Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Visitor Identity (is a Vital Thing)

The cultural center where I work recently launched a temporary exhibit about Spanish influences on culture in the region. A portion of the exhibit looked at the historical connections and the rest of the exhibit featured the diversity of contemporary culture and its connections to the region. Staff at the center worked with members of the Latin American community in the region.

The original challenge was the development of the exhibit. We wanted the members of the group to tell their story and share what they wanted to share. We also needed to make sure the exhibit fit into the park's interpretive objectives while remaining reasonably manageable. We also needed to develop the interpretation in a manner that would deliberately make the connections to these stories to that of the broader region's culture. That required several meetings and conversations. My biggest challenge was resisting the urge to take over. Community projects like this are dynamic, organic, and should be flexible. That was easier said than done. A friend of mine led a similar project (on a much bigger scale) and I found myself sharing some of the same frustrations, learning the same lessons.

The exhibit has now been up for over two weeks. I am finding that the biggest crowd that comes to visit the center because of the temporary exhibit are members from the community that helped put the exhibit together. Many have never been to the center before, even admitting how they did not know it existed. But these visitors almost always take the time to see the rest of the exhibits and watch the film. What I find the most interesting is how they are drawn to see the space they helped create, the stories that help build their identity. For some, the items on display are their own items from their own houses; seeing those items on display stirs up such excitement!

In fact, this happens with many locals who visit the center's permanent displays: they visit to find connections to their identity displayed in a museum. They remember using some of the tools, their grandmother owning that china, their family owned farming equipment, they've worked on some of the boats depicted on the walls. Many times, for locals who come to learn more about their "roots," they are happy to walk through and learn about whatever it is we have on display in our temporary exhibit space. In this case, locals who don't claim a Spanish heritage want to share stories about their connections to the exhibit or their knowledge of Spain's influence on the region.

Both types of visitors arrive seeking a connection to their identity. In fact, I would even argue those passport stamp-collecting visitors are looking for a connection to their identity. If the United States National Park Service deemed a site or a story worth preserving, then it must be a part of this nation's collective identity, right? Pack up those kids, tie the luggage to the top of the van, we have to see the places that mean "America!" Yet, sometimes, we (site managers/interpreters) struggle with making the types of meaningful connections to all Americans (hence the explanation of the average national park visitor not necessarily representing the diversity of this nation). It isn't that most people aren't willing to listen to the variety of stories found at historic sites, it is their lack of awareness beforehand.

I understand that I am mostly preaching to the choir (historic sites and national parks have been struggling with broadening audiences for a loooong time) and that these are not easy issues. I don't know what solutions exist or how other sites are attempting to open their doors wider to new audiences. I even fear that once this temporary exhibit goes away, so will some of the diversity of our current visitors. But understanding visitors' identity connections serves as one element that makes up the "knowing your audience" portion of good interpretation.

How do you see yourself in stories told at historic sites?

*Note: These thoughts are my own and do not officially represent those of the National Park Service.

*I like hearing others' perspectives. What kinds of solutions have you seen historic sites implement to broaden their audiences?

1 comment:

  1. I am also trying to build these connections in my classes, particularly in us history surveys. It can be tough-I don't have an easy solution-but rewarding for all when it works.