Leaping over crocodiles

Evaluation, can it work? … I think it can

I have worked for several years as a museum evaluator for Renaissance East of England, Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service and as a freelancer. I started with a distinctly academic approach, having studied an MSc in Research Methods and was often surprised at what passed as hard evidence in the museum sector– even in studies commissioned from professional researchers. Research or evaluation reports can make poor use of existing theory and literature, may contain only minimal explanations about approaches to sampling, data collection and data analysis and, when making claims from numerical data, do not always use of appropriate statistical methods.

There is, therefore, a case for improved skills around evaluation in museums, especially in critically evaluating and reviewing research. This way we can be more demanding when commissioning research and more proactive in using what evidence is already out there.  A further issue with evaluation in the sector is that it often leans towards advocacy and has an emphasis on demonstrating success rather than identifying what can be built on and improved. The reasons for this are understandable as museums are not a statutory service and are often focussed on making a case for their own worth.  The issue, however, is not just the quality of the evaluation, but about how it is able to influence practice.

Does evaluation make a difference?

This is a thorny issue and, in the past, I have felt that the gap between a formal research report and its implementation might as well be a leap over a crevasse filled with hungry crocodiles.

Nile Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus), Norwich Castle Natural History Collection

I have begun to realise that the word ‘evaluation’ has different meanings and that there are different levels of evaluation, from formal research studies to what might better be termed ‘reflective practice’.  When looking for evidence that evaluation makes a difference, the focus is often on the big decisions and on matters of policy – but what about the smaller things that affect our everyday service delivery?

How evaluation is implemented will depend on its ‘level’. When an individual is involved in evaluating their own work, or has a distinct connection to it, they often have the power to make the changes they deem necessary first-hand. On the other hand, where the evaluation concerns structures, policy or a number of stakeholders, implementing change is more complicated and the level of ‘proof’ needed to persuade an organisation to change is higher. Therefore, when planning evaluation, we should start with the organisation’s structure and ask ourselves in each case ‘How will the decisions be made here?’ and ‘What is the level of proof needed to instigate change?’

When it comes to getting research findings implemented, I have had a lot to learn in my own approach. By and large, staff are too overloaded to be interested in the nuances, caveats and methods of an evaluation – preferring concrete recommendations or clearly defined concepts. Working in this way can take some nerve, because it involves sticking your neck out and making judgements, and as an evaluator you are all too aware of the limitations of your data. It is also important to find a number of ways of getting the evaluation findings across, and nothing’s better than getting out there and talking to people, whether informally or formally. . Doing evaluation is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to bringing about change. Evaluation needs ‘embedding’ within systems – this might mean involving the evaluator in a project team, ensuring there are built-in cycles of service review, or having a clearly laid-out process for implementing evaluation findings.

So where is my evidence that evaluation can work?  When writing this blog I asked around our organisation for examples of how evaluation had been used – here is my evidence.

School children enjoying a trip to Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth

‘I always try to speak to the lead teacher during an event so I can gauge how an event is working and will actively ask for an honest (not just pleasing) evaluation. Often, I find that with written evaluations people are reluctant to criticise or reflect on what could be improved. My fear is that if the event didn’t work, the school might not tell us and simply not book again. We also always hand out evaluation forms, most of which are returned completed. In either case, when we receive comments which indicate something is amiss, we will contact the teacher direct and either explain why x,y or z happened, or ask for ideas to improve whatever didn’t work. This follow -up is essential because the teachers feel that their comments are valued. ,They become part of the planning process and are more likely to book with us again.   Over the years, our evaluation and assessment procedures have enabled me to build up good working relationships with local teachers and our events have benefited from this process.’  PD: Time and Tide Museum.

‘When I first started running events in the Norwich Castle Study Centre, I had a very small budget for marketing.  I imagine this is how a lot of smaller museums find themselves.  I did a basic feedback form for the first ten or so events, asking people how they found out about the event as well as how much they enjoyed it etc.  The information about how much they enjoyed it was pretty much useless in a way, because I just had 60 people telling me they enjoyed it!  Which is, of course, great, but it didn’t help me change anything.  The evaluation was far more useful for targeted marketing as we were quickly able to see what worked  (whether people found out about the event from the local paper or e-postcards).  In the end I saved a lot of money on flyers and it meant that when we were arguing for support from marketing, we were able to advocate those services.  So I suppose the moral of that story is to only ask questions where you care what the answer is, and that you can use the results from….I think the most powerful and immediate evaluation is probably verbal.  It is so informal, that we often overlook it.  I have realised this from working with the public on a daily basis.  Every time someone asks a question about what we do, or why something is the way it is, or enquire about information, you sub-consciously make a note to ensure that information is available in future – whether you include it in a tour, change a bit of text, or raise it yourself as a question.  So I suppose that comment is about having an attitude which seeks feedback and investigates it.’ RB: Norwich Castle Study Centre

‘A great example of how audience data has changed a museum in Great Yarmouth is when we did some mapping of how visitors moved through galleries before we did any redisplay work. I compiled a floor plan and gave this to the Front of House Team. I then asked them to map ten visitor movements per day for three weeks. Using the results of this data (as well as written feedback) it seemed that a high percentage of visitors used part of one gallery as a corridor, walking straight through rather than looking in some half-bays to one side.  When we were designing the new gallery plans, this data gave me the ability to persuade staff  that we should break up the long corridor space by adding an extra wall and enhance the interpretation – this made the new Romans gallery more of an individual statement space rather than just part of a bigger room.’  JO: Time and Tide Museum

‘The repeated requests for a guide book in the visitor book enabled us to make a good case for this – and we now have a lovely inexpensive souvenir guide. I regularly look at the ‘What could we improve section’ of the visitor book to check we’re not missing anything or to pick out and rectify anything that has obviously gone ‘pear-shaped.’  CT: Strangers Hall

‘Evaluation is very important to the way I work as an individual, and I encourage my team to do likewise.  I rely on feedback forms primarily, but also other sources like ‘Trip advisor’.  I use evaluation to find out if there is a problem, and if so I’ll sort it out right away. As a manager I always read all feedback as it helps me keep up to date with what’s going on.’  CM: Norwich Castle

I have come to the conclusion that, for evaluation to work, you need both the will and the way:

  • A genuine desire to use evidence and a culture that is open to change
  • Systems for embedding the use of evidence within planning and decision-making cycles.

Evaluation is deeply linked to organisational change and should be an ingredient in the cake, rather than the icing.. So, happy cake making, and good luck leaping over those crocodiles!’

Author | Amanda Burke, Evaluation OfficerAmanda.burke@norfolk.gov.uk / 01603 493657

Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service. 

Image courtesy of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service

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