Developing a Family Quest
From Bad to Great: An Example of Family Programming at the USS Constitution Museum
In the summer of 2010, the USS Constitution Museum used the resources available on the Family Learning Forum website in revising an existing but unpopular family program into a successful, effective, and potentially profitable activity that engages intergenerational groups using the Museum’s downstairs galleries.
The following case study will answer the following questions:
- Can examples of successful family programs at other museums inspire new ideas for my own museum?
- How do I use the Family Learning Forum website to gain and develop new programming ideas?
- What might the process of developing a family-friendly program look like?
Rebecca Crawford, USSCM’s Manager of Academic and Family Programs, took on the challenge of transforming a defunct series of scavenger hunts into an engaging, family-friendly Quest that was informative, accessible, and fun for a family audience.
The new Quest was designed to be used in the Museum’s downstairs galleries. Visitor observations found that families spent an average of 8 minutes in these exhibits, a figure Crawford and other Museum Learning staff sought to expand.
In past years, two scavenger hunts had been developed:
The first version was too short and required “hunt and peck” answers, which led to visitors searching for small, specific pieces of information while missing the bigger picture. It lacked a narrative voice and was often unfinished and frustrating for families to use. It didn’t serve the desired outcome of more lively family engagement with the Museum’s themes while in the galleries.
The second iteration, a revision of the first, added challenging activities. However, these changes made the hunt too long and complicated. It also lacked a theme to hold the story together and provide continuity. The challenges took too long to complete, were lacking in focus, and were too complicated for even fellow staff members to accomplish.
Both were unsuccessful by just about every possible measure—few were actually completed, the rate of positive responses was low, and the Museum was making no financial gain. The project was abandoned for a year.
Looking with Fresh Eyes
When Crawford returned to the task of revision, she kept in mind both the goals and needs of a successful scavenger hunt program and those of the Museum.
Goals, or opportunities, included an increased length of time spent in the downstairs galleries, an expanded audience base of local families, a potential activity to be used with a library pass (since the museum is already free), an opportunity to target an audience of families with children 12+ (an often underserved population), and a potential source of revenue (either through increased donations or charging for the program itself).
There was also a list of needs, or qualities, that the new scavenger hunt would have to include. First, with a limited number of educators on the floor, it had to require little to no staffing while remaining a high-impact program. Second, the hunt had to take into consideration (and in some cases, take advantage of) space constraints—for instance, an abandoned hallway near the Museum’s model shop. Finally, it had to engage people of all ages and learning styles and take a reasonable length of time to finish, say 30 minutes.
Crawford then began the research process, first looking outside the museum field. Theme parks and commercial ventures are museums’ major competitors—see what makes them unique, then apply those ideas to your museum!
External resources included:
- Watson Adventure Tours and Urban Interactive (engaging public scavenger hunts that are successful commercial ventures)
- Tomb by 5 Wits (an “interactive adventure” using clues and riddles to solve a series of puzzles as a team)
- Google (searching out for-hire scavenger hunts for parties and fundraisers as well as examples and ideas generated on blogs and message boards)
From this outside research, Crawford learned several lessons: that successful scavenger hunt programs have to be both physical and intellectually interactive, that all members of the group (or family) need to have a role in completing the activity, and that a consistent theme or narrative makes for a satisfying hunt.
Crawford then turned her attention the Family Learning Forum website, namely the growing list of success stories from other museums. Each program’s profile includes a section called “Tangible Takeaways,” which features 1-3 practical pieces of advice from the program’s creators. Using this information, she sought to improve the existing scavenger hunts.
In particular, she utilized elements and advice from three different programs.
- From the Harvard Museum of Natural History’s Harry Potter Scavenger Hunt: Pop culture themes sell.
- From the Arnold Arboretum’s Letterboxing program: Create meaningful challenges and encourage community involvement.
- From the Hatfield Marine Science Center’s Oregon Coast Quests: Use themes, rhyming clues, and multiple outcomes.
Creating the Quest
The process of creating the new scavenger hunt (now called a Quest after the Oregon Coast program) began with historical research, which was repeatedly and consistently checked against the opportunities, goals, and needs of the program as listed above. Crawford was searching for a narrative that could be told in the galleries that a) wasn’t already told through the exhibits, b) was grounded in historical research, and c) sounded intriguing enough to inspire participants to choose to complete the Quest. Once the practical and historical elements were reconciled, a storyline was created, based on the actual planned mutiny of CONSTITUTION sailors in 1812 against the strict, unpopular Capt. William Bainbridge.
Once the storyline was in place, Crawford selected gallery locations, designed games and challenges, and decided on a look and feel for the materials, culminating in a first draft.
Prototyping, Testing, and Evaluation
With the help of Museum Learning interns, she prototyped the Quest with a variety of people, including visiting families, especially those with children ages 12+. This in turn led to repeated revisions of the physical layout, activities, and materials.
The first draft of the Quest was prototyped with the staff members who had helped to create it. This quickly revealed some major stumbling blocks in the flow of the Quest and helped to iron out some of the obvious errors made in its creation. With a second draft in hand, Crawford prototyped the Quest with other staff members and interns at the Museum. This gave her feedback from a more outward perspective and helped to refine some of the language used in the directions.
For example, in one clue, the directions had indicated that participants were to look behind a label. One high school intern pointed out that he didn’t know what a label was. Here is an example of a term that we in the museum profession use so frequently that we forget that it may not be as self-evident as we imagine. The word was changed to “poster” (as it was a large label) and that helped to clarify it for both the intern and subsequent testers.
With these revisions incorporated into the Quest, Crawford was ready to test it with visiting families. She created a short feedback form to gather results and asked fellow staff members to help her streamline and refine it. A small table placed in the flow of traffic near the bathrooms was set up with an enticing display and staffed with friendly Museum Educator who asked families to participate. The initial feedback forms were confusing to those trying to use them, so the survey form was revised and replaced at the table. Within just a few families’ tests, it was clear that a few things needed tweaking.
The beauty of prototyping is the ease with which revisions can be made. Many times revisions could be made and replaced in the galleries within an hour. Just a few responses would start give a pretty good indication of the successes and failures of a particular feature and lead to revisions. The Quest was prototyped on the floor for about a month off and on during the busiest season of the year for the Museum to ensure a good number of results.
Creating a prototype does not have to (and should not) be expensive, given the changes that will likely be made. The Quest prototype included a cosmetic mirror (approx. $1.50), a plastic magnifying glass (approx. $2), and some paper materials including a guide, as well as a timer (used by interns to gauge completion time, approx. $2.50), leading to an initial materials cost of well under $10.
Evaluations were quick and easy—participants rated each of the games and challenges on a scale of 1 to 4 smiley faces.
The Final Product
After several rounds of prototyping, the final version of the Quest was completed. Entitled “A Mutinous Expedition: A Quest Based on Honest Truth,” visitors found clues and puzzles hidden throughout the museum. While it incorporates the first-floor exhibits, the Quest stands on its own as a program—families cannot complete the tasks without the materials and guide.
As stated above, the Quest incorporated the characteristics and advice found in the Family Learning Forum website’s success stories.
- Pop culture themes sell. The storyline included adventure, conspiracy, and crime on the high seas, themes similar to those found in the popular Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
- Create meaningful challenges and encourage community involvement. Activities and materials appealed to a wide range of ages and learning styles; for instance, the magnifying glass serves no particular purpose but can provide a fun diversion for children too young to participate in the activities. Feedback from families is encouraged in the form of the final “prize,” hidden notebooks that families find and sign after completing the Quest, an adaptation of the Letterboxing program at Arnold Arboretum.
- Use themes, rhyming clues, and multiple outcomes. The Quest includes rhymes, requires different skills that can be supplied by different family members, and offers multiple outcomes—participants must decide whether to join the mutiny or not.
The clues incorporated into the exhibit were designed to allow families cluster around, discuss, and problem-solve as a group. When completed, the Quest tells a totally authentic story that isn’t found anywhere else in the galleries. Most importantly, it’s fun.
How did families rate the Quest?
- On “Overall Experience,” 100% of participants rated it “Fun” or “Extremely Fun.”
- On “Level of Difficulty,” the average response was “Just Difficult Enough,” showing that the activities were challenging but still accomplishable.
- When asked if they would recommend this to other families, one family replied, “Oh, definitely! It’s super-fun for all ages—it’s great to be able to interact in and with a museum. We learned a lot!”
Can examples of successful family programs at other museums inspire new ideas for my own museum?
Answer: YES! By reading about similar programs at other museums, you might find that missing piece that turns your “blah” program into a blockbuster. On the other hand, you might get an entirely new idea based on a program at an institution with a similar mission or focus.
How do I use the Family Learning Forum website to gain and develop new programming ideas?
Answer: In addition to the wealth of literature, research, and tips found on the website, the success stories can serve as inspiration in the creative brainstorming process. “Tangible Takeaways” are particularly helpful, containing practical (and sometimes unexpected) advice from educators who have developed these successful programs.
What might the process of developing a family-friendly program look like?
Answer: Here’s the approach that Crawford used in creating this program. Different programs obviously call for different strategies, but the basic outline of research, draft, prototype, and revise remains the same.