When I design and deliver inclusive evaluation or audience research projects, it’s not just about making sure that everyone can take part – whatever their background, need or ability. It’s also about taking care and ensuring that my approaches are trauma informed. But what exactly does trauma-informed research and evaluation practice look like in museums, galleries, libraries, and archives?

“Trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as harmful or life threatening. While unique to the individual, generally the experience of trauma can cause lasting adverse effects, limiting the ability to function and achieve mental, physical, social, emotional or spiritual well-being.” (Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, 2022).

Defining trauma-informed research and evaluation

I knowingly and unknowingly work with participants who’ve experienced trauma in their lives. Sometimes this is explicit – for example, interviewing survivors of homophobic violence who’ve taken part in an oral history project that I’m evaluating. Other times it’s implicit, like during visitor research in gallery spaces, where I don’t know anything at all about the person I’ve asked to take part in a depth interview, or answer a survey question.

Taking a trauma-informed approach to your audience research or evaluation means you’re working in a people-centred way that avoids re-traumatising visitors in a place where they need to feel safe. In the same way that adapting your experience for someone living with dementia can help other types of visitor, taking a trauma-informed approach to your audience research or evaluation can benefit everyone too. It can ultimately improve the quality of your data, increase collaboration (which often leads to a more socially engaged, co-created evaluation) and build staff confidence in working with vulnerable visitors.

A few starting points for discussion

Whilst it depends on the methodology e.g. visitor observations vs depth interviews, I tend to plan and test my audience research and evaluation approach against the six trauma-informed principles of safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration, empowerment, and cultural consideration. The following questions could be a useful starting point for discussion about this topic in your organisation: a few simple changes can make a big difference. You may even already be working in a trauma-informed way with your evaluation or research without realising it.

Safety

  • Which situations might you need to anticipate and plan for? For example, if a participant finds the language of a survey question triggering, or has a reaction to the shape, colour or smell of a room you’re conducting a focus group in? What do we need to anticipate with people’s physical, psychological, and emotional safety needs?
  • Have you checked (and piloted) your research questions to make sure any sensitive questions are absolutely necessary? Have you given context about why you’re asking those questions? Is the language used for those questions appropriate?
  • How can you create a research and evaluation space that feels safe for participants? For example, what might you need to think about in terms of your choice of location, the way you dress or how you welcome or approach them?
  • What will you do if someone makes a disclosure to you during your conversation?
  • What plans can you put in place if a participant is triggered once they’ve left your site?
  • What might you need to consider about your own safety as a researcher?

Trustworthiness

  • How can you build trust before, during and after a participant’s research experience?
  • Have you been transparent about why you’re doing the research and what it’ll be used for? For example in focus group scenarios, have you been clear about when it will take place, where participants need to be (and at what time), what they can expect to happen when they arrive, when to expect breaks and refreshments, how many people are going to be there? Have you built in time for a clear explanation, especially around confidentiality?
  • Can you provide an opportunity for participants to speak to you in advance of any audience research? Are you able to share your research questions in advance – can you check in with them beforehand about questions or content that you’re concerned might be triggering? How can you manage this with care?
  • How can you avoid doing something unanticipated? How will you make sure everything goes to plan e.g. timings, or the content of your discussion?
  • What staff training needs to be put in place i.e. who will the participant have contact with on arrival, before they engage with the researcher? What might they need to consider?
  • How will you be clear about noting their responses (see more on consent below)? If you’re using digital recorders, have you been explicit about where you’ve put them?

Choice

  • How can you involve participants in making decisions about your evaluation or audience research project? For example, this could be in the creation of the evaluation framework (more on this below) or helping to decide where the research should take place.
  • What can you put in place to give participants an opportunity to share their views after the specific audience research activity has ended?
  • Have you built in time to ensure participants are able to ask questions, share their own opinions and raise issues that are important to them (rather than just asking your predefined questions)?
  • How will you gain their consent and ensure they’ve had enough time to make an informed decision? Have you made it explicitly clear about how they can withdraw their consent afterwards? Is it clear what they are consenting to?

Collaboration

  • How can you build in time and a process for socially engaged, co-created evaluation framework planning, where the beneficiaries are involved in defining their own outcomes?
  • Have you factored in time to ask participants what their needs or wants are in advance of any primary research like focus groups e.g. room preferences, dietary requirements?
  • Are you able to design methodologies that involve the beneficiaries in decision making at the analysis stage e.g. Most Significant Change?
  • Have you piloted questions in advance with participants e.g. survey monitoring questions?

Empowerment

  • Are you listening or waiting to speak? How will you make sure that you actively listen to participants and validate their story? Have you scheduled enough time for everyone to have their say?
  • What do you need to consider with your facilitation approach in situations like focus groups to ensure a balance of power in the room? How can you give agency to participants and set the tone so that everyone is brought into the conversation?
  • How can participants be involved in quality assurance after the research e.g. how can they check their story afterwards? Are you able to share drafts of any reports with them before publishing? What might you need to check?
  • Can you put any processes in place that enable ‘evaluation of the evaluation’ i.e. a way for participants to feedback on their experience of your approach (with a view to you making changes for next time)?

Cultural consideration

  • What might you need to consider in terms of cultural sensitivities? This goes beyond race and ethnicity: think about faith/religion, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and literacy level.
  • How can you integrate, acknowledge or respect cultural values, beliefs, festivals, practices within your research approach?
  • How would you tackle cultural stereotypes and biases raised within the research environment (your own/those participating)?
  • What unconscious bias training might be required for staff/researchers?
  • How might cultural differences impact your approach e.g. refreshments, when the research takes place, the time you need for your research e.g. if you need a translator? How can you ensure your language is inclusive? How might you anticipate and plan for addressing literacy or digital exclusion?

Would you like to talk more about this topic?

I’m hoping to bring a group of cultural evaluation and research professionals in the NW together at some point over the next year to think more about how we can make research and evaluation in the cultural sector more trauma informed. If you’d like to be kept in the loop with that conversation, send me an email.

Further resources

Trauma and trauma-informed researchers: a great starting point piece by the Social Research Association.

Manchester Art Gallery is tackling what a trauma-informed museum ‘looks like’ following funding from The Baring Foundation.

Fulfilling Lives / South East Partnership: Trauma Informed Social Research written by Kerry Dowding.

MRS Inclusive Pledge.

MRS Working with vulnerable participants.

A guide to inclusive social research.