When I first arrived in Australia, my sister jokingly asked me what the future was like. Coming from America is a bit like time travelling: I left on a Sunday and arrived on a Tuesday – et voila – I’ve been permanently one day ahead of the States since. When I talk to family back home, they offer updates on time that, for me, has already been crossed off the calendar.
What I have discovered in my internship is that the Australian Museum is actually living in the future, in respect to the way evaluation is approached. I have seen a positive attitude towards audience research that permeates the nooks and crannies of Australia’s oldest museum. I have seen evaluation embraced by different departments, and integrated into the planning and evolution of educational initiatives, exhibition design, and public programs.
In contrast, while audience research is beginning to grow in America, I believe it still needs a lot of support and encouragement. In America, I have observed that a fair amount of museum professionals are wary of evaluation because they’re afraid of results that tell them they are doing something wrong or that they failed to achieve their intended impacts. There is still a feeling that evaluation is some hulking beast, lurking just under the surface of a billabong, waiting for the right opportunity to burst forth with its yawning maw.
Many American museums are hesitating, waiting to see if the water is safe, not quite ready to trust that evaluation can work for them.
What I have learned from the Australian Museum is that evaluation is nothing to fear; rather, it is a healthy, productive part of improving practices and an excellent way to learn what your audiences want. It should be embraced and recognized as the thing it can be: a vital tool for institutions that have pledged to serve the public.
So now, as I travel back in time to America, I bring with me more than just my luggage, stuffed to the gills with plush reptilian creatures. I carry back a glimpse of the future of evaluation in American museums. And for that, most of all, I am grateful.
I want to thank the Australian Museum for having me and for allowing me invaluable opportunities to observe, absorb, and learn. Thank you to all the staff here for taking an interest in my questions and giving me chances to experiment. Thank you to the Web Team, Jen, Michael, and Russ: your can-do attitude towards technology makes my little heart tweet. Thank you to fellow audience researcher Chris Lang, for sharing your knowledge and tolerating my tagging along. And last but not least, thank you to Lynda Kelly, for making it all possible by inviting me into the process and lending your considerable expertise. I can only hope that one day I will be able to work with you all again in some capacity.