Visitor Experience: Out With The Old

This is part two of a series; I suggest you start with the first instalment, here.

Uprooted tree,

Understanding our visitors’ needs and desires and trying to facilitate their experiences—both internal and external—very quickly become more important than creating didactic panels and programs. Organizations have started creating departments of Visitor Experience and hiring directors of Visitor Experience, and we are suddenly left to figure out where our old interpretive planners and front line interpreters fit into the picture.

I believe interpreters were less than engaged with the new visitor experience approach because from our point of view, it wasn’t new. Yes, every visitor has unique needs and interests. The better you know your audience, the more able you are to create experiences that resonate within them. Duh.

But in the more traditional organizations, our directors and CEOs considered this new VE approach to be utterly radical. It was as if they’d just invented Christmas. And they had no idea how their departments of interpretation fit into the new picture. I think it is this discrepancy between what our superiors considered to be new, and what good interpreters have known for fifty years, that led to a widening gap between us.

There’s a big difference between what we think we do, and what our managers think we do. Ask a professional interpreter what she does for a living, and she’ll say she facilitates emotional and intellectual connections. Ask her VP, and he’ll say she runs touch tables and day camps. So when you’re a VP or executive director and you’re looking for someone to revolutionize the way you do business, you’re not going to think of the people downstairs with puppets on their hands.

My own interest in the subject is coloured by my experiences of the last five or six years in the profession. I was hired as an Interpretation Specialist with Parks Canada, our national park system. I worked as a kind of regional consultant, and my responsibilities were evaluation, training and interpretive planning. It was interesting, rewarding work and it got me out spending time with interpreters in western Canada’s incredible parks and historic sites.

But meanwhile, this new emphasis on Visitor Experience was gathering steam, and in our case there was a certain urgency to the movement. Visitation was dropping in our parks and historic sites—it still is—and it was hoped that by taking a more holistic approach to visitor experience we could renew our whole visitor offer and make ourselves relevant to Canadians again.

We hired Visitor Experience managers and Visitor Experience Product Development Officers without really knowing what these people were supposed to accomplish. What on earth does a Visitor Experience Product Development Officer do? Obviously, develop VE products. Except it was never really defined what those were. Is a guided walk a VE product? Is a concert in the park a VE product? Is a picnic table a VE product? Yes, yes and yes as it turns out, but we never really managed to spell that out in any clear way, and we placed new staff in the field without ever getting consensus on what they were supposed to do.

Compounding the confusion was the fact that we still had our interpretation supervisors and interpretation officers. These worked side by side with the new VE people, but there was no clear delineation of duties. One was supposed to do interpretation and the other did Visitor Experience, as if they were two different things. By creating the positions in parallel, we implied a dichotomy that now seems to be fairly well entrenched in our profession: if it’s didactic, it’s interpretation. If it’s holistic, it’s visitor experience. If it’s a classical learning experience, it’s us. If it’s anything recreational, restorative, sensory, or aesthetic, it’s them. We allowed our colleagues and superiors to define us, and we seem to have accepted this narrowing of our discipline without putting up much of a fuss.

We’ve allowed ourselves to be sidelined by the VE revolution.

I’m here to suggest you that this division of disciplines, this awkward new custody arrangement that has become our status quo, is the very antithesis of what the new model of visitor experience was supposed to accomplish. The essence of the new VE is that learning can never be compartmentalized: there is no moment where VE ends and interpretation begins. There is no moment when we, in a park or museum or zoo, say, “Ok everyone, stop with the visitor experience already! We’re going to bring you some interpretation.” Yet that is precisely what we have let happen. By allowing ourselves to be relegated to the purely and traditionally didactic, we have rendered ourselves less relevant.  Nowadays, while our visitors are out there on the floor having Visitor Experiences—having their identities and motivations accommodated by new and exciting programs and facilities—we wait down in our offices for our cue to bring up the biofacts for twenty minutes. I wish I was exaggerating.

In the zoos and aquariums I’ve worked for, interpretation is not even involved in exhibit development until after all the big visitor experience decisions are made. The audience is identified, the goals are set, the entire experience is mapped out on paper, and then the interpretive department is brought in to see if they can add a little programming.

Another case in point: new media. Every organization I’ve worked for has a new media department now, producing educational video, digital interactives and cell phone tours, and not a single one of those agencies has placed that New Media office within the department of interpretation. Most of them don’t even talk to us. How is digital visitor experience not interpretation? How is it anything but the creation of experiences that foster emotional and intellectual connections with the resource? And how did we let this happen?

Over in the UK, the National Trust was among the first of the big old organizations to adopt a VE approach. Their director famously opened a keynote address to the Association for Heritage Interpretation with a slide that simply said, “Interpretation is dead.” (Now in reality, interpretation is far from dead at the National Trust, but it was indicative of the shift there away from old-school interpretation, which was once the core of their program.) And meanwhile back in Canada, I lost my title of Interpretation Specialist in 2012. Interpretation specialists were now extinct—as was the interpretation department itself. I was now a Visitor Experience advisor.

The visitor experience revolution has happened; that ship has sailed and it’s not coming back. It may be more advanced in the UK and Canada than in the US but if you haven’t been touched by it yet, I suspect you will be soon.

And that leaves us in a new and inconvenient position: what will become of us? Are we content to be a small, narrow and old-fashioned subset of the new, sexy and all-encompassing visitor experience? Do we really see interpretation as isolated moments of learning within the arc of a greater visit? I don’t think we do.

I think there’s still time for us to re-insert ourselves into visitor experience. I think the biggest obstacle we face is probably our own perception of ourselves. We have a few deeply cherished beliefs about our profession that we need to revisit in order to join the revolution; I’d like to try to identify the most crippling of our obstacles.

Next instalment: High Horses and Ivory Towers

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