THree ways to get your work out of your office
In my last post I talked about some of the challenges, rewards, and questions that arise when public historians engage in community-based projects. This time I’m back to talk about project evaluation and to offer some specific strategies I used to get my work out of the office and gauge public response.
After a museum puts on an exhibition or event, evaluation is important to determine whether or not it was successful and why. How did the audience respond to the materials? Did they learn the big idea the exhibit was designed to convey? This input is invaluable for future planning, but it is only one of several kinds of evaluation. Acclaimed museologist Beverly Serrell outlines four distinct types of evaluation in museums:
- Front-end evaluation – takes place during the initial planning process, establishes the “base line” of audience knowledge and provides a platform for exhibition planners to begin from.
- Formative evaluation – takes place after the exhibit design is underway, particularly to test the effectiveness of didactics and interactive components.
- Critical review/remedial evaluation – establishes any components needing immediate alterations after the exhibit opens.
- Summative evaluation – assesses use of the exhibit and reflects on the exhibit’s impact.
(Please visit the website of Serrell’s business, Serrell and Associates, for further details.) Although my work at NORDIK did not take place in a museum, these types of evaluation were still necessary – in fact, they were vital to the success of the Animating the John Rowswell Hub Trail project. I was especially involved in what would be the equivalent of the formative evaluation process, where various methods were used to gauge public response and to assess the trajectory of the project. Three methods worked particularly well together in allowing us to engage the public and community partners at multiple levels: individual consultations; focus groups/product testing; and project-wide meetings.
Strategy 1: Individual Consultations
Individual consultations are helpful in cases where a project develops content about a specific organization or group. These meetings ensure that project partners are satisfied with material of immediate relevance to them. Any changes that are deemed necessary can then be easily discussed and incorporated into the ongoing editing process, ensuring that the final product conforms to the shared vision of the project team and the greater community.
Strategy 2: Focus Groups and Product Testing
Focus groups gather representatives of target audiences together to evaluate mock-ups of final project materials. Participants can be found through word of mouth, snowball sampling, or even advertising. While at NORDIK I assisted in leading an early childhood educators focus group, a boards of education focus group, a families focus group, and an Indigenous Advisory focus group. Thoughtful questions, interactive and individual activities (read: lots of sticky notes, paper, and markers), and open discussions are tremendously useful in ascertaining the core values of each target audience. Focus groups reveal what is important to the community, brings the current successes and downfalls of the project to the surface, and helps to generate buy-in from the public.
Strategy 3: Project-wide Meetings
At key points in the project’s timeline, project-wide meetings were arranged to discuss progress to the entire body of community partners. In large-scale community projects, these updates are useful ways to inform partners of the trajectory of the project as a whole. This is especially true if individual consultations are concerned with only a small portion of the entire project. Such presentations and meetings are opportunities for project partners to appreciate their role in the big picture, to ask questions of the project team and other partners, and to encourage enthusiasm for the final results.
Presuming that your project has secured funding and is already underway, the above strategies are useful ways to assess your progress and establish next steps. However, follow-up is just as important as the evaluation itself, as it solidifies mutually beneficial partnerships between the project/organization and the greater community which is being consulted. Open lines of communication ensure a sense of transparency, especially if areas needing improvement have been identified. We all want to feel like our feedback is being acknowledged. The public deserves to know that they are being heard and being taken seriously. Remember that your work is not only yours. If that’s the case, your project is well on its way to successfully realizing a community-driven result. What activities and evaluation methods are most effective for you?