We talked to more than 150 people that day and on Monday, when we did a debrief, Shannon made an observation that I continue to think about, and will carry it forward into my work.
"I think we over and under estimate our visitors," she said. I looked at her a bit curiously, and she continued, "I think we overestimate the knowledge they come with and their interest in deep details and underestimate what they're up for." And I think Shannon is absolutely right--and the real trick in compelling, effective, creative interpretation is to figure out the ever-changing balance between those two poles. For me, the best way to find that balance at your own museum is to actually get out there and talk to people, as Stowe Center did.
Many of us overestimate:
- The knowledge our audience arrives with. For instance, few of us have actually read Uncle Tom's Cabin so knowledge of the plot is pretty hazy.
- Their willingness to absorb large amounts of detail while standing up (this goes for labels and guided tours!)
- Their interest in the distinguishing details of objects.
- Their willingness to be "taught" to as opposed to free-choice learning.
- In historic houses, their interest in one bedroom after another (unless of course, ghosts are involved!)
- The need for technology in every situation.
- What our audiences are up for in terms of innovative experiences. They can probably cope--and more accurately might enjoy and learn from-- a historic house that includes a mix of period rooms and exhibit spaces.
- Their willingness to consider big ideas as a frame for their museum experience. When we asked visitors at Stowe House what one question they would like to ask Harriet Beecher Stowe, the vast majority of visitors we spoke to had a version of the same question: "How did you find the courage to write this book?" That's a big important question and well worth considering.
- Their interest in details. Yes, I know this seems contradictory to an overestimate above, but it's true, some of our visitors want to delve deep so we need to find ways to make that deep-diving accessible but not compulsory.
- The willingness of audiences to engage with stories of lives very different than their own--and their abilities to, with skillful facilitation, make fascinating connections and parallels.
- Interest in the real thing--the authentic object particularly when the object has a compelling story.