The most meaningful experiences are created through a close collaboration between architects, landscape architects, and exhibit designers.
One of the first questions that I am often asked as we begin design on a new visitor center, nature center, or museum is how to assure that each visitor’s experience is memorable and meaningful. Through over 30 years of designing interpretive centers, I’ve found that the most meaningful experiences are created through a close collaboration between architects, landscape architects, and exhibit designers. Inherent in that process, is incorporating the most logical visitor sequence. I often use the acronym ADROIT when describing that sequence—Arrival, Decompression, Reception, Orientation, Interpretation, and Transformation.
Arrival is the first impression of a place or site. Ideally, one sees their destination prior to parking or disembarking other forms of transportation. In doing so, the stress associated with trying to understand and navigate in an unfamiliar environment is minimized (see intuitive wayfinding).
Decompression is the journey between arrival and actually entering a building or site. This phase allows time to cleanse one’s minds of their journey or daily stresses and prepare for their visit. Effective decompression happens over a meaningful amount of time and distance and ideally incorporates some initial interpretation. Often, clients are conflicted about the idea of decompression and the need to accommodate the disabled or elderly. While these are important considerations, more often than not, solutions can be found without sacrificing the opportunity for decompression.
Reception is the formal entry to the resource and should be visible upon Arrival. Reception may be as simple as a sign at a trailhead or park, or in the case of a building, a lobby, or welcome desk. If possible, this area should be manned by someone able to answer any questions one may have prior to their interpretive experience.
When arriving at the Fort McHenry Visitor Center & Historic Shrine (left), visitors are greeted by an experienced ranger who can provide valuable direction and insight. The “Life of the Forest” exhibit at the Robinson Nature Center (right) begins in the forest’s vibrant summer canopy, and takes visitors on a journey through all four seasons, showing a full year of change in the forest.
Orientation provides visitors with an understanding of the opportunities available so they can plan their visit. In the case of a natural site, orientation is typically limited to a map of trails and destinations, with information such as distances, difficulty of terrain, etc. Conversely, in a large visitor center, orientation is often multifaceted, including maps, interactive touch screens, orientation films, and access to staff for specific questions. Regardless of the vehicle, proper orientation is critical to a comprehensive and enjoyable visit.
Interpretation overarches the entire visitor experience and should begin the moment one enters the site. It is accomplished through a variety of vehicles and venues that range from simple two dimensional displays to interactive exhibits and 4D theater experiences. In the case of living history sites or museums, much of the message may be delivered via costumed interpreters or docents. The most effective interpretation includes a rich mix of strategies to reach the widest possible audience.
Transformation is the ultimate goal of the visitor experience. Successful visitor and interpretive facilities do more than just provide information, they touch people on many levels, allowing them to make personal connections to the subject matter and inspiring them to learn more. Imparting that knowledge and an appreciation of the resource(s) in a clear and memorable way is the key to transformation.
Visitor experiences are a significant component of lifelong learning and provide many opportunities to impact one’s life. To make that experience as enjoyable and stress-free as possible requires an ADROIT touch.
Alan Reed is GWWO’s President and Design Principal. He is a regular speaker on topics related to interpretive center design, including contextual design, and in 2011 he was elevated to the AIA College of Fellows specifically in recognition of his work on interpretive center facilities nationwide.