Evaluation and Impact Studies: A note from a conference in Germany

I spent the last weekend at the annual conference of the German Bundesverband fuer Museumspaedagogik.  It focussed on measuring the impact of interpretation, a subject that is even newer in Germany than it is in the UK.  There were a few things that I found interesting, and which I’d like to share here:


Cultural Education

There were repeated references to cultural education (Kulturelle Bildung) as one, if not the aim of museums.  It’s certainly a term that pops up regularly in German cultural strategies.  A German colleague explained that it is an aim that harks back to the enlightenment of the 18th century, and the emergence of the Bildungsbuergertum [1]. In this context, museums became the proverbial ‘temples of learning’ that brought educational opportunities to those who didn’t have the means of the upper classes. I think it is this underlying and ultimately uncritical acceptance of cultural education as the primary aim of museums that stands in the way of some developments that are also apparent in the German discourse.  For example, there was a lot of talk about general audience development, the need for more participation, and the need for more representation of under-represented groups.  However, I feel that as long as cultural education is assumed to be the aim, some of the issues affecting these desired developments cannot be resolved.  As long as interventions, be they exhibitions or outreach programmes, are ultimately concerned with educational gain, none of the opportunities that may otherwise open up can materialise.


Emotional Learning

I know that in the UK and the USA we’ve been establishing emotional objectives for a very long time.  However, in her closing speech, Prof Dr Birgit Mandel of the University of Hildesheim really highlighted the difference between cognitive (or factual) and emotional learning. Before the backdrop of the focus on ‘cultural education’ (above) this was just one step short of revolutionary, I felt.  In my own words, Prof Mandel described emotional learning as the shifting experience of one’s lifeworld, the gain of new insights and understandings, and the experience of expanding empathy and awareness.  I’m still uneasy about the terminology of ‘learning’, and yet emotional learning perhaps is more appropriate, serious and respectful, than what we in the English-speaking world often call “experiences”.  The latter doesn’t suggest the personal growth that takes place.  There doesn’t seem to be anything that conceptually distinguishes the “experience” of going to Disneyworld from the “experience” of visiting the battlefield where one’s great-grandfather died during the First World War.



One of the speakers, Prof Dr Karen van den Berg, spoke about the need to have (and teach at museums) reverence for objects [2]. She didn’t elaborate, so taken on face value I found this a really astounding assertion. Reverence (“Ehrfurcht”) turns visitors into observers.  It requires them to adopt a passive stance far back from the object.  It elevates the object above the visitor.  It implies that the object has an intrinsic value that the visitor needs to ‘learn’.  This is of course an attitude in line with the concept of cultural education.  However, I fear that such an approach, such a requirement of visitors, will continue to perpetuate a museum that doesn’t allow room for engagement, never mind participation.  As far as I can see, the only future of such a museum will be irrelevance and ultimately, closure.


Academic Grounding

If you’ve been reading my blog for some time, you will know that I advocate a greater engagement of interpreters with academia, especially on the level of the organisations that represent us.  So far, this only seems to happen in the US and to a limited degree, so I was pleasantly surprised to see all but two speakers at this conference (namely myself and a Dutch girl) be university professors. I think this gives a great signal, not only to practitioners but also to the outside world: that the practice of interpretation (or Museumspaedagogik, as it were) is firmly grounded in and backed by academic research. It was clear that Germany is still far from a close integration between academia and practice.  The speakers themselves also emphasized that there was a need for further academic research, and that the discipline, in academic terms, is still very new.  Nevertheless, it was great to have such an academic focus, mixed with practice presentations in the evening, and that’s something I’d like to see in the UK also [3].



[1] The Bildungsbuergertum was the upper middle class that strove to increase their understanding of the world through what was basically lifelong learning in classical subjects (science, literature, humanities).

[2] She called it “Ehrfurcht vor den geschaffenen Dingen”.

[3] I do have to report one slightly negative thing though: and that is the lack of adjustment to the audience that most speakers displayed.  The majority of them read off a piece of paper, as if they were in a lecture hall.  There was no engagement, no attempt at making the content accessible and – dare I say it – fun.  I enjoyed it, and gained much from it, but I did wonder whether someone who doesn’t happen to currently be doing their own PhD on this very subject could actually follow what they were saying.  As one participant poignantly said, here we are at a conference on interpretation, where we know we shouldn’t be talking at people, and yet that’s precisely what the speakers did, for up to 1.5 hours (!) at a time.  Reporting on academic research doesn’t have to be dry or practically incomprehensible for the layperson.

3 thoughts on “Evaluation and Impact Studies: A note from a conference in Germany

  1. Thanks for the great blog entry Nicole. I really can relate to your third entry under Notes above. “Practicing what we preach” can sometimes be a problem for interpretive professionals and especially in the academic world. Keep up the good work. I enjoy your blog.

  2. Hi Nicole, Another interesting blog. I agree with Chuck but possible with more extreme irritation, having seen it all far too often.

    But that’s not what I intended to write about. I wondered whether you have come across the work of Regan Forrest, an academic who certainly can communicate clearly, engagingly and incisively. I loved her blog on the English use of the word ‘experience’ at http://reganforrest.com/2012/06/unpacking-experience/. You might find it interesting and relevant here.

    Have you been to ‘Disneyworld’? I have and can assure you it offers a complex and very carefully constructed range of culturally realigning experiences, many of which are clearly rewarding and socially enriching to their target audiences. Yes, it is packaged and there is strong and consistently expressed world view delivered through powerful subliminal messages as well as the overt ones and eloquent silences. In that it may not differ too much from some heritage and cultural attractions and their interpretation. (Your recent post about Hughenden may be a case in point.) Obviously it is not the same as visiting a battlefield where your grandfather died, but nothing is and it doesn’t need to be to constitute an experience.

    1. Hi Susan,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m actually planning to blog about our use of the concept of ‘experiences’ soon, so just briefly here: I have been to Disneyland in LA and Paris (admittedly not Disneyworld, though), as well as a variety of other amuseument (!) parks around the world, because I absolutely love them.

      However, my concern lies precisely with this: that we seem to equate the ‘careful construct’ of infrastructures (‘experiences’) with what happens within visitors (also called ‘experiences’ in English). The latter is something we don’t really understand yet. Over and over studies show that no matter how carefully constructed, our infrastructures (including interpretation) cannot predetermine the ‘experiences’ (or ’emotional learning’?) that visitors have on site. This is why I have started to wonder whether using the term ‘experiences’ has actually ceased to be helpful when referring to visitors’ internal goings-on.

      It may just be a linguistic trap we’re falling into in English. In German, the terms ‘Erlebnis’ and ‘Erfahrung’ are much more nuanced. In terms of visitors, they can have an ‘Erlebnis’ at both Disneyland and a battlefield, but I would be surprised if they made an ‘Erfahrung’ at Disneyland. Erlebnis is more about enjoyment, while ‘Erfahrung’ implies a process of growth. In other words, I do think there’s a huge difference between the ‘experiences/Erfahrung’ that visitors make at Disneyland and at, say, a battlefield, and that it is conceptually different from the ‘experience’ that we as heritage managers and interpreters hope to set up through our infrastructures.


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