Monday, August 8, 2016

Visitors Make Meaning: From Hilary to Elsa

As with many of you, Nina Simon's new book on relevance is on my must-read list this summer, although I haven't gotten there yet.  But I'm looking forward to digging into her thoughts on relevance, as it's something repeatedly appearing in my own work and something I want to understand more about.

Last week, in some prototyping efforts at The Old Manse, a property of the Trustees, I saw visitors' ability to make relevant connections in action and wanted to reflect on the experience. The Old Manse is a complicated property, with a long, continuous family history.  But it's not just a family site, but a house that overlooked the first battle of the American Revolution and the place where Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote Nature.  There's much to think about in the house but one of our goals in rethinking the interpretation is to better connect these complex stories to visitors of all ages and interests.

What we found was that we didn't need to be explicit about content, but if conversations on a guided tour are opened up, visitors rapidly make their own relevant connections, creating a deeper experience.  Here's a few examples:

In one room, the guide plays the role of William Emerson (1743-1776)  known as the Patriot Preacher, who was chaplain of the Continental Congress. Visitors are asked to play the roles of real Concord residents, coming to ask the minister his opinion.  One twelve year old boy received the card of someone who felt it was hypocritical to own slaves and fight for freedom.  He asked the minister for his opinion and I responded, as the minister,  that I didn't see the hypocrisy, as I own slaves myself. This boy then proceeds to offer an unscripted spontaneous, passionate, articulate defense of freedom for all--no matter their race, color, religion or beliefs.  His parents looked at him surprised, but this young man made it absolutely relevant to today.

In the same space, when an introduction to the house mentioned that Emerson built the house, a visitor asked, "But who really built the house?" --  a question surely prompted by Michelle Obama's speech at the Democratic convention.

Also on the tour, visitors are introduced to Sarah Ripley (1793-1867) brilliant and entirely self-educated, who read seven languages and tutored Harvard undergraduates in the parlor here.  "Today, she could have been president,"  said one older woman on the tour.  No surprise where that comment came from.

One final meaning-making story from the experiments:  in one room, we share the story of newlyweds Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne, who thought of their brief time at the Old Manse as a perfect romantic time.  When I asked a tour group what kind of place was romantic to them, one nine year old girl answered quickly, "a cave behind a waterfall."  Surprised, I asked why-- evidently I have not seen Frozen, because a romantic scene happens behind a waterfall (and dating myself, I instantly thought of Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans).

In each of these situations, we didn't just share information, nor did we make the explicit connection--we provided space for meaning-making.  This means we have to give up the urge to share everything we know, and it also means that we have to be okay with uncertainty--and sometimes discomfort. It also means that current events may always be a part of the interpretive experience, because it's what visitors are bringing with them.  For more perspective on this meaning-making, check out this post from Nicole Deufel. My time at The Old Manse was also a reminder of the value of prototyping.  Visitors love to be a part of experimentation and that experimentation enables us to refine how we do this kind of work. If we can let go of our urge to control both the narrative and our visitors experience, those visitors will surprise us on a regular basis with their passion, intelligence and curiosity.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better." Experiment away!

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