For the past two years I've been working with the team at Eureka! The National Children's Museum in Halifax on their flagship £2m All About Me gallery. Supported by the Wellcome Trust among other major funders, the gallery helps children learn about themselves and their bodies in a fun and interactive way with a focus on learning through play. My role as Evaluation Consultant involved leading on front-end and formative evaluation with key target audiences to ensure the exhibition reflected their needs, and subsequently working with teachers and pupils after the exhibition opened to identify the impact on both them and the museum of working in this way.
It's been a great learning curve for all concerned and the resulting exhibition has had some fantastic feedback from funders, professional colleagues and most importantly from the visitors themselves. Some of this success is undoubtedly down to the open and committed approach the team took to consulting with their audiences. I've been reflecting on the consultation process and trying to identify the factors that made it work. These are my top six.
The Eureka! team were fully committed to consultation from the start. I was very lucky to be pushing at an open door - everyone on the team, from the chief executive and project director to the front of house enablers and volunteers, understood the purpose of consultation and why it was so important to the organisation's mission and its business case. I didn't have to try to convince anyone of what I was trying to do, which is a great position to be in as an evaluator as I could concentrate my time on developing the process in the knowledge that I was free to question and challenge existing ideas. Commitment also meant that the organisation had allocated all-important time and funding to the consultation process.
2. Include partners and contractors
All About Me was a major development that involved a range of contractors and consultants - designers, interactive developers, film-makers, web designers and more. Eureka! ensured that the relevant contractors were involved in the consultation process so that they could see the audience reaction first hand. Creative agency Limehouse Heritage hosted a consultation day at their premises in Halifax in which we consulted children from local schools on screen-based content for the gallery. Exhibit designer Joe Cutting brought mock-ups of his interactive exhibits to the museum for testing by children. This of course requires contractors to be open to working with audiences and to have built consultation into their timescales and budgets, so the museum needed to ensure it commissioned individuals and companies who shared its values and that this work was included in their contracts.
3. Be open to challenge
The great thing about working with children is they tend not to pull their punches. If they don't like something, they say so. There were a few exhibits in the original plan that the children really didn't understand, and they certainly let us know when they thought something wasn't going to work and why. Instead of trying to explain their ideas to the consultees and bring them round to the museum's way of thinking, the Eureka! team and their designers took this criticism on the chin and focused on what they had to change to make the exhibits work for their target audience.
4. Act on feedback
When you're very involved in a project it can be difficult to accept that other people don't get your brilliant ideas. Too often I've worked on consultation projects in which the museum has listened to what the audience has to say then carried on with their own ideas regardless, finding reasons not to make changes. The Eureka! team took feedback seriously, weighing up what the consultees had said and acting on their views where possible. If it wasn't possible to implement children's ideas, for example when this would have taken the project over budget or impacted on timescales, the museum gave feedback to the consultees so that they knew their input had been valued and taken seriously. When I look around the finished All About Me gallery now I can see where the children's ideas have made a difference, and the gallery is undoubtedly better for it.
5. Recognise the benefits for consultees
We took a creative approach to the consultation and planned to involve and engage children and develop their own learning. In retrospect, we could have made even more of this. One of the things we learned during the summative evaluation phase was the range of benefits that consultation has for the people involved, which in turn helped to motivate them and ensure their commitment to the project. This evidence is something Eureka! can use in future to engage partners with development projects and build on the success of the consultation that informed All About Me.
6. Talk about it!
There's no point in doing work you're proud of if nobody knows you're doing it. Eureka! continually engage in conversations about their work with partners, funders, stakeholders and audiences through the exhibition process and through the website and social media channels. The consultative nature of the process was highlighted in communications leading up to the All About Me gallery opening via blogs, podcasts and short promotional films. This helps to establish Eureka!'s brand and reputation as an organisation that works with its audiences, helping to ensure that in future it will be able to engage people in consultation more readily as they'll be aware that they have a genuine opportunity to make a difference.
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