MUSEUM THEATRE EVALUATION: A Fascinating and Frustrating Challege

17 Mar 2015 9:30 AM | Douglas Coler (Administrator)
(Another in our series of INSIGHTS articles. This one was published in INSIGHTS, Volume 17, Number 3, Fall 2007)

By Catherine Hughes

The following is a synthesis of findings about museum theatre from existent evaluation and research reports. These reports (primarily internal, qualitative and naturalistic, using surveys, interviews, and tracking and observation) have helped clarify and define what “museum theatre” is, but more work needs to be done in the research and evaluation of museum theatre. Though those working in this field might agree that museum theatre has a powerful effect on visitors, we lack a substantial body of data to support these assumptions. This is a call to substantiate our claims with research, and move reports toward publication in professional journals.

Resoundingly, visitors responded positively to pioneering museum theatre efforts.

These early evaluations found that theatre programs have the power to attract visitors, as well as keep them watching. Of those who saw the National Museum of American History’s play, Buyin’ Freedom, 25 % stayed to ask questions of the actors (Munley,1993). A visitor tracking study (Cuomo & Hein, 1994) found that visitors stayed in an
exhibition on bogs longer when the play was being performed, whether they appeared to be watching it or not. Later in follow-up phone interviews, 35 % of respondents mentioned remembering the play most clearly. So, whether they were aware of the playas they visited the exhibition, or sat and watched the entire performance, the play itself
became a part of their memory. More than one study found that visitors were provoked to return to an exhibition following a play, and were observed discussing artifacts in relation to the play.

In an evaluation of all its interpretive programming (volunteer carts and stage shows), the Minnesota History Center (Litwak & Cutting, 1996) found that visitors were significantly more likely to stop at stage shows than carts.

The Science Museum in London (Bicknell & Mazda, 1993) found that 83% of visitors surveyed said they spent more time in an exhibition because of a gallery character performance. This study determined that children were highly attracted to performances,which had the effect of allowing a socially acceptable means of access for many adults.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization underwent an evaluation of its drama program (Rubenstein & Needham, 1993) and found that Ninety-five percent of those surveyed felt that the live interpretation enhanced their visit, with 45 % specifying that the performances brought the museum or history to life.

Collectively, what is documented in these evaluations is positive response that translated into more time spent in a particular exhibit area, and by inference it can be posited, more time spent considering the subject of the exhibition. A pre/post-test study of visitors to “Treasures of the Tarpits” at the Museum of Science in Boston documented
that visitor behavior changed in beneficial ways for learning in response to performances (Baum & Hughes, 2001). People slowed down, re-examined, and conversed.

Furthermore, many visitors also expressed a self-perception of learning. They felt they had learned.

A triangulated, qualitative study (Black & Goldowsky, 1999) of 745 students from school groups in grades 6-12 who saw a play about the social and ethical implications about the Human Genome Project, went beneath the surface of positive or negative response, investigating to what extent students might be able to reason about the implications of this scientific endeavor. They were also interested in how conflict
between the characters in the play affected the students’ experience. This study had a wider scope as a piece of research rather than pure evaluation. In an open-ended post-performance survey question, 87 % of the students were able to articulate how the Human Genome Project might affect their lives or the lives of others. This was a 59 % increase from the pre-performance survey. Connecting the science to personal experience was echoed in interviews with students. Conflict in the play allowed for different perspectives to be heard. It also made it more realistic for some. The realism evoked through conflict provides a potential avenue for emotional response. If the students found the conflict believable, they might be more apt to identify with one of the characters and feel empathetic toward them. This study supports the notion that performances are appropriate vehicles for presenting complex, controversial subject matter to students.

At the University of Manchester, the Performance, Learning and 'Heritage' project team is engaged in a three-year study that has included data collection from four museums /historic sites. The methods they are using to collect data include filming audiences, observation, focus groups, short interviews, and follow up interviews. One aspect of this project that surpasses most previous studies is its longitudinal reach. They
have been talking with visitors nine months after seeing performances. Consequently,their findings will hold long-term ramifications. It will be exciting to see what theydiscover. Dissemination of the final report will occur at a conference in April 2008 and through their website:

My own qualitative study of performances in museums focused on how visitors made meaning from performances and whether their orientation toward a performance in a museum, for enjoyment or for educational purposes, influenced their experience. In the summer and fall of 2006, I collected data following performances at the Kentucky History Center in Frankfort, KY and the Museum of Science in Boston, MA, In all, I
have data from 198 pre-show surveys, 163 post-performance surveys, 15 post-performance focus group interviews, and 35 follow-up interviews four to five months post-performance. In addition, I interviewed the producers, writers and actors of these performances about their goals and objectives. I am presently finishing preliminary analysis.

Museum theatre is a fascinating and frustrating subject of research. Fascinating in how visitors react – emotionally, provocatively, with animation and awe. People express surprise, shock, offense, stimulation, but rarely indifference. It is frustrating in its ethereal qualities that are so difficult to capture into words. It is similarly frustrating to measure
such qualities quantifiably. However, the struggle to capture it is necessary in order to fulfill museum theatre’s potential and to continue to expand the field.


Baum, L. & Hughes, C. (2001). Ten Years of Evaluating Science Theater at the Museum of Science, Boston. Curator 44(4): 355-369.

Bicknell, S. & Mazda, X. (1993). Enlightening or Embarrassing: An evaluation of drama in the Science Museum. London: National Museum of Science and Industry.

Black, D. and A. Goldowsky. “Science Theater as an Interpretive Technique in a Science Museum.” Presented at the meeting of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching, Boston, Mass.: March 1999.

Cuomo, S. & Hein, G. (1994). Mysteries of the Bog evaluation report. Cambridge, MA: Program Evaluation and Research Group, Lesley University.

Litwak, J.M. & Cutting, A. (1996). Evaluation of Interpretive Programming. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota History Center.

Munley, M. (1982/1993). Buyin’ Freedom. In C. Hughes (Ed.). Perspectives on Museum Theatre (pp. 69-94). Washington, DC: American Association of Museums.

Rubenstein, R & Needham, H. (1993). Evaluation of the live interpretation program at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. In C. Hughes (Ed.). Perspectives on Museum Theatre (pp. 905-142). Washington, DC: American Association of Museums.

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