Saturday, September 6, 2008

In a Surprising Place

Sometimes you just don't know where you'll find interesting exhibits. In Peru, as we took a two day tour to the Colca Canyon, we made a stop at the Visitor Center of the Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca. The Reserve itself is an incredible, beautiful landscape...but one that, in a way, hides its secrets. The Visitor Center did a tremendous job at introducing the landscape and the people and animals that inhabit it, and at the same time, making us, as visitors, aware of how fragile this place is.

What made the exhibits here engaging?

It's right outside. Nothing like gaining some knowledge that you can put to immediate use as you go outdoors.

Simple (and bi-lingual) labels. From this one, I know what the swamp is good for--and I want to learn more about what those subsistence products for humans are (and I did learn later in the exhibit). And labels (below) that effectively used questions.

Simple interactives. No computer touch screens, no holograms. This works because it so clearly ties problems and solutions together.

Easy to understand. This two-sided visual (this must have a technical name) allowed visitors to see the seasons.

Most importantly, this exhibit really connected us to the survival of this unique place. In informal conversations with guides and other people, for instance, the issue of global warming isn't theoretical, it's a problem that's happening now, where they live. These thoughtful labels made us think about the future. As a tourist, it's always difficult to be both a part of the problem and a part of the solution. Tourism helps develop a region, but it also irreparably changes the landscape and the lives of the people who live there. I appreciated the reminder of a deeper responsibility.

And what's the take-away for small museums? This was not an expensive exhibit. But the thought and care that went into its development is what mattered. It wasn't just a display of objects or images. It had a story to tell, and through a real commitment to visitor engagement, did so for me.

And, as my colleague Susie Wilkenning will appreciate, for many visitors there, the bathrooms, after a long, bumpy van ride, were clean and available--a plus for any museum or visitor center!

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