Putting interpretation at the heart of visitor experience: My Closing Remarks from the AHI Conference 2012

It is hard to sum up a conference as good as that, especially before it’s over –  but I love an adrenalin surge. So when I was asked to compose the parting thoughts from the 2012 AHI Conference, I gave it my best shot. Happily, my spur-of the moment words seemed to hit a note with several delegates. Here is (roughly) what I said (and one thing I SHOULD have said) :

My job is to look back at the last three days and to look forward to what it might all mean.  Of course, it is far too soon, and the experience was much too rich and varied to do that. These are therefore, just my personal responses.

It was a very good conference; our great thanks to the organisers for the excellent programme. It has been great to share this well-planned  experience.

Much Wenlock – things to see, things to talk about.

We have all heard the same talks, got on the same buses, been to the same places, eaten the same meals. But best of all, that programme was always wrapped in a buzz of lively conversation.  The same activities and different conversations add up to over 90 unique experiences of the conference.

So it is just like interpretation and visits to heritage sites.

Over and over again our speakers have used the word ‘conversation’ in exploring our conference theme ‘Putting interpretation at the heart of visitor experience‘.  There are two strands to this:

Firstly, we want our interpretation to stimulate conversations amongst our visitors. We know that getting them talking helps them to engage more and, therefore, remember more.

Secondly, we want to deepen and improve our conversations with our visitors.

The importance of the first strand, of using interpretation to embed our content in visitors’ thoughts and conversations was powerfully reinforced for me on our visit to the National Cold War Museum at the RAF Museum at Cosford. (Go here to read what I said about that visit.)

However, that thoughtfully-constructed programme is not the whole conference experience. The well-planned  interpretation is not the whole visitor experience. The experience is what we provide, mixed with how our visitors respond to to it.  The interpretation (or the programme) is the heart of the experience. It stimulates the conversation, and sets it motion. It makes it happen.

But that heart won’t beat without the energy, interest and enthusiasm of visitors. We have also talked here about having better, fuller conversations with visitors. To do this we need to know what a good conversation is.  I spent some time Googling “the Art of Good Conversation”, which was fascinating but probably a waste of time, especially given that the last few days has shown that this group certainly knows how to do ‘conversation’.

We then filled the room with quick, but doubtless good, conversations on what makes a good conversation.

For now (I think there may another blog on this to follow!) here are two thoughts that may illuminate our route to better conversations with our visitors:

To listen closely and reply well is the highest perfection we are able to attain in the art of conversation.” — Francois de La Rochefoucauld.

“A good conversation does not knock down the other person’s ideas but builds on them.”

We are in the best position ever to listen to our visitors.  They are talking about us – on TripAdvisor, on Twitter, on YouTube, on Facebook. We need to make sure we are listening closely and responding well.

Shropshire Museums seem to be listening.

In the future there are going to be more voices and more choices in our interpretation. User-generated content is becoming commonplace and, as we have heard, we are moving into involving our users in what used to curatorial, or organisational choices about the selection and treatment of that content.  There is a power shift happening and as we listen to more voices, and make braver choices our interpretation may become more risky and more contested.

Between now and our 2013 Conference we will be making plans for how we will respond to 2014-2018, the anniversary of The Great War. This is an exciting and important challenge. It is an opportunity for interpreters to listen to and involve many voices. Thank goodness that we are ready and well-equipped with interpretive skills and technology, as this conference has so convincingly demonstrated. We can place our work and our sites at the heart of what must surely be a new, diverse and inclusive national conversation about our heritage, its context and meaning.

(And I SHOULD have said that that conversation must not stop there but needs to be an international conversation.)

Thanks to Ivan Nethercoat for the photographs used in this post.

About susancrosstelltale

Great visits to heritage and natural sites do not happen by accident. This blog is about the work that make special sites great places to visit. I hope it will be useful to visitors and host alike. Find out more at me and my blog.
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