Let us talk less about learning, and more about connecting with essence of place, about the forging of links, the fostering of emotions and the long-term making of meaning.
This is the conclusion of my series on the Visitor Experience (VE) Revolution. You might want to start with the first chapter, here.
I consider myself both a champion and a casualty of the new visitor experience paradigm. And as a career interpreter, I find I have fairly strong feelings about how learning fits into this new picture.
I think we’re going to have to be judicious in our use of the L-word for a while. Learning is a hot-button term among managers, just as marketing is among interpreters. The L-word epitomizes all the things our managers are trying to leave behind. We need to choose our terms—and our battles—carefully when charting our path in the new VE.
To that end, I suggest a two-pronged approach. Let us champion learning experiences when we can demonstrate—with our new-found social science expertise—that our audience segments are actually there to learn. And damn it, they still are. The Explorer type, in Falk’s terms, or the Cultural Explorer (and Authentic Experiencer and Cultural History Buff) in EQ terms, are still our bread and butter audiences and we need to continue to meet their needs. They’re actually still in the majority, though in Canada we appear to be doing our best to alienate them. So let us arm ourselves with good research, demonstrate that our audiences do want to learn, and facilitate their learning experiences in all the exciting and innovative ways we’ve always aspired to.
But with that, we must also learn to speak the language of the non-learner. We have to get off our high horses and recognize that some segments don’t want to learn; they will never want to learn, and we have to stop looking down on them. 1
Non-learning audiences are a massive new market and a very attractive one to our managers and boards of directors. And those same managers have made some truly awful efforts at attracting them in the last few years: paint balling at the historic site! Zorbing across our national parks! Zip lines! Zip lines everywhere! As an interpreter, I think these efforts miss the mark, because they slap an extrinsic value on our resources: people come to our sites and go home again without every really connecting with where they’ve been. They may meet their own mandate (having fun), but we don’t meet ours (connecting people to place.) And good visitor experience is all about the win-win. 2
I had an epiphany earlier this year as I was traveling. I had the opportunity spend seven months on a cruise ship, as a lecturer, and as we traveled to different destinations around Australia and the South Pacific, I would go on a lot of different excursions. Snorkelling became a favourite pastime, and I often went as part of a guided trip with the other guests. The snorkelling was very good and I found myself frustrated with the guides: they weren’t teaching anyone. I wanted to know about the fishes and corals, and I kept complaining to my partner, “Why isn’t that interpreter telling us the names?”
My big epiphany was when I stopped asking that, and started to ask, “Why am I the only one who wants to know?” Nobody else was asking. Everybody was having an incredible, moving, exciting, bucket-list experience on the reefs—but almost nobody needed it to be a learning experience as such.
Now, as an educator, you might think of that as a lost opportunity: some of these people might have actually enjoyed learning the names if they were presented by a good interpreter. But under a more constructivist approach to learning, you back off and realize that this amazing moment of snorkelling will be nested away as a cherished memory, and the next time those guests see a documentary or read an article about the reefs, suddenly everything they learn at that moment will have meaning and relevance because of this trip. And maybe when they’re sitting at Thanksgiving dinner and Uncle Jim the climate-change denier starts beaking off, they will speak with a new voice because of that transformative and ostensibly non-learning experience.
So with these new audiences, let us talk less about learning, then, and more about connecting with essence of place, about the forging of links, the fostering of emotions and the long-term making of meaning. And let us teach our superiors that this approach fits well within the definition of interpretation. It’s what we do, and they don’t need to hire anybody new to make it happen. Let us design experiences that lead our non-learners to genuine, place-based experiences: experiences that are fun, transformative, memorable, and deeply rooted in authenticity. It’s not just good interpretation; it’s good tourism.
What if, when planning experiences for non-learners, we identified behavioural objectives and affective objectives, and left out learning objectives completely?
- Visitor will feel off-shore winds and smell salt air
- Visitor will immerse his/her feet in cold sea water
- Visitor will shake hands and chat with local fisher people
- Visitor will taste fresh local seafood
- Visitor will feel exhilaration, pleasure
- Visitor will feel connection with coastal people, environments and economies
- Learning objectives: none.
- Behavioural objective: Visitor will ride on horseback with park staff, dig fire trenches, eat trail food, speak and work one-on-one with a park ranger
- Affective objective: Visitor will feel connection, passion, satisfaction
- Learning objective: Zero. Nothing. Nothing immediate, anyway. In the days, weeks, months ahead, who knows?
Would that feel like selling out? Would that feel tawdry? Would you feel that your degree in environmental education were suddenly cheapened? I don’t think I would. It would simply be fulfilling our mandate of creating emotional connections between the interests of the visitor and the meanings inherent in the resource.
What if interpretation embraced the world of promotions, rather than looking down on it? In fact, what if we thought of promotions not as a bunch of ads, but rather moments of connection that happen during the wishing and planning phase of the visitor experience cycle? That might sound a bit airy-fairy, but it’s absolutely brilliant when you see it in action. A few years ago the Vancouver Aquarium took an interpretive approach to its advertising: a lamp post was cleverly disguised as a glowing angler fish, and the call to action was a visit to the bioluminescence exhibit. A frightening shark’s fin appeared in the water near the Vancouver sea wall, but at low tide it revealed an ad for sharks and rays on display. These ideas are clever enough to go viral, yet still honour the integrity of the institution. They’re on-brand and on-theme; they work as interpretation and promotion equally.
What if the arrival experience were equally interpretive? Big museums like the Louvre are taking their exhibits (and their whole look and feel) and expanding them right into the nearest subway station. Before you even walk through the doors, you’re immersed in the sights and feelings of a beautiful museum. It’s fully promotional, fully welcoming and fully interpretive.
Lastly, what if the departure experience weren’t just a matter of dumping visitors in a cheesy gift shop? What if that shop were fully interpretive and fully thematic? What if we could say with pride that not only were we making money in that shop, but facilitating the remembering phase, with unique souvenirs that honour our messages and our essence of place?
What if, when promotions and merchandising teams got together, they made sure there was an interpreter in the room because our expertise was too valuable to ignore?
Of all the professions in the cultural tourism sector, interpreters should be the ones to lead the way in the visitor experience revolution. I believe that we are the ones who are in the best position to facilitate fully integrated, fully satisfying, fully memorable experiences. And isn’t that the holy grail, after all? A visit where nothing is compartmentalized: where everything flows seamlessly and effortlessly through the entire visit cycle, forging connections from start to finish?
The visitor experience revolution is well underway. You’d better make sure you don’t get left in the dust.
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- Obviously, everyone is a learner: we all learn to tie our shoes, make it through school in some form, etc. By learner in this context I’m referring to people for whom learning is a substantial motivator when choosing visitor experiences. ↩
- Actually I’m fairly sure that, in the right hands, Zorbing and zip lining could be very interpretive activities—but sadly, they’re generally not done that way. ↩