By Emily O’Hara and Beth Krusi
From ASTC Dimensions
As a small, regional museum drawing from a small population, the Montshire Museum of Science in rural Norwich, Vermont, attracts a high proportion of repeat visitors. About 80 percent of visitors have been to the museum before, and we average 18 individual visits per membership household each year. Our reliance on repeat visitation challenges us to constantly evaluate and refine both new and existing exhibits in our 11,000-square-foot interior exhibit space and 110 acres of woodlands.
While a good exhibit engages a visitor the first time, a great exhibit can engage a visitor again and again. We design each exhibit not only to invite inquiry, inspire conversations, and challenge the mind, but also to tempt further exploration and provoke ongoing learning. We have found that the best exhibits to sustain repeat visitation offer multiple entry points and open-ended interactions, are accessible to multiple ages and knowledge levels, and are able to “grow” with our visitors.
Exhibit evaluation is at the heart of our efforts. In 2004 and 2005, with the support of the U.S. National Science Foundation, we worked with researchers from Dartmouth College Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences to record and videotape visitor interactions at our exhibits. (See www.montshire.org/dminstitute/conversations.html.) That research pointed to strategies that can enhance conversations, such as including isolated areas for some exhibits, having visitors face each other when using an exhibit, providing seating that can be comfortably used by both children and adults, and writing labels to help adults understand their role when investigating exhibits with their children. These strategies have become a standard part of our exhibit design process.
During the creation of new exhibits, prototyping is done early and often. Our status as a small museum gives us an advantage, as repeat visitors are eager to be involved. Our volunteer explainers and front desk staff report that visitors point to finished exhibits and express pride that they helped in their creation.
To evaluate existing exhibits, we use simple observation and short interviews. For example, we observed that the “feeding chamber” in our Leafcutter Ant colony was inspiring many visitor conversations. We plan to further encourage conversations by doubling the chamber’s size to allow multiple visitors to view it simultaneously.
Our commitment to serving our rural community has inspired us to continually improve our exhibits, ensuring that they engage our repeat visitors and enhance their museum experience.
Emily O’Hara is education associate and marketing assistant and Beth Krusi is director of marketing and communications at the Montshire Museum of Science, Norwich, Vermont.
About the image: AirMaze is part of the AirPlay exhibition, which was designed, prototyped, and fabricated by the Montshire Museum. Photo courtesy the Montshire Museum of Science