A different kind of ‘park’ visit

Today was Adelaide PARK(ing) day, where groups take over a city centre parking space and turn it into something else for a few hours.

According to the website, it started in San Francisco in 2005 and has since gone global with around 100 cities participating.

It is based on the idea that a parking space is just rented space – so if it can be occupied by a car, then why not something else? So for a few hours either side of today’s lunch hour, around a dozen city centre parking spaces were turned into art installations, outdoor design studios and miniature market gardens (including live chickens in one instance!).

Hosking Design's 'Happy Days' cutout figures

I managed to see all but one of them, which either wasn’t there or I blinked and missed it among the usual hustle-bustle of Gouger St.

Quoting the website, PARK(ing) Day is all about:

* Calling attention to the importance of urban public spaces
* Rethinking the way we use our streets
* Creating diverse conversations about design and how we make sustainable cities

JPE Design's comment wall

So how well did the parks achieve these objectives? Well based on my experiences, the most successful ones had at least two of three following ingredients:

  • Good Location: some sites were just better positioned than others. I had a map and systematically looked out for all of the parks, but I would have been in the minority. Most people would have stumbled across them on their lunch break. So those which were on reasonably busy thoroughfares (but not so busy that they were lost in amongst all the other goings on) seem to have the best conversations and interactions with passers by.
  • Something to do: those who had a way for the public to get involved somehow, for instance Hosking Design’s large cut-out figures which doubled as comment walls for people’s ideas about sustainability. (Although I think this might have worked better if it the topics for comments were bit more specific and focused – I probably wasn’t the only one who was at a loss for words when a pen was shoved in my hand). JPE’s artwork where people could map the paths they’d taken that day in lengths of string was another creative idea and primed thinking about the journeys we make.
  • Passionate people: parks who were staffed by energetic teams who seemed to genuinely enjoy engaging with the public, explaining what it was about, and getting passersby involved.

To get a flavour of the different parks, there is a Flickr stream on the PARKing day homepage.

(PS. I give the “sense of humour” prize to design company Enoki. Their park, entitled ‘All my friends are dead’, comprised a sole dinosaur skeleton made from large orange profile-cut pieces. There may have been a more profound story behind this installation, but unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to look too closely as there was a huge crowd of school kids lining up to get into the cinema right next to them. Wonder what they made of it?)

None of the above

Do you fail to fit into neat little boxes?

You know it’s never going to be good when the tax man rings.

By the time I’d fished my phone out of the bottom of my handbag (d’oh!), the call had gone to voicemail. So at 9am this morning I had an ominous message to the effect of “Could the authorised contact for the ABN xxx call the Tax Office within seven days.” Gulp.

So I dutifully called the number given and patiently waited on hold for several minutes, all the while wondering what it could be – did I win the lucky draw for an audit? Did they find out about that Grade 5 assignment that I didn’t hand in? Exactly what was I in for and how deep was I in it?

So it was a bit of a relief when they said that the reason for their call was to confirm what business category I was in. On my business registration form I’d written what I thought was a reasonable description of what I do: consultancy to museums and cultural sector; interpretive writing; so on. Problem is, that doesn’t mean nada in tax land. The subsequent discussion went something like this:

What do you do most of the time?

Well, at the moment, it’s writing.

So are you an author?

Er, no. Not in any way you’d be thinking anyway. (I was pretty careful about saying I was a creative in any way, as being in an ‘artistic’ category apparently puts you into a scary tax-related No Man’s Land which I didn’t want to get into.)

What else do you do?

Well, I’ve just been trawling through historical archives getting images and footage for a client.

So what would you call that then?

I don’t know, you tell me!

You can see where this is going, can’t you? Because what I do is such a mixed bag of things, I don’t fit neatly into pre-defined categories which are worked out by – let’s face it – Bean Counters. “Specialist Generalist” is not something they can wrap their heads around.

We ended up settling on some anodyne-sounding ‘professional services’ category. Whatever. I asked what they needed a category for, and it seemed to be mostly for statistical purposes. Fine, but if I don’t fit properly into any of the categories, I’m hardly going to help any statistical analysis am I?

So what, you ask? It’s not going to make any difference in the general scheme of things. If I keep my receipts and pay my taxes on time, no men-in-white-pinstripes are going to come and get me.

But it does get me thinking – how many of us don’t neatly fit into these boxes? My experience says – LOTS. So how useful are they? Are all these neat little categories making some people’s life a lot harder, just so it can make some other people’s lives a little easier?

And what about if those boxes were on a grant application, for something really innovative and new? Would it never get past the first round-file-filter, just because no-one could find a neat ‘box’ to put it in?

Now that would be a real shame.

Top 5 barriers to visitor engagement

Everything you do is saying something to a visitor

But do you like what it says?

Sometimes, it is the NON-interpretive elements of a visitor experience that leave the most lasting impression – and not necessarily a good one.

In a few weeks’ time I’ll be presenting a workshop – Interpreter as Advocate – at the Interpretation Australia National Symposium in Launceston.

As part of the workshop, interpretive principles will be turned ‘inside out’ – rather than using interpretation just to engage our visitors, how can we use the same principles within our organisations to help build a better overall experience?

In advance of this, here are five top challenges to creating a coherent and compelling visitor experience.

    1. Barriers: these can be either physical or virtual. Being able to provide universal physical access is the most obvious point here, but there are other aspects: clear directional signage (both to and around your site); intuitive layout of visitor services and facilities; websites which are organised according to the way your audience is likely to look for information (which is not necessarily a mirror of your management structure!)

    2. Inconsistencies: does your interpretation sell a message of environmental sustainability, but your café sells drinks in polystyrene cups and your shop sells myriad plastic trinkets that are likely to be landfill before the year is out? Are your front-of-housers friendly but security staff surly? All these inconsistencies can detract from your interpretive message.

    3. Blind spots & Assumptions: Your institution, and those like it, is very familiar to you. You have probably visiting such places for a lot of your life. There are certain norms and expectations which may be so obvious to you that you don’t even see them. Imagine if you’d never been to a National Park or a Museum before (and didn’t know anyone who had) – would you know what was expected of you? Would you feel comfortable or would you feel concerned that as soon as you crossed the threshold you’d break some unwritten code that would immediately flag you as an ‘outsider’? If this seems a bit weird at first, consider how you would feel going to a place where you would be a complete outsider – for instance a place of worship for an unfamiliar religion, or a social activity that is vastly outside your cultural experience– daunting, isn’t it? And that may be how some potential visitors feel about you!

    4. Misalignment: this includes efforts which are not necessarily wrong, but are aimed at the wrong kind of audience. For an example from another field, consider a friend of mine who recently ordered fluorescent light bulbs from a supposedly ‘environmentally-friendly’ company. Along with her order came: “an unasked-for green bag, two shower timers and a fridge magnet.” Her verdict? Landfill! The company was undoubtedly trying to be mission-consistent, but in the case of my already-converted friend, the preaching was a waste of time and resources. In fact, it ultimately sent her a message which was the exact opposite of that intended.

    5. Superfluous services: related to misalignment, this is offering benefits or services that your audience neither notices nor particularly values. It’s not a barrier to visitor engagement per se; but it can be to the extent that it diverts valuable time and resources which could be better spent elsewhere.

Have you ever encountered these examples, either in your own institution or as a visitor elsewhere? Are there others that I’ve missed out from this list?

Give me your thoughts, or better yet – come to the workshop!