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  • Writer's pictureLondon Museums Group Team

Golden Rules | Evaluating Evaluation

I’m quite new to the world of evaluation. When I went part-time at the Museums Association a few years ago, as well as becoming a partner in the Museum Consultancy, one of the people I hooked up with was Christian Heath at King’s College London. We were both surprised that in spite of the millions spent on summative evaluation, it seems to have had a rather limited impact on practice. We wanted to find out why – and we wanted to find out what evaluations could tell museums generally about making engaging visitor experiences.

We devised a project called Evaluating Evaluation and raised some money to do it from two of the main funders of museum evaluation: the Wellcome Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund. You can read a little more here.

We’ve spent much of 2012 immersed in evaluations, mainly of permanent displays in museums and galleries, with a few from science centres and historic buildings. I soon came across Eric Jensen from Warwick University, a man on a mission running a series of seminarsto encourage evaluators to use more rigorous methodologies.

And, at first, I thought that the reasons why evaluations weren’t better shared and compared was because of methodological problems. But, as the Evaluating Evaluation investigation progressed it became clear that even if all evaluations used perfect social science methods they still wouldn’t have a huge impact.

As Nicky Boyd says, there are institutional and organisational issues that prevent evaluation being shared and used to its full extent. Evaluators often come from outside the museum, or have a relatively marginal role inside it, and so do not have a big influence; project teams disperse after completing their work, their knowledge often disperses, too; few museums have proper systems for recording the findings of evaluations and feeding their lessons into future work [although some, such as the British Museum, do]; in the case of summative evaluations of permanent displays, which we focused on, it’s often simply impractical to make remedial changes to a complex gallery.

As our project got started, some evaluators got in touch and told us how dissatisfied they are with the way some museums approach evaluation. They feel museums often prepare lousy briefs, expect far too much for the available fee, have little idea what they are going to do with the evaluation once complete and confuse evaluation with advocacy.

This latter point is crucial. I think summative evaluation can be expected to play four conflicting roles. First is the role we’d all say is the most important: to help the project team learn from their work and improve their future practice.

Second, the similar but subtly different role of supporting learning beyond the project team, or in the wider sector. Here, the fear mentioned by Nicky Boyd comes into play. Project teams can be reluctant to expose their failures – sometimes even within the institution they work for.

Third, most summative evaluation comes at the end of an externally funded project and is a funder’s requirement. There’s a real risk that this confuses evaluation with the funder’s systems for monitoring and accountability. Unless the funder and the museum have a very trusting relationship, it’s likely that the evaluation will be under pressure to ‘prove’ to the funder that the museum met all its objectives.

Finally, in similar vein, some museums don’t want evaluation at all – they just want good news that they can use for advocacy.

I fear that because of the organisational issues, it will be hard for the sector to move to a position where it can realise all the potential benefits from summative evaluation. [I should stress that our focus has been on summative evaluation; the problems seem fewer, and the benefits easier to realise, in the case of front-end and formative evaluation.]

After reading dozens of summative evaluation reports I have to say that my main feeling is one of disappointment that they actually tell us rather little about what visitors actually experience. There’s lots and lots of information in summative evaluations, much of it very interesting, but little of it seems actually that useful beyond the museum that commissioned it – and in some cases it might not in fact be that useful even there.

Sorry to say, if we’re looking for ‘golden rules’ about how to create great museum displays, I don’t think we’ll find them in summative evaluations. [It may be, of course, that the golden rules in fact don’t exist.]

Some evaluators have suggested that museums might move slightly away from summative evaluation towards purer audience research. Perhaps, for example, a group of museums could jointly align all the evaluations they commission to address a consistent set of research questions. Then, over time, comparable data would build up and we might gain some solid empirical evidence about how to better engage our audiences.

Author | Maurice Davies is a visiting senior research fellow in the Department of Management at King’s College London, a partner in the Museum Consultancy and Head of Policy and Communication at the Museums Association


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