Two techniques using visualisation to connects with visitors

I’m often asked how to go about creating interpretation, exhibitions or activities that really connect with visitors. Not just for museums but also heritage sites, outside spaces and any form of public engagement really. We all know when an experience has hit the sweet spot but where do we start and what is the process to get to that?

In this blog post and the next one I will share two techniques I use that involve visualisation to help staff to put themselves in visitors’ shoes.

What does success look like?

Jedburgh Abbey

This is the first technique I use. It’s a visualisation around the question ‘what does success look like?’

Step one in this technique is the most important; grab a notebook and pen and leave your desk! Go to your site, gallery, museum floor and find somewhere to sit. If you don’t have a site or museum (yet) then go to the collection or to a place closely related to the story you will be telling.

Close your eyes… and ask yourself what does success look like for the people who will be engaged with my project? What do you see? Do you see visitors? Scholars? do you see families? adults? young people? staff or volunteers?

What are they doing? Do you see quiet contemplation? or raucous laughter? do you see individuals sitting sketching? or groups of children engaged in noisy exploration? Scribble down everything you see in your mind’s eye in whatever form works for you (personally i’m a ‘spider diagram’ kind of scribbler). I think it’s quite important that you don’t let presentation get in the way of your visualisation here so quick and immediate and ideally ‘en plein air‘ is the best approach.

An Example:

Over the three years 2017-2020 I worked with Historic Environment Scotland on family activities they could use across their sites. The suite of activities included family ‘Explorer packs’ alongside outdoor games and activity carts. There were three different packs devised; Castles, Abbeys and Prehistory. The contents cards for these packs are based around the answers to the ‘success’ visualisation above. In my visualisation families were interacting together, they were having fun and discovering details they might have missed otherwise, they were also being a bit silly.
The prompts and props this led to for the first pack, to be used at castles, were LOOK, EXPLORE, PLAY and ENTERTAIN.
For Abbeys we changed PLAY to LISTEN and ENTERTAIN to IMAGINE.
For prehistory we have ideas to investigate for CREATE and DISCOVER as well as the other words.

In most cases the visualisation might not lead quite as directly into visitor-facing prompts and text but the intention should still be there in the objectives for the exhibit or activity. The development process from the objective to successful delivery is not often straightforward. There are many issues to resolve including practicality, usability, robustness, prototyping and visitor testing. But I believe that getting the initial the objectives right and being able to bring them to life in a visualisation of what success looks like offers the best possible starting point and way to keep on-track.