The Interpreter's Handbook
Methods, Skills, & Techniques

The Visitor Center or Museum

The interpretive program can center in a variety of facilities or activities, but is usually located in a visitor center, museum or similar structure. It is here that the primary story of an area or featured subject is presented in some detail to the visitor. Several interpretive activities may originate in or from this facility. It is usually headquarters for the interpretive staff. Most important of all, it is here that the visitor comes in contact with the total program, and can select those activities in which he wishes to take part.

Location of the facility is a most important factor. Where possible, it should be near the visitor's normal route of travel as he enters the area. This enables his first stop at a point where he can get the most assistance in planning his time. Here he will find the key stories of the area, each of which should be designed to be told quickly and clearly. Design of the building is, of course, the job of the architect, but the interpreter can often offer valuable suggestions regarding such things as the lobby, location and design of the information desk, and ways in which the exhibit, audiovisual and work rooms are to be used. An exhibit plan for the building is a subject apart from this discussion. Seldom is the interpreter talented in display techniques. His job is to outline the stories to be told, and let the exhibit designer work out details.

The interpreter is concerned, however, with such things as the information desk and its operation, the audiovisual programs (if any), and any reference collections and their uses.

It is the person at the information desk who helps set the tone for the visitor. Its operation is one of the most important functions of the interpretive program, and one of the most difficult to do well. The attitude of the visitor brings to the desk is largely out of the interpreter's hands. It may be good or bad. However, the attitude he takes away is the responsibility of the interpreter. Thus, one of the first things that must be considered is the impression the visitor receives. Four main factors do much to create a favorable or unfavorable impression:

1. The attitude the visitor brings with him.

This is difficult to gauge in the few seconds as he approaches the information desk. He may have had a bad experience before entering the building that may show itself in any number of ways—discourteous, grouchy, sarcastic, rude, or demanding. On the contrary he may make the job of the interpreter easy by displaying a smile, friendliness and interest. Whatever his attitude may be, the job of the desk attendant is to send him away in a good frame of mind.

2. The appearance of the desk attendant.

A good appearance doesn't solve all the problems that may come to the desk, but it goes a long way toward it! Nothing will cause the visitor to become non-receptive quicker than to find the desk attendant sloppy in appearance. A droopy shirt, soiled neck-tie, uncombed hair, dirty finger nails, too much make-up, and a "tired slouch" will go far toward driving the visitor away, both mentally and physically.

Information Center, Chaco Canyon.

3. The appearance of the desk and its surroundings.

The desk should always appear neat and well organized. Everything should have a place and be in it.

4. The attitude of the attendant.

Even though the first three items above have been taken care of, the attendant can still insure a negative encounter by a poor approach. If the attendant is courteous, patient, cheerful, and quite obviously proud of his job, the chances are the visitor will respond in the desired manner.

There are several things that can be of assistance to the information desk attendant. Good maps are important, if the area being visited is very extensive. These should always be readily available, but not put out on the counter for everyone to help himself. The supply will melt rapidly if this is done, as everyone from age 5 to 50 will take one, regardless of how many are in one family. A map of the area, mounted under glass for everyone to see, is most helpful. It should have key routes and trails in color. A large wall map behind the desk, in three dimension if possible, is very useful. The desk should be well lighted, so that all visitors can see easily. Not everyone will have eyesight adapted to dim light. If properly designed, any programs in the audiovisual room can be activated from the desk by the attendant.

There will always be problems to solve; some easy, others not so. Questions will always be many and varied. They will range from "where are the rest rooms?" to "what is the name of the gray bird I saw down the road?" In every case it is the desk attendant who must handle the question tactfully and helpfully. He must keep in mind that it is never a silly question being asked. The visitor is simply wanting to know something that is, at the moment at least, important to him. A question is silly only when asked in a manner that obviously is used for effect.

There is always the problem of children (and some adults) who do not realize that others would appreciate less noise. To get a child to reduce his lung output without antagonizing parents calls for real tact. There is always the visitor who likes to engage the desk attendant in conversation and monopolize all his attention. Again, tact is required to resolve the matter. If the attendant is a girl, there is always the young man (or much older!) who likes to impress her, and makes it difficult for her to do her job. There is also the person who wants to tell the attendant what is wrong with the operation of the area, museum or facility.

The information desk, if properly operated, sets the stage for an enjoyable visitor experience. While the opportunity for interpretation tends to be somewhat limited, an interested and knowledgeable attendant can steer the visitor into activities that will give him a better appreciation of the values of the area.

Many visitor centers and museums have a room set aside to house all reference collections. These will vary from area to area. Some have extensive collections; others will have only limited materials. The value of a collection is measured in its usefulness, not its size. In a general museum, the collections may range over a broad assortment of items covering many subjects. In a visitor center they should be pretty much restricted to the area, or closely related to some important story in the nearby region.

Large unplanned collections are almost useless for study and research. The care of such collections is wasteful of staff time, and usually at the expense of more valuable specimens. They occupy space, causing crowding which can do damage.

Interior diorama of Father Kino location.

In helping build up reference collections, the interpreter should:

Be concerned with having an inventory of the important area fauna and flora, rocks and minerals, historical and archeological objects, or other subjects of value to the interpretive program.

Be concerned with any rare specimens, as he may not be able to obtain them again.

Collect only what is required, and not load up on some subject simply because of personal interest.

Be concerned with items of special interest to visitors.

Collect any oddities of scientific interest. Have a place for these, but just building up a collection of "freaks" is not sound.

Have a reference series ranging from the common to the uncommon. There is a tendency to ignore the common simply because it is. Common things have a habit of becoming uncommon with the passage of time.

The value of a really good reference collection to the interpreter is often overlooked, and thus many valuable materials are not available when needed. Such a collection:

Is of use to show interested scientists and students.

Is a source of reference for publications that are planned or being developed.

Is a constant source of reference for talks, hikes, etc.

Is a source of identification for the many things visitors are always bringing to you.

Gives stature to your program in the mind of the visitor.

Teaches the value of careful, systematic work to your staff.

Is of interest to visitors. For example, a bird collection can be most helpful to those who have been on a bird walk and wish to delve into the subject a bit deeper. Where possible, a collection should also include hand specimens.

However you may choose to use the facilities, exhibits, audio visual devices, reference collections, etc., in the visitor center or museum, you have at your command most useful and helpful aids in giving your program a strong flavor of quality so important to the visitor.

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Last Updated: 01-May-2008
Copyrighted by Southwestern Parks and Monuments Association
Western National Parks Association