Virtual Tourism and Audience Engagement

A recent issue of The Public Historian contained an interesting article, “#VirtualTourist: Embracing Our Audience through Public History Web Experience” by Anne Lindsay.  The article highlighted the ongoing challenges that cultural heritage sites in engage new and diverse audiences.  Lindsay focused on the potential of institutional web presence in the development of audience and donor relationships. 

On a basic level the article highlights the fact that digital content has become an essential and expected part of any guest interface.  Lindsay also argues that websites have the potential to create spaces of engagement and promote different types of educational interaction. 

However, Lindsay does indicate the online tools should be used as “a gateway to a more encompassing educational environment” [1].  Essentially the narratives of online content and physical content should be interconnected.  Historical narratives of particular groups (eg. women, slaves, farmers etc) should not be relegated to purely online content.  Rather, traditional interpretation should be expanded on online and there should be clear linkages between digital and physical experiences. The two platforms can have different content but the essential mission of the heritage site should be reflected in both the online and physical presence.

Lindsay’s focus on virtual narrative and the potential of virtual spaces for education and outreach is reflexive of a general feeling in the cultural heritage field.  Many smaller organizations are struggling to develop digital content and platforms that appeal to changing audience needs.  The technical knowledge and staff time commitment to create a changing web presence (something more than a digital version of a brochure) can be daunting.  The cost vs benefit of any new initiative is always in the forefront of heritage institutions who are facing an uncertain fiscal future, especially when it includes venturing into uncharted territory.

However, increasingly cultural heritage organizations are realizing the importance of digital content and digital engagement.  Countless number of articles, professionals, and organizations are talking up the potential of digital engagement.  There is a whole realm of potential donors and potential “virtual tourists” for organizations to engage on a purely digital platform.  Additionally, digital content has the potential to enrich visitor experience, provide additional educational material, and create learning opportunities that sometimes aren’t feasible onsite.  For example, a seasonal site that closes during the winter can still interact with potential visitors and donors online during the off-season, opening up expanded programming and outreach possibilities.

The path to digital engagement doesn’t happen over night. But low cost options and documentation surrounding planning are becoming  increasingly accessible to organizations of all shapes and sizes.

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[1] Anne Lindsay, “#VirtualTourist: Embracing Our Audience through Public History Web Experience” The Public Historian 35, no.1 (Winter, 2013) , 77.

Community Knowledge and Active Listening

This week I am spending a lot of time outside of the archive.  The archive is hosting a group of concurrent education students as part of a trial summer institute experience.  The basis for this summer institute is providing an education setting that focuses on experiential learning in relation to Aboriginal heritage and Northern Ontario.  The week includes a few formal lecture type discussions, but for the most part activities are focusing on the real world and engaging with local communities.

Learning outside of a traditional education setting can be extremely rewarding.  It can also be a bit overwhelming for students who have been trained to learn in a lecture or classroom setting.   One of the most important skills that aren’t emphasized in formal education settings is the act of active listening and effective oral communication. 

Listening to someone explain their own past as a formal oral history or in a more casual conversation can be an amazing learning opportunity.  However,  listening passively and not having a feel for the situation and atmosphere of the conversation can limit how much is shared or learned.  Sometimes it is not appropriate to interrupt a speaker to ask questions, other times a conversation where you ask directed questions is completely fine.  Knowing the person who you are speaking to helps a lot, as does reading the setting. 

For example, interrupting a First Nations Elder with questions when they are providing a formal teaching probably isn’t the most appropriate.  Chances are the Elder will ask you if there are questions at the end.  If a question period isn’t part of the session it’s often possible to say thank you to the speak and ask short questions individually at the end of the session.  A good facilitator will explain if questions are appropriate at the beginning, but this doesn’t always happen. 

Yesterday, one of the community members the group visited spoke about the importance of thinking with both your heart and mind and responding to the situation appropriately.  I think the advice is definitely valid.  A lot of academically trained individuals have a hard time expanding beyond traditional school thoughts.  When learning in a less formal more community based setting it is important to step away from purely academic modes of learning and be open to different interpretations and understandings of knowledge.