, but the displays also spark many in situ conversations.  I once watched a group of older women spend about 15 minutes at the towers, pointing out different objects or statements and talking to each other about the state of the world.

CAF: Links existing community groups to one another; also initiates or enhances long-term collaborative relationships

Indicator:  The number of new or ongoing partnerships associated with a given initiative

Feedback:  The Museum partnered with many local and provincial organizations to carry out Youth Forum programs, and further connections were established as the student teams worked on their action projects.  Many of the 15 partnerships associated with one of these programs involved organizations that had never worked with the Museum or each other before.

Organization Level

CAF criteria: Challenges personal and institutional assumptions

Indicator:  References to sustainability work in strategic planning activities and supporting documents 

Feedback: The development and success of The Human Factor has affected, and continues to influence Museum planning and operations.  The role of the Museum as an agent of social change was recently recognized through provincial legislation (The Royal Saskatchewan Museum Act), and the need for ongoing attention to sustainability work was identified as an organizational priority during a recent review of institutional strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT analysis). 

CAF criteria: Creates a community of learning within staff 

Indicator: Level of self-directed enquiry and professional development resources directed to sustainability work.

Feedback:  Several members of the Museum interpretive staff have examined concepts associated with The Human Factor in more detail, informing the curators about new videos and other resource material.  Curatorial staff have also been supported to attend professional development events around sustainability, including the annual conference of the International Society for Human Ecology.

Tower of Hope - screen 2Global Level

CAF criteria: Fosters public consciousness of global impacts of local choices 

Indicator: Frequency of use of local resources, especially via the internet or by networks outside the Museum community.

Feedback: The ecological footprint calculator in The Human Factor exhibit is also available on-line and is one of the most popular features of the Museum website.  The program is also used by a growing number of school teachers and distant networks, including Boards of Education in Ontario and Alberta.

Lessons Learned

Experiences with The Human Factor exhibit have shown that museums can address sustainability issues in provocative but respectful ways, and that both aspects are important.  Philosophers have concluded that industrialized consumers are partly “unconscious” – unaware that their actions are contributing to larger, accelerating problems, either because of mind-numbing advertising that equates consumerism with happiness, or because acknowledging their culpability is deeply painful, or at least unsettling.  It follows that most visitors need a wake-up call, but they also need to be treated with respect and care to ensure they feel empowered, creative, and inspired to act.

A second lesson from The Human Factor is the need for clear and ongoing communication, partly because sustainability issues are challenging at so many levels.  This was brought home by the fact that exhibits staff decided to remove the object that had been added to one of the tower displays, without consultation.  They were most likely motivated by concern for the exhibit, when this sort of public input is exactly what museums should be encouraging.  The lack of public input is a major drawback of the exhibit, in this sense.  Hopefully future efforts around sustainability will start with wide public consultation as well as pre-determined assessment strategies.

For More Details

Sutter, G. C. 2008 Promoting sustainability: audience and curatorial perspectives on The Human Factor. Curator 51:187-202.

Barrett, M. J., and G. C. Sutter. 2006. A Youth Forum on Sustainability meets The Human Factor: Challenging cultural narratives in schools and museums. Canadian Journal of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education 6:9-23.

Sutter, G. C., and D. Worts. 2005. Negotiating a sustainable path: museums and societal therapy. Pp. 129-151 in R. R. Janes and G. Conaty, eds. Looking Reality in the Eye: Museums and Social Responsibility. Univ. of Calgary Press, Calgary, AB.

Sutter, G. C. 2000. Ecocentrism, anxiety, and biophilia in environmental education: a museum case-study. In W. L. Filho, ed. Communicating Sustainability. Peter Lang Scientific Publishers, New York, NY. pp. 333-348. Sutter 2000


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