guest post: exploring the three Es: exhibitions, evaluation and education

Today’s post for Emerging Museum Professionals Week is brought to you by Juliana Olsson (@julipants). See other posts in the series here.

My name’s Juliana Olsson but most people call me Juli, hence the name of my blog, “The Juli Theory”, where I talk all about my various museum experiences among other things. I’ve always loved museums, especially ones on science and natural history, but even after working in a museum specimen prep lab, I never realized I could make it my career. When I finally did meet a museum studies grad student and she explained that yes, it was a real field of study, I decided to pursue Museum Studies as a way of combining my love of science, art and education (I received my undergrad BA in Film and Biology from UC Berkeley). Along the way, I’ve discovered all sorts of fun fields like exhibition design, internet strategies for museums, and evaluation techniques. I’ve just completed my masters through Johns Hopkins University, and can’t wait to get started! You can find me at my blog, follow me on twitter, or email me at Or hey, come find me at AAM!

When I finished my museum studies masters programs still feeling positive and energized about the museum field, I took it as a sign that I had truly found my calling. “If grad school can’t turn me off this path, nothing can.” Through my courses, internships, readings and discussions with fellow classmates, I saw a world of opportunities — new technologies and practices to implement, increased community collaborations, you name it. I was (am) still passionate about museums as venues for science education, but no longer had my initial naive excitement. I’d learned more about my own strengths and interests, particularly in what I call the three Es: Exhibitions, Evaluation and Education. I felt ready to put myself to use.

Well, grad school may have fueled my passion but the job search has dampened it somewhat. In some ways, my frustrations have strengthened my desire to pursue science education in a museum setting. I can get pretty competitive, and want to succeed at finding a museum job. At the same time, I’m left wondering how on earth I’m ever going to get started.

Let’s start with the first of the three Es: Exhibitions

I think everyone has a strong memory of an exhibit they visited as a child. When we think of museums, we think of exhibitions first; programs, development, all of the other stuff comes later. So it makes sense that if you want to educate the majority of visitors (especially the ones who just come once and don’t attend special programs) you have to put a good amount of effort into exhibits. In addition to being a biology major, I was a film major, and love the artistic aspect of exhibitions, their production values, and the way they can transport you to a new world. I’ve helped create temporary, spontaneous exhibits in the past, and developed an exhibition plan as part of a semester-long group project, but I don’t have the woodworking, welding, lighting, architecture, and CAD and 3-D scanning skills, nor do I know how to install HVAC systems. These are the skills exhibit design departments and firms look for.

Now, label writing is incredibly important, especially from an education standpoint, and though I have the content writing experience, there don’t seem to be any openings (that I can find) in that area. Now, I recognize the need for individuals with highly specialized skill sets in the exhibition design field. I am probably never going to be one of those individuals, and I’m fine with that, but I would still love to work with them to develop something amazing, something that people remember. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find out where I would fit in the exhibition creation process. I know there are content writers and exhibit managers, but I have yet to see a job posting for that kind of work.

So, on to the second E: Evaluation

Right after my exhibition strategies course, where I learned all that goes into developing an exhibition, I took a course on evaluation in museums that changed my way of thinking about museums. I spent a semester evaluating the Nashville Zoo’s “Unseen New World” exhibition to find out a) how well the conservation messages were being communicated, b) what visitors were learning and c) why were they understanding what they reported to. I saw firsthand how things like signage placement, space and flow, multimedia placement and label design affected the visitor experience, and I made suggestions for improvements.

The next semester, I evaluated the live animal show program at the Zoo, and again used the data to suggest changes for the next season’s shows. One of the things I liked best about evaluations was the thrill of coming up with a good evaluation tool, one that helps you answer the question you’re most interested in. In some ways it’s like coming up with a hypothesis and then a really great, simple way of testing it. I didn’t think that scientific research was for me (partly because I couldn’t decide on a specific field), but museum evaluations provided the mental challenge I’d been missing since my biology undergrad days.

Another perk was that you get to work with people and study their behavior; one of the reasons I pursued museum studies and not science illustration is that I wanted to interact with people. Finally, evaluations can actually help improve the visitor experience. This seemed like the perfect way to get involved with exhibits and even education programs, so I threw myself into it with gusto. I had a great internship experience designing and conducting my own evaluations, and even helped the zoo staff develop their own evaluation tools they could use in the future. Since my internship ended, though, I’ve run into difficulty finding a full-time evaluation position. Some museums (ex: Science Museum of Minnesota) have in-house evaluation teams, and there are entire evaluation firms (ex: Randi Korn and Associates), so the best I can do for now is to keep checking in for an opening.

Ok, now to the last E, the one that’s hardest to talk about. It’s the most frustrating of the three Es, and also happens to be the one that led me to museums in the first place: Education.

I loved learning about science, in fact I still do. Now that I’m no longer in school, I turn to podcasts, books and museums, and I feel so lucky to have those resources. Then I think about all the people who don’t have access to these options, or don’t think they do, or just think they wouldn’t be interested. I want to spread the joy of science, and share with others the opportunities and experiences I’ve been lucky to have. You hear a lot about how our children are woefully weak in the STEM fields, and how other nations will out-compete them for jobs. That’s certainly something to be worried about, and we absolutely should rally resources to the cause — resources like our schools and extra-curricular activities like museum programs.

However, I’m less worried about creating future job-holders, and am more worried about having informed citizens who can weigh the evidence to make sound choices. Schools are great for teaching facts in-depth, but museums are excellent at giving people a new lens through which to view the world. Science and natural history museums, zoos and aquariums, aren’t just for kids, they should be for adults, and not just parents accompanying their children. I’d never suggest that museums should stop inspiring children to pursue or at least appreciate science; however, I do think the adult population has been neglected, which is a shame since they don’t have many other resources to explore scientific topics (they’re no longer in school, and there are no summer camps or science fairs for them).

There are plenty of new tools for outreach, especially when it comes to the mobile web, and lots of museums are experimenting with citizen science and other community partnerships. I’d also like to think that my enthusiasm and my background in both science and in museums (including museum education courses) would be of use to museum education programs. So far though, I’m running into a catch-22: all museum education jobs I’ve seen require anywhere from 1 to 5 years of K-12 STEM-teaching experience, but the reason I went into museums was to avoid the K-12 system. Without experience, you can’t get hired, but if you don’t get hired, you’ll never get experience.

When I think about it further, I wonder if requiring people with a K-12 background is a wholly good idea. It’s absolutely necessary to have someone on staff who understands the public school system and classroom curricula, but aren’t museums supposed to be free-choice learning centers, so shouldn’t there be more emphasis on coming up with alternative educational practices, and not just staying in keeping with the curriculums that are out there? Why would you want everyone in your education department to have the same background, wouldn’t you want to cover a spectrum of different learning styles?

I haven’t given up on the three Es, so I can only hope you’ll be hearing more from me in the future.

FREE STUFF: Leave a comment on any of the posts during EMP Week (April 16 -20, 2012) to be eligible to win a copy of How to Become A Nonprofit Rockstar: 50 Ways to Accelerate Your Career by Rosetta Thurman and Trista Harris.The winner will be randomly selected and notified via email on April 23, 2012 (so please don’t forget to include an email in your comments)

3 thoughts on “guest post: exploring the three Es: exhibitions, evaluation and education

  1. I studied psychology in undergrad and museum education in grad school, and like you, I also find museum evaluation fascinating! It very much combines my undergrad and grad studies. Good luck in your job search!


  2. Regarding Education–yes! I don’t have a background in K-12 teaching either and it seems strange to me that experience would be required in so many places, since the form of education is incredibly different. I think you should be conversant with standards and practices, certainly, but that’s not something that necessarily needs to be gotten from actual in-classroom teaching experience. In fact, where I work, most of the direct teaching is not done by staff at all but by docents; we really only step in for emergencies or last-minute needs. More of it is content development or program development or things like that.


    • Thanks for the comment, Beth! If you don’t mind my asking, how did you break in to museum education without a K-12 teaching background? Also, I’d be interested to hear your top piece of advice on successful content development.
      Also, speaking of docents… Many of the docents I know don’t have k-12 teaching experience, but are simply enthusiastic people with an interest in a topic, and the time to devote to learning the material. And yet, they’re the ones who interact the most with the public. My dad is a docent at the California Academy of Sciences, and he’s constantly bringing home folders, homework, digital and online materials, and has to create presentations for the other docents. It’s a wonder they don’t provide some sort of degree or certificate considering the amount of effort docents are expected to put into the “job”.


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