Staring down the rabbit hole of change

I am an interpretive planner and visitor experience advisor. I work with museums, historic sites, zoos, aquariums, and parks helping them evaluate and improve their relevance, revenue, and attendance.

In other words, you call someone like me when things aren’t going as well as they used to—or when you have a vision of how much better things could be.

You call me when your visitation has flat-lined, or your feedback and evaluations aren’t what they used to be. You call me when the way you told your stories 25 years ago just doesn’t seem to work anymore. You call me when there are people, stories, and issues that are important in your community, but are nowhere to be found in your stories and exhibits. You call me when your visitors themselves no longer reflect the greater community you want to serve.

And so you stare down the giant rabbit hole of change, with someone like me there to hold your hand through it. It’s what I do.

Inside that rabbit hole is the re-examination of your your site and your stories in a world that has changed. That is a bit scary.

Inside that rabbit hole is an examination of your museum’s potential as agents of change in your community. That is really scary. 

And finally, inside the rabbit hole is the re-evaluation of yourself as a professional: your knowledge, your biases, and your privileges in order to become an agent of change. And that can be terrifying.

The day I jumped into the rabbit hole

A few years ago I was working on a contract with a National Historic Site, and as part of that contract my client and I visited a historic home in Ottawa. They had a new exhibit called Canada’s Kitchen, and it was a fully kitted-out Second World War kitchen, fully touchable and interactive, where they communicated what it was like to run your household during the war.

Canada’s Kitchen, Laurier House National Historic Site

On the day we were there, they had an interpreter in first-person character. She played a young housewife whose husband was fighting overseas. She was good at her job, and we had a lot of fun with her, asking her questions and letting her walk us through her kitchen and her daily tasks. The emphasis was on the war effort: how many shortages there were, how they salvaged and recycled, what staples she could cook with and what she had to do without due to rationing.

The interaction was light and pleasant and fun—until she took a moment to talk about her husband, and how long it had been since she had heard from him, and she really didn’t have cause to worry but…

This interpreter was a good actor. She didn’t have to say much, but as she spoke, I found myself taking on her character’s emotional burden. It was a lot. Suddenly the immense personal sacrifice, the unbearable daily weight of the war for people like her— in kitchens all across the country—became real to me as it never had before.

Now, for those of us in the interpretation business, we can look back on an interaction like that and we can say “Hey, that is one effective program.” But there was more to it. There was a one-two punch that I wasn’t expecting.

As I thanked the interpreter and walked away from the interaction, I had a second realization that floored me: things are different today. We are no longer called upon to make sacrifices in times of war. I mean, clearly, soldiers and their families in Canada still make tremendous sacrifices for the country. But the rest of us? Something has changed. Think of Afghanistan, think of Iraq for the USA, think of modern warfare: nobody ever says to us we need to spend less, recycle more, give up personal comforts. We are shielded from the sacrifices of war, and somebody somewhere benefits by shielding us. “Everything’s all right! Keep shopping!” is how we are exhorted to contribute to our nation’s wellbeing, while the military families (who often come from the least wealthy and least powerful segments of our society) make the greatest sacrifices of all. I spent the rest of the day reflecting on this: why? Who benefits from this? What is the political agenda at play here? And the more I reflected, the less comfortable I felt with the answers.

Now I don’t know if this last theme was ever part of their interpretive plan. The interpretive panels didn’t say it; the dramatic interpreter didn’t say it. Nobody explicitly took that message of sacrifice in the kitchen and transposed it onto the current social-political environment. But, as visitors do after a good interpretive experience, I was able to make that connection myself.

I was able to take an exhibit and a program set entirely in 1944, and find deeply moving personal relevance in it. That wartime kitchen was so much more than a wartime kitchen; that interpreter’s character was much more than a wartime bride.

And from that moment, I became committed to helping my clients find the greater social relevance of their sites and their stories.

Are you ready to jump into the rabbit hole?

This post is the introduction to a course I am teaching for the Ottawa Museums Network later this winter: Relevance in a Time of Change. If you’d like to be notified when I open the course to other interested professionals, please sign up for my newsletter.

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