In Search of the Transformational: Evaluating Exhibitions to Enhance Museum User Experience
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The National Association for Museum Exhibition set forth the Standards for Museum Exhibitions and Indicators of Excellence. An exhibitions ability to engender a transforming experience is addressed in the Indicators of Excellence, and is assessed by emotive and personal visitor responses that indicate when personal belief systems and perspectives have been reconfigured. Assessing a successful transformational museum experience is not only difficult, but also highly variable. This research project explores four elements of exhibition development and design, at eight Pacific Northwest museums. This research project hopes to cultivate an understanding of how aesthetics, education & comprehension, emotions, and interactives/technology work together to help create transformational moments. The museums include the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (Eugene, OR), Museum of Natural and Cultural History (Eugene, OR), Portland Art Museum (Portland, OR), Oregon Historical Society (Portland, OR), Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (Portland, OR), Pacific Science Center (Seattle, WA), Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture (Seattle, WA), and the Experience Music Project (Seattle, WA). A single permanent exhibition was selected for analysis from each institution. The four exhibition development and design elements were chosen after an extensive literature review, and were highlighted as aspects of affective and effective exhibition design. Furthermore, this research project created and implemented a new evaluative questionnaire, one that departs from commonly used evaluation frameworks, which closely examines four specific elements. The eight Pacific Northwest museums were selected from four popular museum types – art, science, history, and natural history/anthropology – so that analysis between institution and across institutional type could occur. An across institution and across type analysis was elected to distill which elements were common and which were unique to institution. Furthermore, by comparing and contrasting across institutional type, trends were identified that recommended enhanced exhibition qualities, and trends were identified that hindered exhibition visits. This research project produced an original museum exhibition evaluative questionnaire, a robust collection of both qualitative and quantitative data from eight museum sites, a synthesis comparing and contrasting findings, and an interpretation which situates the findings and comparisons in relevant literature. Mixed methods techniques were employed to analyze data. Identifying the potential for transformational experiences is a complex task and a difficult conclusion to draw, in that each museum visitor will bring their own personal histories to their visit. Therefore, this study cannot conclusively determine if an exhibition will engender a transformative experience; however, this study was able to identify aspects of exhibition presentation that recommend enhanced experiences, and was also able to identify aspect of exhibition presentation that may pose obstacles to creating enhanced experiences for visitors. This study was able to conclude that orchestrating an experience for a museum visitor that combines observing, thinking, feeling, and interacting recommends not only an enhanced experience, but also a potentially transformative one.