Listening to the visitors every step of the way is critical to exhibit development. Our success has convinced us to never do it any other way. Don’t assume you know what’s best for the visitors. Let them tell you. Letting the visitors decide eliminates a lot of interdepartmental debates and testing ideas with the visitors is very freeing. Instead of getting too invested in any one idea or arguing over whose idea is better, just ask the visitors what they think.
Our experience: Object theater
“After a successful summer of testing in which all staff recognized the value of family feedback on exhibit elements as early as possible in the exhibit process, in late 2005 the exhibition team began developing the second round of prototypes. To interpret the battle experience of sailors in 1812, the team decided that an object-theater audio-visual presentation would be compelling. Members of the exhibition team developed a script using quotes of sailors from 1812; however, some of the language in the quotations was arcane and graphic. How to decide what is appropriate? No one on the team wanted to minimize the impact of battle, nor traumatize our younger audiences, so we decided to test that aspect of the exhibition also.”
“Our staff recorded the proposed script around the conference table and the exhibition team added images to make a simple power point version of the experience. One wintry Saturday morning the exhibition team asked a number of family visitors for a few minutes of their time in exchange for hot chocolate and a postcard. We showed families our mocked-up presentation and interviewed them. Speaking with children demonstrated that in context even 6 year-olds understand the 19th century language. Parents told us that they were more comfortable with the level of violence for younger children than we anticipated. [Visitors also told us that they preferred the quotes because it felt more authentic.] In a few hours we found answers to questions that could have stymied script development, resulted in self-censorship, and led to staff disagreements over the proper tone.”
— Laughing & Learning Together: From Theory & Research to Practice & Policy at the USS Constitution Museum. History News 2007