Worrying About the Wow

New museums, interpretive centers, nature centers, zoos, and other interpretive sites often worry about having a “wow” factor – something big and splashy and attention-getting that will cause visitors to stop in their tracks and later say to their friends, “that place had a sensational (fill in the blank here – could be building, exhibit, animal, landscape feature, whatever).” I worry about the wow factor too. I worry that sometimes the desire to have something big and splashy and attention-getting will completely overwhelm the message that a site wants to convey. The expensive new building designed by the current trendy designer, or the IMAX theatre that mostly sits empty may cause someone to say “wow,” but if that’s all they say, then we’ve missed the mark.

Last week, Tim wrote about the Kigali Memorial Centre in Rwanda. Now there’s a place that makes you say “wow,” but in a very quiet, very thoughtful way. The building isn’t flashy, the exhibits require contemplative reading, the images are disturbing, in direct contrast with the peacefully bland burial gardens . . . taken as a whole, the story they tell conveys a message that will never be forgotten. That’s the power of what I call “design balance.” It’s not about any one thing standing out – it’s about all the pieces working together to give the message staying power. I know when I’ve found a place that has this sort of balance, because I am completely in its spell while I’m there and when I leave.

It’s easy to forget that we’re in the business of connecting people to the meanings of the resources and collections we are responsible for preserving. And it’s easy to forget that real emotion, not the superficial “wow” elicited by some grandiose display, is what binds that meaning to our brain. Unfortunately, many organizations and agencies are determined to bog their visitors down in pure information that distances people from the resource instead of drawing them in. What if we made a point of trying for the subtle, slow, revelatory wow, instead of trying to create the flash in the pan?

Wikamedia photo.

I think Mr. Rogers had the right idea – you may not remember him, but he was a big part of my children’s growing up years. He spoke slowly and softly, encouraging children to use their imaginations and be kind to each other. At a time when Sesame Street and other children’s shows were gearing up with a fast-paced educational approach filled with short bursts of color, clever patter, and humor that often bordered on bullying, Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood was an oasis, a thoughtfully paced and refreshing change that my children and I cherished.

Wow comes in many ways. But sometimes I think it’s most effective when it’s the kind that creeps up on you and lodges in your heart and mind, so you can think about it from time to time, as you have the opportunity to reflect. I’m not suggesting that the bigger, flashier wow is to be completely avoided, just that we make sure it’s the most appropriate way to help solidify the message before relying on it as part of the picture. Think about the places you’ve been – what sticks for you? Is it the message or the media? If we’ve done our job right, it’s the message the media conveys. When we get that, we get “wow.”

– Lisa Brochu

Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

2 thoughts on “Worrying About the Wow

  1. Lisa,
    Once upon a time, I too worried about the WOW. I felt, as an interpreter, it was my job to sell “it” BIG. Bold statements. Wild gestures. Drama. Excitement. Then I took an amazing course offered by two very seasoned interpreters. They taught me that I am not in charge of the WOW. I am merely the bridge. I lead and let go.
    The WOW will take care of itself.
    I cannot know what is in everyone’s heart or experience. I know now that I could not supply a WOW to each visitor. I’d fail more times than succeed, disappointing myself and the visitors along the way.
    I have faith that If I build a sturdy bridge, using the correct signposts, the WOW will happen as it is meant to happen. Sometimes quietly and over time, sometimes like a bolt of lightening and sometimes like a warm hug.
    Thank goodness I had the good fortune to learn from two of the best interpreters I’ve ever met. Their message was a WOW in my life.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Pat. Having seen your interpretive skills first-hand, I can tell that you totally understand the value of being the bridge and making connections. Hope you’ll continue to pass that on to others. – Lisa

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