Monthly Archives: June 2012

Use Fresh Eyes

As interpreters we spend a lot of time thinking about how our audience perceives our work. We also need to be aware of how our own perception affects how we perceive our work. 
When you walk into a closed room with an odor (good or bad) you notice it immediately, but after a short period of time the smell seems to weaken or disappear completely. All of our senses have physiologic mechanisms allowing us to habituate to a stimulus. This is a survival benefit because it allows us to react to changes in our environment which generally signal threats. A new smell is much more significant that one that has been there all day. This sensual habituation allows us to focus our limited brainpower on things which have a higher likelihood of affecting us.
Our minds do the same thing at a higher level. We notice large, sudden changes much more readily than gradual changes. Slowly changing things blend into the background. That is why it is so easy to miss skin cancers, for example.
Being at a site every day means we see it differently than our visitors do. It becomes very easy not to notice the slow decay of exhibits or the gradual accumulation of dirt in facilities. Things can look much different to our visitors. Here is an exhibit from a nearby state park. Image
 Shocking, isn’t it? This was right next to the visitor center, the staff passed by it every day. When I asked about it I was told that the frame is good, and they were waiting for funding to replace the exhibit. The request for a replacement had been in for years but was never funded. Seeing it daily the staff has watched it go from an exhibit that needed replacing to something that was a complete embarrassment to the park. But the change had happened slowly and its true horror was lost on those people that see it daily.
At another nearby park there is a kiosk advertising a self-guided tour with a weather-tight box for the brochures. In the dozen times I’ve visited the park the box has always been empty. An inquiry at the office informed me they no longer provide the tour brochures. Yet the kiosk and box encourage me to take one. Seeing it every day has numbed the staff to the way this is perceived by visitors. 
Next time you have a chance to walk through your site, try putting on fresh eyes, as if you had never been there before. It may help you avoid embarrassments like these!
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Reforging History: A children’s art park in Vicksburg, Mississippi celebrates the past with distinctly new forms

Image (Landscape Studio)

Recently, I visited the Art Park at Catfish Row in Vicksburg, Mississippi. This new pocket park, a little over an acre in size, lies at the base of the steep bluffs upon which the city is perched. Catfish Row is a historic area that once was part of an extensive wharf in the 1800’s and was one of the centers of trade on the Mississippi River.

The designers of the park used historic elements in clever new ways to interpret the past. When project designers first approached the site they found pieces of famous riverboats that once plied the muddy waters. They uncovered remnants of a huge steamer called the Sprague, one of the world’s great sternwheelers. Known as “the Big Mama of the Mississippi,” she fell victim to a tragic fire in the 1970’s, and for decades lay broken adjacent the site. The designers decided to work this local legend into the fabric of the park. Parts of the original ship, including cleats, vents, and capstans, are included as play or focal features. An abstract interactive ‘Sprague’ steering wheel and play structure is located at the south end of the park.Image (Landscape Studio)

As visitors approach the park from the downtown area, they are visually struck. All that you can see of the sunken park are the treetops and the colorful park ‘steamboat stacks’. When Catfish Row was at its peak as a port in the 1800’s, early photographs revealed long lines of steamboat stacks emerging from the tree tops.  Robert Poore, a landscape architect on the project, recalled that “the idea for the stacks came from wondering what to do with existing light poles. The stacks on steamboats were unique to each boat, so they could be easily identified. The whistles were unique as well.”  So the stacks become a visual play for the park and colorfully align with the grid of surrounding streets. They even boast artificial ‘steam’ released from the top of the stacks.

The Art Park at Catfish Row is more of an alloy of past, present, and future; fusing historical elements into new forms. Glimpses of the past are still evident in the catfish medallions that are inset into the concrete walls of the park, or the representative Spanish tile edges of the play fountain. These references become the familiar languages which seem at home to Vicksburg residents and add rich texture to a small public space.  — Bob BrzuszekImage (R. Brzuszek)

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Exhibit Design from the Sideline…

If you have been involved in permanent exhibit design, you know how exhausting the process can be.  So after working on a fisheries exhibit for nearly 2 years, I naturally stepped aside and allowed other peers to “get in on the fun” on our most recent project.

One month ago our staff held the ribbon cutting for our brand new Bluegrass Prairie exhibit.  It highlights the importance of native prairies to one of our agency’s key game species, the Bobwhite Quail.  It features a larger than life quail chick, a hawk with a 20 foot wingspan, and a walk-though aviary for several Quail.  A month later, the exhibit is still not complete.  As a matter a fact, as I type right now, a group of volunteers is helping to put some finishing touches on it.  If you have had any experience with exhibit design, you know what I’m talking about.  We like to refer to it as “tweaking” or “trouble shooting”.

What have I learned by “watching” from the sideline?  For starters, not to simply watch!  It’s important to be available and willing to help out in any way you can.  Don’t be intrusive to the design team, but remember that it can be rigorous for a group of interpreters to take on a major exhibit.  You should make sure that you chip in and help the team at critical points in the process.  Secondly, opinions are like…well, I believe you know how that phrase ends, so I won’t go into details there!  It’s important to give feed back, but for the sake of Pete, make sure it’s timely feedback.  Don’t wait until the project is being installed to say, “Hey, I think it should be done this way”. That can be really annoying to team members.  Trust me, that’s what I did to my coworkers.  Finally, remember to have fun and relax!  You’re blood pressure can spike simply because you have the greatest job in the world, don’t make it worse by adding tons of unwanted stress [Sarcasm mine].  After two years of being complete, our fisheries exhibit still has some glitches.  Keep in mind that exhibit design is a long process and that it could take time to see it to completion.

Exhibit design is an incredibly creative process and it can create an enormous sense of satisfaction.  When you have the opportunity to do it, make the most of it.  If you have to just sit and watch, remember to not just sit on the sideline.

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Do you want your audience to come back? Leave them hanging

Last Sunday I tuned HBO for the season finale of “Game of Thrones”. For you that are not familiar with the series everything happens in a fantasy medieval age with a story full of Kings, Lords, knights, and queens trying to become “THE” king. After bitting my nails for 70 minutes during the last episode of the season I felt like some story lines came to an end or I had a few answers to most questions but most important… I want MORE Game of Thrones.

Just like the Harry Potter movies or the twilight zaga once you watch the first movie you are doomed to either hate it or visit the movie theater multiple times to see “the end”.

I have been to interpretive programs where they give you a lot of valuable information and make it relevant to me but also left me hanging and wanting even more, I call this the “To be continued…” effect. If you do this effectively at the end of your program not only your audience will be glad you shared a natural or cultural resource with them, they will be wanting more. Your audience will either pick up a book on their way out, look up online more information or even better, signup for your next program.

When I teach basic “Map and compass” class by the end kids and most parents are excited to know how to use a compass and find their bearing. Before I wrap up my program I explain to them that compasses are used in modern days as a low tech option or backup  and bring my GPS out. I tell them what a GPS can do and encourage them to signup for my GPS program.  Usually at least half of them will at least try to attend the next program.

Try this next time at the end of your program and who knows, maybe you will find your audience coming back just like Harry Potter fans going back to the movies 8 times to watch “the end”.

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