Report Symposium Exhibitions Examined – the value and challenges of visitor research in science museums

Date: May 10, 2023

Location: Naturalis Biodiversity Center

Number of attendees: 50

On May 10, 2023, the auditorium of Naturalis Biodiversity Center was filled with science museum professionals, researchers, exhibition developers, students and other interested people to talk about visitor research in science museums. This symposium was organized by the department Science Communication & Society of Leiden University, together with the VSC (Association of Science museums and science centers in the Netherlands), Naturalis Biodiversity Center, SciCom NL (association for any one with a story about science), and co-sponsored by NeFCA. The focus of the symposium was on how visitor research can inform practice in Dutch science museums and how we can organize this even better in the Netherlands.

We started the symposium off with a speaker from Germany, Inga Specht. She is the head of the department of Visitor and Educational Research of LIB, Museum Koenig in Bonn. The first part of her presentation outlined how Museum Koenig has embraced visitor and educational research and started their own in-house department for it. In the museum, Inga’s department can perform visitor structure surveys regularly to know who is visiting the museum. They can also perform front-end, formative and summative evaluations throughout the development of educational programs and exhibitions, in collaboration with the dedicated departments. And third, Inga would like to focus on more in-depth educational research as well, to learn more about the learning experience of the visitors.

In the second part of Inga’s presentation, she focused on how research in science museums is organized and supported in Germany. She pointed out that although the situation is a bit fragmented, there are some interesting broader efforts that form puzzle pieces. There are several museums that have had visitor research departments and efforts for years. But there are also associations and institutions such as the Center of Excellence for Museum Education of the Leibniz Association that provides a research collaboration and funding for research in museums. For example, they organize a regular visitor structure survey among all Leibniz research museums. Inga suggested that in the Netherlands as well, we should look at where the puzzle pieces already are and how we can connect them. Often it starts with a group of excited people.

The second speaker of the afternoon was Anne Land. She is an assistant professor at Science Communication & Society at Leiden University. She presented the research collaboration between her department and the educational department of Naturalis. This collaboration started in 2016 and has resulted in several research studies about the role of authentic objects in science museums. She presented a few of the research outcomes such as how children interpret the authenticity of dinosaur fossils and replica’s and how families can be sparked to get into a conversation about an object through asking them the right question. Anne also reflected on the research collaboration itself. It’s important to find common ground, flexibility and mutual commitment. And a bit of luck helps as well.

The last presentation of the symposium was delivered by Rooske Franse and Lizzy Bakker from NEMO Science Museum. They presented about another way of conducting research in a science museum. At NEMO, Rooske Franse is a project manager as well as a researcher. Together with endowed professor Maartje Raijmakers she is doing educational research at the museum which in turn informs the development of new exhibitions. In particular, her research about different dimensions of interest in medical research informed an area of the exhibition about Future Health in NEMO Studio. The advantage of having the researcher as a colleague was that throughout different iterations of the exhibition development, Lizzy and Rooske could brainstorm about how the research outcomes could inform practice. Of course they also experienced some challenges such as parallel planning of the research and the exhibition development.

After the three presentations, Anne Land provided some tips and tricks to get started implementing research into practice such as journals you could consult for open access articles, repositories of evaluation and research outcomes and ways to start small with conducting your own visitor research. Finally, there was time for the audience to become part of the conversation as well. We discussed ways and places to find funding for this kind of research; experiences with visitor research in different museums; and future ways to be updated about research outcomes in a low key way. Overall, participants of the symposium seemed excited to take a step in incorporating research in their science museum practice. We are hoping to continue the conversation.