Working on a team of evaluators to observe a child as he or she explores an exhibition was a new and exciting experience for me. I had the opportunity to try it out as part of my internship with the Minnesota Historical Society.

Like an ethnographer, I observed children’s behaviors, expressions, interactions with others, and reactions to exhibits including Then Now Wow, an interactive, story-driven exhibit designed specifically for school-aged children (read why the exhibit received an AASLH Award of Merit last year).

MHS Exhibit

We used a rubric to check behaviors we observed and measure the children’s level of engagement. We also made notes about their conversations, reactions and interactions and concluded with a quick interview.

Different from other data collection methods, such as surveys, observation provides evaluators with direct access to the subject and offers the opportunity to note nuances that might otherwise be overlooked.

And, instead of relying on self-reporting, such as asking people to fill out a survey or posing questions about how they might feel or what they might do in a certain situation, observers actually see, record and analyze what subjects actually do and how they do it. This provides evaluators with an abundance of information.

As with all methods of evaluation, there are drawbacks to observation. For example, the presence of observers is likely to influence the behaviors of the people who are being observed which is known as the Hawthorne or observer effect.

Another issue is subjective bias on the part of the observer meaning that the observation record and analysis are influenced by the observer’s knowledge, values and background. Such subjectivity could undermine the reliability and validity of the data collected.

Does your museum or site use observation to help with exhibit evaluation? If not, you might give it a try. If you have used it, did you find it helpful?

Here are a few helpful resources if you would like to learn more about observation:

Ariel Jiang recently completed an internship with the Minnesota Historical Society as part of her graduate studies at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, where she studied public policy and program evaluation.