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Visitor Engagement: It’s All About Connections

One of the best sessions at a museum conference that I ever attended was at the 2010 AASLH Annual Meeting. The presenters were Erik Holland, James Hakala, and Mary Kay Cunningham, and the topic was Museum Education 101: Program Development and Presentation. What struck me about this session was how important it is to get back to the basics of interpretation.

Working at a historic house museum where tours are docent-led and timed, we often get caught up in the history that we are trying to pass along and the amount of time we have in which to dispense all of our information. What gets overlooked is visitor engagement. How many docents actively think about whether or not their visitors are enjoying themselves? If you aren’t paying much attention to your visitor, then why should you expect them to pay attention to you? An engaged visitor is one that feels that they are included, that they are part of something unique. Creating an environment where people feel comfortable is vital to creating a positive visitor experience.

Here is a brief list of “back to basics” reminders for visitor engagement that we put together for our docents at the Homestead Museum:

  • Know your visitor. Take a few moments before the tour begins to greet your visitors. A friendly, smiling face puts the visitor at ease and gives you the opportunity to find out where they are from and what brings them to your site, which is knowledge that you can use to your advantage while on tour. The more you can relate to a visitor personally, the more involved they will be in your tour.
  • Watch their body language. If you notice that people are wandering off, looking around, or constantly shifting their weight while you are talking, they are not engaged with the tour. Reignite interest by changing the topic or delivery, or move to a different space.
  • Share the wealth, ask questions. A successful museum tour shouldn’t be one-sided. You shouldn’t be the only one talking. Include your visitor. Avoid questions with “yes” and “no” answers, or ones that require a history degree. Instead, find places in your tour to ask visitors what they think about an object, situation, or idea. If you ask people for their opinion they will be more willing to get involved and less afraid of giving a wrong answer. You score bonus points if you can spark a conversation amongst the members of your tour by asking a question!
  • Use the objects on exhibit. This may seem like a no-brainer, but sometimes we get so caught up in telling a story that an object can seem like an afterthought. People like history they can see and possibly relate to. Use objects to illustrate points within the story, and not just as something to see or touch before moving on to the next stop.
  • Be inclusive. At the Homestead, we often have a great mix of visitors on the same tour including, seniors, families with young children, college students, etc. Sometimes the focus of a docent’s attention falls on select members of the group (usually those that look like they are paying the most attention or that the docent can relate to). Interpreters should be mindful of finding places within their tour where they can engage visitors of various ages, backgrounds, and interests.

This post comes from Gennie Truelock, Programs Coordinator at the Homestead Museum in the City of Industry, CA. In this dynamic position, she develops and implements engaging programs for audiences ranging from preschoolers to seniors. Gennie serves as team chair of the museum’s training and living history teams (portraying a 1920s character herself!), and assists with exhibition planning.

3 Responses to “Visitor Engagement: It’s All About Connections”

  1. July 09, 2013 at 1:04 pm, TobiV said:

    Thanks Alex and Gennie! I am going to print out this post and get it in the hands of our docents.

    Reply

  2. July 11, 2013 at 5:16 pm, Bob Beatty said:

    I agree with Gennie’s comment about objects. One thing we in the Education field sometimes forget in our zest to tell a story is that our biggest competitive advantage in the history/museum field is our artifacts/objects/sites and storytelling is improved greatly by utilizing them rather than overlooking them.

    Let people *see* the real thing (that’s why they’re there) and tell stories that highlight what those artifacts/objects mean.

    In my two posts from my internal focus group (my 9- and 11-year-old daughters), both specifically reference artifacts in their “What I look for when I visit a museum” blog posts. This was a good reminder to me of what drew me to this work in the first place.

    Tyler (age 9) isn’t wired like me, but LOVES artifacts http://www.aaslhnetwork.org/educatorsinterpreters/2013/06/25/what-im-looking-for-thoughts-from-a-nine-year-old-museum-visitor/

    Ryan (age 11) is just like me and LOVES artifacts but in a different way
    http://www.aaslhnetwork.org/educatorsinterpreters/2013/05/01/what-im-looking-for-thoughts-from-an-11-year-old-museum-visitor/

    So, to borrow a phrase from Abigail Adams (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/adams/filmmore/ps_ladies.html), I encourage history educators/interpreters to “Remember the objects.”

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  3. July 20, 2013 at 6:20 pm, Stephanie Seacord said:

    Agree with every one of the basics and would add: it’s about the people, not the crockery. When you came bring the people in the history alive, literally as costumed role-players, virtually by harvesting contemporary-sounding comments (ala Abigail Adams) or simply by showing the heroes of your story as human — visitors of all ages, IMHO, respond.

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