This study at the National Aquarium in Baltimore (NAIB) was conducted to assess four key aspects of the visitor experience: (1) incoming conservation knowledge, attitudes, and behavior of NAIB visitors; (2) patterns of use and interaction with exhibition components throughout the NAIB; (3) exiting conservation knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors of visitors; and (4) over time, how the NAIB experience altered or affected individuals' conservation knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors.

Three hundred six visitors participated in the study, which was conducted from March through July, 1999. The study utilized four data-collection techniques: (1) face-to-face interviews, (2) Personal Meaning Mapping (PMM), (3) tracking, and (4) follow-up telephone interviews. Participants were a self-selected population and were generally more knowledgeable about, more concerned about, and more involved in conservation-related issues than the general public. However, they were far from conservationists. Visitors in this study clearly absorbed the fundamental conservation message at the NAIB. In fact, the NAIB visit appeared to focus visitors' conservation-related thoughts, while also broadening their understanding of conservation.

Changes in visitors' conservation knowledge, understanding, and interests by and large persisted over six to eight weeks after visiting NAIB. The NAIB experience also connected to visitors' lives in a variety of ways following their visit. However, these personal experiences rarely resulted in new conservation actions. In fact, their enthusiasm and emotional commitment to conservation (inspired during the NAIB visit) generally fell back to original levels, presumably in the absence of reinforcing experiences. The findings of this study are guiding subsequent investigations at the NAIB. More generally, the results suggest strategies to enhance current understanding of the impact free-choice learning institutions have on their visiting public.