It's hard to believe that it's been two years since I shared Shannon Burke's observation about visitors gained during a prototyping day at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. She noted that we tend to both over-estimate our visitors' knowledge and underestimate what they're up for. This past weekend I was back at Stowe Center, doing more prototyping and was reminded of the underestimating part--and why prototyping is always, always, worth it.
In the interpretive planning for the new experience at the Stowe House, we'd been struggling with how to convey the impact that Uncle Tom's Cabin made in its initial publication as a serial in the National Era. Our designer, Roger Westerman, came up with a suggestion--an audio installation that conveyed the sense of one voice reading, then another, then an entire room filled with voices reading the book.
And here's why you prototype. We weren't at all convinced (okay, Emily was) that this would work so we decided to give it a try, on Stowe's birthday celebration, when there were many visitors. Rather than audio, we decided to try it as a participatory activity. After a brief (very brief--that's another lesson we're continually learning) introduction and passing out of an typed excerpt, I read a sentence from a chapter. I asked one person to join me in reading, and then invited the whole group to read along. Our groups were amazingly varied that day: from a high school basketball team, to seniors, to international visitors. And they did! Not only did they read along, but when we did a debrief, they talked about not only their understanding but also about what it felt like to them.
They absolutely understood, through their own voices, the sense of the words spreading across the country, from person to person. But equally importantly, they felt valued and cared for. One visitor said that he'd never had the opportunity to use his voice on a tour, and loved it. Another likened it to church, in a sense of fully participating. In that vein, a clergyman offered us some good advice about enhancing the experience from his own work. One person said she loved to read aloud; another said she hated it, but because I didn't make anyone read but made it optional, and in a group, that she felt comfortable doing it.
Do we still need an audio installation? Maybe not. Our simple prototype taught us that the collective experience is really what matters.
But here's my bigger take-aways as you work to design new experiences in museums or historic houses:
- Don't be afraid of emotional connections. Many, if not most, visitors crave them.
- Prototype, prototype, prototype.
- Primary sources are powerful. Don't hide them amidst your own words.
- Big ideas don't need big budgets.
- Don't be afraid of failure (we know that's an essential part of the creative process) and equally importantly, support risk-taking. One of the great parts of the Stowe Center interpretive team is the way they support each other (and me) and encourage prototyping ideas.
- Consider ways to make your tour groups a tiny community for the length of the tour. As one person said about the debrief of several different experiences: "Maybe the conversation, us talking here, is really the important part."
- Celebrate success. Yay Stowe team!