Webpage Supplement to

Chapter 14: Museum Theatre

Catherine Hughes

Revised: July 11, 2007

Note as a major resource the International Museum Theatre Alliance's website: http://www.imtal.org/


Here are some further notes considering the process of evaluation in museum theatre: The evolution of theatre's standing in museums is reflected in the various, albeit sporadic, evaluation reports conducted over the last twenty years. Initially reports focused simply on whether visitors liked the dramatic experience. Early resistance to theatrical techniques by staff often proved the impetus for such studies. In the results of Munley's evaluation (1982) of the play, Buyin' Freedom, responses to it were universally positive, including those of previously critical staff.

At The Science Museum in London, staff were concerned that visitors might be embarrassed at being approached by an actor in role as they walked through an exhibition, which spawned the study title, "Enlightening or Embarrassing: An evaluation of drama in the Science Museum" (Bicknell and Mazda, 1993). This comprehensive evaluation of the Science Museum's entire drama program found nearly categorical support from visitors (95%) for the idea of theatre in a museum.  There were a number of ways in which visitors expressed this support. From the executive summary, 85% of the sample agreed that the characters in the Museum's drama program made people want to get involved with exhibits; 90% felt that the actors made the exhibit more memorable.

In a more recent study, Jackson (2000) sought to be more critical and incisive of claims made of interactive theatre's power by looking at theatre in two heritage sites.
    "If truly educational approaches to History are to do with generating a spirit of curiosity, inquiry and engagement, a recognition of the differences and similarities between present and past, and with showing that history is as much about lived experience as it is about dates, buildings and artefacts, then what function might theatrical techniques have in achieving such educational ends?" (p. 204).  

What he found was that theatre can be both illuminating and a hindrance to educating about history. Done well, it can open up the past in all its complexities and generate true engagement. However, ill-conceived programs can also pander to simplistic ideas of history. The same, of course, could be said of any theatre or teaching tool. It must be conceived, created, and produced with immense care and skill.

Many of us may have had the uncomfortable occasion of encountering an over-eager costumed actor who does not know how much information is too much information to share; or had the pleasant surprise of happening upon an ongoing conversation with an impressive and competent interpreter who keys in on people’s levels of interest. Finding the balance between content, style and interaction is central. The aesthetic standards for good theatre are high and demand talent and veracity. Add to that the necessity for consummate interaction based on specific content and you have the challenge of museum theatre in a nutshell

In the present day, it has become all but mandatory to produce evaluation results in order to hold a place on the moving menu of museum offerings. Museum theatre must prove its worth in some manner. How to do this and why are the big questions. I include why because no one should carry out evaluation studies simply to satisfy those asking for them. At least, it is not just for them. Rather, evaluation studies can be carried out in order to find out what is happening with visitors when presented with a play, or a character, or an interpretation. There is wonder in trying to discern the currents rippling below the surface as children sit rapt before a musical about sea turtles, as adults debate the merits of cloning, as teenagers experience a first-person account of slavery. In realizing and articulating that wonder, we fertilize the field of museum theatre. That said, the limitations of time and money constrain many museum theatre practitioners to carry out little, if any, evaluation. However, there are ways to conduct serious studies within those limitations.

For example, a variety of findings have resulted from ten years of evaluation of the theatre program at the Museum of Science, Boston, which began using theatre in its exhibitions in 1985. In a meta-evaluation that looked at these studies collectively, which included three external evaluations and seven internal evaluations, Baum and Hughes (2002) found collective evidence of both cognitive and affective outcomes:
* content gain;
* visitors' perception that plays were educational and of consequent value;
* visitors' articulation of abstract and complex ideas from plays (p. 357).
Over the course of the ten years, the aggregate theatre experience for visitors was overwhelmingly positive. These evaluations, in addition to comment cards submitted voluntarily by visitors, have been key factors in the theatre program's success.

At the Museum of Science, Boston people wrote supportive comments on cards they left at the end of their visit. One visitor commented, “The performance was informative, stimulating and educational. It sure does challenge and foster discussion.” Another said, “This one [show] moved me in so short a time.” Collectively, these responses suggest that theater can be a powerful learning tool in the museum setting. In these and other studies (Hein, Lagarde and Price 1986; Rubenstein and Needham, 1992), theatre's place in museums was confirmed by visitors as appropriate and enjoyable. Additionally, these responses suggest that theater can be a powerful learning tool in the museum setting.  

References to the above:

Baum, L. & Hughes, C. (2001). Ten Years of Evaluating Science Theater at the Museum of Science, Boston. Curator 44 (4): 355-366. This meta-evaluation synthesizes many different play evaluations into a whole. The Museum of Science, Boston has been a pioneering institution in museum theatre.

Munley, Mary Ellen, 1982. Evaluation Report of Buyin’ Freedom. In C. Hughes (ed.). Perspectives on Museum Theatre. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, pp. 69-94. This is the first evaluation of museum theatre, which looked at how visitors reacted to a difficult, emotional play on slavery set in the National Museum of American History.

Rubenstein, R. & Needham, H. (1992). Evaluation of the Live Interpretation Program at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. In C. Hughes (ed.). Perspectives on Museum Theatre (pp. 95-142). Washington, DC: American Association of Museums. This comprehensive evaluation of an entire theatre program provides support the notion of a drama program in a museum.

Naomi Stein <nstein@berkeley.edu> is a museum professional who wrote on July 4, 2006:.
  We do a type of science theatre. One example is an improvisational theatre show about the function and anatomy of the human brain, that I've been touring to schools, community events and even a home for emotional disturbed youth (one of the most enriching) over the last 15 years. Also a piece I wrote for the California Department of Health Services which was generated using a variety of improvisational techniques (Spolin, Boal, Johnstone, Zaporah). You can learn more about the former at http://www.lawrencehallofscience.org/SDT/SDT.html and the latter at http://www.tarnival.org then click on Street Theatre. If you view the trailer the first man you see (dressed as a bird) is a neuroscientist who regularly uses improv. in his teaching (he's a professor at San Francisco City College).

Theatre in Museums Workshop. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, Indiana, now hosts the annual “Theatre in Museums” workshop, founded at the Science Museum of Minnesota, where it ran for eighteen years. The 21st Annual workshop will be from September 24 - 29, 2007! The workshop serves as an introduction to the field of museum theatre, and as a refresher course on new developments. It addresses the history museum theatre, its present status, various program options, program administration and budgeting, collaborations with other theatre artists and playwrights, and designing stage sets, costumes, and props. Questions: 317 334-3701.
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis employs ten full-time actor-interpreters. For further information, contact Tessa Bridal : TessaB@childrensmuseum.org