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Putting Visitor Research Data to Work at the Colony of Avalon

by Jane Severs, Colony of Avalon board member and Executive Director, Association of Heritage Industries Newfoundland & Labrador on

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The Colony of Avalon is widely recognized as the best preserved early English colonial site in North America. Located in the rural community of Ferryland, Newfoundland, the colony was established in 1621 by Sir George Calvert (the First Lord Baltimore) as a place where Protestants AND Catholics could live and worship in peace.

Today, the Colony is our region’sanchor heritage attraction and boasts a visitor centre, giftshop, re-created 17th century kitchen and gardens, and an on-going professional archaeology program that just completed its 25th season!

With every scrape of an archaeologist’s trowel, stirring of a pot, or planting of a seed, we’re coming a little bit closer to understanding the history of the Colony and the lives of the people who lived here. And we encourage our visitors, both on-site and on-line, to join us in this process through programming like Archaeologist for a Day and the Great Colonial Cook-Off.

We have amazing staff, a dedicated board of directors, and super supporters. Together, we’ve achieved some great things but, like every community-run organization, we also have real challenges. We know there are things we could and should be doing better, but which should we prioritize and how do we convince funders and donors to lend their support?

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In 2015, the Colony took part in AASLH’s Visitors Count! program to better understand how visitors experience and perceive our site. It’s been just six months since we received our Visitors Count! survey report. Here’s the low down on what’s happened since then.

First, our survey results clearly showed that the biggest factor in determining visitor satisfaction at our site is whether visitors have a personal interaction with our archaeology field crew. Unfortunately, due to budget limitations, our field crew is only on-site until mid-August, which is the peak of our visitor season.

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This summer, armed with our survey results that clearly demonstrate the benefit of having archaeologists on site, the Colony was able to secure a donation from a private donor which covered the entire cost of extending our archaeology season until our closing date (September 26).

Next, our survey results also showed that the Colony ranked lower than average on dependability of information received. This was a real surprise (and a real concern since research is a core part of our mandate and our branding is “Real history in real time”).

So we did a bit of extra probing of our visitors and discovered that this result was at least partially due to the costuming of our interpreters in our recreated 17th century kitchen.

When we initially established the kitchen in 1999, we researched and commissioned historically accurate period clothing. However, as the years progressed and that clothing wore out, it was replaced by not so authentic items made by staff and local volunteers. While this clothing filled a need (and fit the budget) its obvious inaccuracies led visitors to instinctively perceive our interpreters as being less informed and having less historical authority. Simply put, they judged a book by its cover.

Armed with this information, we applied for and recently received grant funding to research and produce new, historically accurate clothing for our kitchen interpreters.

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Visitors Count! has made a real difference in our organization … and we’re just getting started!

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