- The summative evaluation of the Ocean Wonders: Sharks! exhibit at the New York Aquarium included a mixed-methods approach to measure visitors’ emotional reactions, learning, and personal connections to the exhibit design and content.
- Visitors were captivated by the exhibit’s immersive design, fascinating animals, engaging interactives, and opportunities to interact with knowledgeable staff. They spent the most time in the galleries that had large viewing areas or many interactives. Engaging in activities and games with live interpretation staff effectively increased visitors’ use of smaller galleries.
- The exhibit taught visitors about shark biology and changed their perceptions of sharks, revealing them as important and vulnerable players in an increasingly threated ecosystem.
- Visitors were knowledgeable about conservation issues and motivated to take the individual-level actions addressed in the exhibit. There was large variation in awareness about specific conservation actions, emphasizing that the exhibit is reinforcing well-known messages and revealing those that are less familiar.
WCS highlights its priority species and regions in exhibits at its five New York City parks. Among these priority wildlife groups are sharks, skates, and rays, which are featured and celebrated in Ocean Wonders: Sharks! an exhibit that opened at the New York Aquarium in June 2018. The exhibit has several specific goals:
- Increase knowledge about sharks and the New York marine habitat and the threats they face;
- Create a sense of awe and concern for sharks and oceans;
- Foster personal connections with local waters to inspire conservation action; and
- Highlight how the Wildlife Conservation Society and New York Aquarium are working to save marine species and habitats locally and globally.
The summative evaluation of OWS measured the extent to which the exhibit achieved these goals. Our mixed-methods approach combined observations, interviews, and surveys, and included the perspectives of visitors, residents of the New York Metropolitan area, and OWS interpreters and divers.
Affective: How did the exhibit make visitors feel?
- What was the most memorable part of the exhibit for visitors? What made it memorable?
- Did the exhibit promote feelings of awe and concern for sharks and New York waters?
Cognitive: How did the exhibit impact visitor understanding?
- What did visitors learn about sharks, their role in the ecosystem, and threats to their survival?
- What did visitors learn about New York waters and their role as critical habitat for species?
- What did visitors learn about what the Aquarium is doing to save sharks locally and globally?
- What did visitors learn about conservation actions that they can take to protect the ocean and marine wildlife?
Personal Relevance: How did the exhibit connect to visitors’ personal narratives? Why does it personally matter to visitors?
- Did the exhibit make visitors feel connected to New York waters?
- Did the exhibit increase visitors’ intentions to protect the ocean and marine wildlife?
- Did the exhibit increase visitors’ behaviors to protect the ocean and marine wildlife?
Timing and Tracking: How did visitors use the exhibit?
- How long did visitors spend in the exhibit?
- What did visitors do in the exhibit galleries?
Observations: We conducted a timing and tracking study of visitors to understand what a typical visit looks like, including total time spent in the exhibit, time spent in each exhibit gallery, and behaviors in each gallery.
Surveys: We distributed a survey to four audiences: 1) residents of the New York City metro area, 2) Aquarium visitors waiting to enter the exhibit, 3) Aquarium visitors exiting the exhibit, and 4) Aquarium visitors several weeks or months after their visit. The survey included modules to measure perceptions of ocean conservation issues, awareness of sharks and the New York waters, awareness of conservation actions to protect sharks, engagement in ocean-friendly behaviors, and demographics.
Interviews: We interviewed visitors after they exited the exhibit. The interview questions targeted affective and personal relevance outcomes and provided deeper insight into cognitive outcomes targeted by the survey.
Informed Observers: Exhibit interpreters and divers connect with thousands of visitors through one-on-one interactions, small group discussions, and large group talks. The interpreters and divers served as informed observers for the evaluation, providing their insight into visitors’ reactions to the exhibit and connections with the animals, which are related to affective outcomes.
Ocean Wonders: Sharks! was a memorable experience for Aquarium visitors who were captivated by the immersive design, fascinating animals, engaging interactives, and opportunities to interact with knowledgeable staff. Visitors lingered in the galleries that had large viewing areas or many interactives and live interpretation effectively increased visitors’ use of smaller galleries that were more likely to be overlooked. Not only did OWS teach visitors about shark biology, its messaging and design—specifically the mixed-species exhibits—also changed perceptions of sharks, helping visitors to see them as important and vulnerable players in an increasingly threated ecosystem.
Visitors were knowledgeable about conservation issues and motivated to take the individual-level actions addressed in the exhibit. There was large variation in awareness about specific conservation actions, emphasizing that the exhibit is reinforcing well-known messages (such as reducing plastic consumption) and revealing those that are less familiar (such as buying sustainable seafood). Visitors, most of whom lived in the New York City area, were interested in learning about the Aquarium’s research and conservation activities, and we identified opportunities to capitalize on these local connections to grow awareness of the Aquarium’s work and increase conservation actions in New York City.