2006-07-29 / Top News

Park Strategy Is To Relate Exhibits to Visitor Interests

Interactive Exhibits, Live Interperters, Demostrations Trigger New Exploration
By Bernie Nguyen

Interpreter Stephanie Fitzwater, who has worked on Mackinac for five summers, explains hand quilting to John McKay of East Lansing and Janet Wolverton of Klamath Falls, Oregon, at the Biddle House. Interpreter Stephanie Fitzwater, who has worked on Mackinac for five summers, explains hand quilting to John McKay of East Lansing and Janet Wolverton of Klamath Falls, Oregon, at the Biddle House. Visitors who enter the living displays and exhibits in Mackinac Island's many museums get the sense they are about to experience something completely different from what they're used to in a typical museum, said Steve Brisson, chief curator for Mackinac State Historic Parks.

Experiences include learning the medical history of Fort Mackinac to interacting with live interpreters while they cook, sew, and march in military drills, just as inhabitants did more than a hundred years ago. From Biddle House, where viewers can observe demonstrations of fireplace cooking, quilting, and blacksmithing, to Fort

Mackinac, where soldiers in authentic uniforms still march on the parade grounds, Mackinac State Historic Parks visitors are given nearly full immersion into the historical traditions of Mackinac Island.

Mr. Brisson said Mackinac's museums are historical sites that create more active roles for their participants than conventional museums. For example, visitors may fire the cannon at Fort Mackinac or help with fireside cooking, adding another dimension to their experience.

"We are a specific type of museum, we're a historic site museum," he explained, adding that the designation of historical site allows Mackinac State Historic Parks the freedom to do more than just the typical museum display.

"There's more of a human connection there," he said. "Already, people come with a preconceived sense of excitement."

Katie Cederholm, director of education for the agency, agreed.

"We have the human-tohuman contact," she said. "The connection makes it more real."

She cited the soldiers at Fort Mackinac as an example of the effectiveness of the park sites. Rather than displaying uniforms in a museum case, the military uniforms that the interpreters wear become part of an experience for the visitor.

"When they wear it, and they explain it, it becomes totally different," she said. "There's that next level of something a little more dramatic."

Mackinac State Historic Parks draws nearly 400,000 visitors a year to all its historic sites, including Fort Mackinac and the Historic Downtown Buildings on Mackinac Island, as well as Colonial Michilimackinac, Historic Mill Creek, and Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse in Mackinaw City. An ongoing challenge is to keep visitors interested and engaged in the activities that the park provides, and the staff has several strategies to help draw tourists in.

"We use sounds and smells, like the fire at the Biddle House, even the wool of the uniforms on a hot day," Ms. Cederholm said. "When you're walking downtown and the cannon fires, everyone looks up."

The park also collects visitors' feedback to get an idea of what visitors would like to see and do. Ms. Cederholm said that talking to tourists and keeping track of their participation in the exhibits helps park staff tailor the exhibits to fit the desires of the visitor.

"Over the last decade, we've made an effort to talk to people," she said.

A policy called Visitor First allows the park to maintain the historical integrity of the sites while drawing the visitors to things that interests them. Visitors, she added, are more likely to enjoy their time if the museum includes objects of interest.

"They want to experience some place with their families, in a fun and engaging environment," she said, emphasizing the difference between passive and active participation. "A lot of our exhibits are hands-on. The living history is hands-on, too. People are so used to virtual things now, but to actually be there and experience it is something totally different."

By keeping the overall experience in mind, exhibits such as the Post Hospital at Fort Mackinac and the Benjamin Blacksmith Shop take historical buildings and add a human dimension. The design of the sites, Mr. Brisson explained, is to make the most of the setting while imparting interest to the viewer.

"You consider the use of the site, often from a storied perspective," he said. There are several challenging aspects to the design of a site, including the best way to tell the story, concern for the preservation of a historical building or area, and providing the best access for visitors with disabilities and for large groups and families with children.

"We design the best ways to accommodate all those various things," he said, but the visitor is at the forefront of the designer's mind.

Ms. Cederholm said the average visitor time at some sites is an hour and a half, which is an indication to her that the exhibit designers have succeeded in capturing the interest of the visitors.

Mr. Brisson attributes the time investment partly to the quality of the sites and their engaging exhibits, but emphasizes the goal is to stimulate the visitor's interest.

It is impossible, Mr. Brisson said, to expect a visitor to absorb all the historical information they're being given, and that feeding quantifiable amounts of information into visitors' minds is not the intention nor the expectation of Mackinac State Historic Park sites. Rather, the hope is that visitors will come home with a renewed sense of history as it relates to them.

"I think the main thing is that people did live differently, but they were essentially the same," Ms. Cederholm said of what visitors learn. "They washed clothes, they had meals. I think they find those connections. I think that people really appreciate Michigan history because of the things they see in Mackinaw City and here on Mackinac Island."

Mr. Brisson agreed.

"We like to say that the purpose is to light a spark in the visitors," he said. "Hopefully, that will lead them on to explore more. We just want them to have that spark ignited, and new eyes when they leave."

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