The area of museum exhibition evaluation is one that has gained some prominence in the past decade. There is now a sizable amount of information in the literature about the why and how of evaluation. It is not the intent of this chapter to attempt to cover all of the information now available on exhibition evaluation. Rather, it is intended as an overview or introduction to the rationale and use of evaluation as it relates to museum exhibitions in general. To evaluate is to rate or measure something. To evaluate exhibitions is to question their effectiveness and to learn from their successes and failures. Learning and growing involve a continual process of evaluating, and consciously or not, every exhibit planner is involved in evaluating the products. Yet, deliberate evaluation is often neglected in exhibition planning. In fact, many museums make no provision for gathering evidence as to whether their exhibition efforts are successful or not. Whether they accomplish their goals is an unknown quantity, subject to supposition rather than supportable evidence. For some organizations, lack of interest may be a factor. For others, ignorance or willful denial are causative agents. Some exhibit developers have the attitude that exhibition content, design, planning, and presentation are the exclusive domain of museum professionals, not to be diluted or corrupted by outside input or undue scrutiny. In the past that attitude has fostered a sort of benign dictatorship over the public exhibitions in museums. Exhibitions created against such a backdrop are characterized by the idea that professional, inhouse curators, designers, and administrators somehow know what is suitable and appropriate for the public without the benefit of feedback from the intended audience. In the last two or three decades, museums have been classified as “leisure-time activities,” while still retaining an identity as intellectual centers. Museums now compete for a share of the public attention with non-intellectual establishments like shopping malls, cinemas, sporting events, and other such popular institutions and activities. Educational pursuits are not always viewed as enjoyable or desirable by the leisure-seeking populace. To offset the somewhat stilted reputation that museums possess in the public mind, they have had to look to self-studies and
marketing strategies to help identify ways to make their products more palatable and attractive. It has become clear that serving the needs and desires of the public is necessary for maintaining a viable position in modern society. Improving the appeal of the museum experience without sacrificing its intellectual integrity has replaced an elitist, academic attitude for many institutions. While presenting problems of maintaining institutional standards when carried too far, this need for leisure-time allure has its positive side. Competition has forced the museum community to seriously reassess the relevance of what it believes and does in relation to a modern world.