How the National Park Service Inspires & Provokes their Visitors

Museum Resources
VIP + Marketing Manager
Museum Resources January 31, 2017 Featured Image

The National Park Service oversees hundreds of parks, monuments and historic sites across the United States. With over 20,000 employees across the country, and one of the most developed and documented interpretive training programs out there, they are a formidable force in the cultural experience world. But they were still looking for new ways of inspiring visitors.

We provided that initial spark with our 3-day Audience Engagement boot camp. A Park Service employee attended and left feeling so inspired he later turned to Museum Hack to help inspire his colleagues, too.

The NPS wanted help to breathe new life into the historic Arlington House, memorial and former home of Robert E. Lee. Management at NPS were looking to achieve several goals:

  • to reinvigorate the rangers,
  • to help them think outside their traditional interpretive means,
  • and to encourage them to bring their own personalities and passion to visitors of the almost 200-year-old house.

To make these goals into reality, we had the unique opportunity to spend not one, but two days at Arlington House, where collaboration was truly the name of the game.

We created a custom-built program that combined the National Park Service’s existing training programs and standards with our own proven audience engagement methods. We were ready to inspire the Arlington House rangers, Museum Hack style!

5 Elements of a Hack: National Park Service Edition

In the spirit of collaboration, the first day was all about introducing the rangers to our methods — but with a twist.

Beginning with 5 Elements of a Hack, one of the pillars of our audience engagement toolkit, we worked with the National Park Service to infuse their own language and best practices into the session. The 5 Elements of a Hack are our rapid-prototyping formula, perfect for sites that are attempting to re-envision their interpretive experience quickly and test results.

It’s Always A Good Time To Introduce New Ideas and Methods

This collaboration was an exciting opportunity for us to experience and learn that you don’t have to start from the ground-up to introduce new ideas and methods to your staff.

Building on what the National Park Service has already established over decades of best practices, we presented our best audience engagement strategies to the group, in a framework with which they were familiar. By combining approaches, we were able to tweak a common language to help bring new creativity to a traditional setting, and push the rangers to try new approaches in a safe environment.

Reverse Hacking — and Provoking — Arlington House

After enjoying a guided tour of Arlington House by Park Service employees, it was our chance to get in there and do what we do best.

Our goal, by “reverse hacking” the National Park Service’s tour in our own style, was to remind the rangers that there are a ton of fascinating stories living within the house and to show them how to reignite those tales — the important thing is how you communicate them with personal passion to your audience!

One of the things rangers wanted to focus on was telling the lesser-known stories of Arlington House — not just of the Lee and Custis families but the stories and experiences of the slaves who lived there.

Telling these types of stories is a challenge for even the most experienced interpreter, and we took great pains to bring our storytelling style to the fore in a way that was accurate and non-threatening, yet personal and provocative.

Museum Hack Guide Ethan Angelica demonstrates storytelling techniques to NPS staff.
Museum Hack Guide Ethan Angelica demonstrates storytelling techniques to NPS staff.

“The Chief Aim of Interpretation is not Instruction, but Provocation”

Proudly employing Freedman Tilden’s 4th Principle of Interpretation (“The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation”), we focused on crowdsourcing stories and content from the rangers, asking them about the history they found most interesting and most challenging.

Interest equals passion, and provocation equals thought, so we sought to empower the staff to harness that enthusiasm — and provocative thought — to engage visitors with a part of the story often not expected. It produced some interesting experiences.

“One of my favorite moments was when one of the rangers dug deep into a cookbook produced by a woman buried on site. He dug into his personal connection to his family’s history with ginger beer recipes to reveal that the author likely relied on slaves to produce this renowned book. It was a revelation for me: to see a ranger connect himself in a real, direct, emotional and human way to a lineage, and address slavery in a way that was inclusive and exceptionally provocative was exciting and inspiring. It revealed a hidden history that nobody expected, and got us involved in an emotional way that made the story approachable and truly relevant.”

— Ethan Angelica, Tour Guide + VIP Partnerships, Museum Hack

Practice Makes Perfect

Next, it was the rangers’ turn to try their hand at hacking Arlington House. The unique opportunity to go from concept to execution in a short amount of time gave the rangers the perfect chance to test out the new methods they learned during day one and get immediate feedback from the group.

Because we were lucky enough to have two full days with this group, the second day provided many more opportunities for staff to test out their new methods and for us to reinforce skills. All of this was perfect prep for the true test: introducing their new audience engagement tools to visitors.

Going Public

Building on the skills they learned during the first day of the workshop, the rangers moved on to practicing their new skills and methods with visitors to Arlington House by the end of day two.

Our workshop gave rangers the tools and freedom to communicate their own personalities and passions to visitors of the historic site, within the requirements and confines of a traditional system.

It also empowered staff to reimagine the stories they tell, encouraging them to speak from points of personal passion in order to make their stories relevant to the lives and interests of their visitors.

Final Result

We had an amazing two days at Arlington House collaborating with the National Park Service to inspire their rangers to tell the stories they were most excited about.

We loved watching the rangers put their new methods to use with visitors right away, and see immediate results – as well as have some of their traditional approaches challenged. We can’t wait to see how else they use their passion and personality to transform their visitors’ experiences!

Check out what John of the National Park Service thought of his staff’s workshop with us:

written with 💖 by Carly Syms

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