The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History at VSA 2019


As part of a generous 3-year award from the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ “Museums Empowered: Professional Development Opportunities for Museum Staff” funding program, five staff members from the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (hereafter “The Wright,” located in Detroit, Michigan) attended and presented a round table session at the 2019 Visitor Studies Association annual conference in Detroit. They were joined by their external evaluation “coach,” Kate Livingston  of ExposeYourMuseum LLC.

Attending the 2019 Visitor Studies Association conference is one piece of a larger spectrum of activities designed to support evaluation capacity building amongst staff at The Wright. The museum has teamed with ExposeYourMuseum LLC to create a customized, dynamic exploration of evaluation, aimed at reaching each staff in all departments and at all levels throughout the organization. ExposeYourMuseum LLC is positioned as the museum’s dedicated evaluation coach, defining the strategy, demonstrating key evaluation tenants and methods, training and motivating staff members, and transitioning project evaluation to the museum’s internal team. The project design provides multiple layers of professional development and skill building over the three-year project period, leading to sustainable capacity building for in-house evaluation beyond the grant period.

To date, a small group of Wright Museum staff (referred to internally as the “Visitor Advocate Team”) has embarked upon a series of evaluation-focussed learning and activities, including:

facilitating an online survey to assess current evaluation capacity, interest, and needs amongst Wright Museum employees

conducting field interviews with staff at a neighboring museum

participating in two evaluation workshops (one on logic modeling and the other on survey writing)

designing a baseline visitor survey instrument

collecting and analyzing one round of visitor data (with a second round planned)

attending the 2018 Visitor Studies Association conference (in Chicago, IL)

attending and facilitating a round table conference session at the 2018 American Evaluation Association Conference (in Cleveland, OH)

hosting two evaluation “meet-ups” for arts and cultural institutions in the Detroit metro area

Future activities include additional evaluation methodology workshops and visitor studies. 

Attending and facilitating a round table conference session at the 2019 Visitor Studies Association conference in their hometown of Detroit provided a unique opportunity for five members of The Wright’s Visitor Advocate Team to attend a conference focused specifically on evaluation within museums, as well as to highlight audience research and evaluation happening in their own city.  In addition to the round table, one team member was part of a conference panel comprised of Detroit-area museum professionals from various organizations, discussing visitor studies challenges, successes, and lessons learned. Finally, the Wright Museum hosted the signature evening event for the conference, providing an evening of engaging tours, exhibition access, world-class music, food, and conversation.

Visitor Advocate Team members in attendance at VSA 2019 included Tracey Williams (Director, Guest Services & Sales/Retail Operations), Jennifer Evans (Assistant Curator), Jonathan Jones (Museum Educator and Outreach Coordinator), Jessica Brown (Education Outreach Coordinator), and Kristian Waterman (Administrative Assistant, Public Programs). They offered the following reflections, specific to the round table session:


It’s always amazing that, when one is surrounded by other institutions which have faced similar challenges, to hear their approach to evaluation and the associated outcomes. For example, in asking, “How can evaluation be used to disseminate knowledge, rather than to reinforce existing power differentials in museums?” a few institutions offered that they involve the community, but differed in their process. Some engaged with community forums or town hall sessions. A fellow colleague at The Wright took the question further and saw it as an opportunity to consider literal barriers to entry created by the future construction of a nearby plaza.  There’s so much to consider, yet in sharing with other museums, the opportunity to hear other creative solutions only sows seeds for successful visitor evaluation.

Another consideration we posed with other institutions is, “How might we best utilize evaluation to further equity, access, and inclusion?” As an African American History museum, we tend to pride ourselves on equity, access and inclusion, yet admittedly, we may not even recognize our own biases in the questions we’re trying to frame when creating a survey.  Do we have biases in what we ask and do we recognize them? Do we consider deaf and blind communities?  Some museums offered they do early morning hours for those on the autism spectrum, while another museum has a program for people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers.  Focus groups would be helpful to learn the needs of special groups for greater accessibility and inclusion. Again, the opportunities are endless.


The roundtable session offered a great discussion around available evaluation resources, past projects that used evaluation well, helpful institutional resources, and ideas to engage the community. Participants shared experiences, failures, and ideas that challenged the way we use evaluation in museums. Our discussion around how and when to engage specific audiences was very helpful and enlightening.


The session provided some amazing insight into the value and need for evaluation across a multitude of various institutions. It also provided a safe platform for  individuals to voice their concerns and even their frustrations about the lack of evaluation or more specifically the under utilization of evaluation tools at their institutions to create meaningful and lasting impact within the community. Even more importantly though, the session presented by the Wright team–as well as the event hosted at the Wright Museum–allotted for the opportunity to generate ideas on how to improve that community impact in different markets. Getting perspective from so many different institutions near and far was both refreshing and encouraging.

The external evaluation consultant and coach on the project, also offered the following reflections:

As a former board member and longtime member of the Visitor Studies Association, I was both humbled and impressed to see the many ways in which the Wright Museum team truly welcomed and embraced the conference (and conference participants) to their city. Taking on the signature evening event was no small feat, and the team did it in style. On top of that, participating and leading conference sessions meant that the team was a visible presence throughout the conference. It was exciting to hear the buzz from conference attendees as they explored the Wright Museum galleries or exited sessions; they were all seeing firsthand how Detroit is taking a big, bold step into visitor studies and evaluation–led by the team at the Wright.

I was particularly inspired when I recalled that just a year before our IMLS-funded project had just begun and the Visitor Advocate Team had just formed. At that time, we went to the Visitor Studies Association in Chicago. We had not yet conducted a visitor study as a team. We had not analyzed data nor presented findings. We were just beginning our shared journey into evaluation capacity building. How far we have come since then, and what an adventure it’s been! I look forward to what’s to come for our team and am grateful for this opportunity we have to delve into evaluation together.

For complete notes from the VSA 2019 roundtable session, please visit:

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