“Love between strangers takes only a few seconds and can last a whole life.” Simon Van Booy (the greatest exponent of contemporary romanticism in the World) probably did not write this with tourists and archaeological sites on his mind – but to me, it suits the situation just perfectly!
Quite often, tourists approach archaeology as something alien or indecipherable and they find it really hard to actually enjoy it. But if a site or a series of artifacts are presented in a way that live up to their expectations, visitors might change their attitude towards cultural sites forever.
What I do as a job is to find out what makes this potential long-lasting love actually bloom bright and wild as soon as the visitors walk into the archaeological site of Herculaneum.
A view of the archaeological site of Herculaneum
I have no bow and heart-shaped arrows as weapons but just a pen, a bunch of questionnaires and a lot of patience: today I am going to interview at least 40 tourists who might not be as enthusiastic about answering my questions as I am asking them.
I am an Audience Development Consultant for the Herculaneum Conservation Project (HCP) a collaborative project between the Packard Humanities Institute and the Soprintendenza (Italian local authority managing the site), supported by the British School at Rome that in the past 10 years has sought to address some of the most pressing threats to the survival of the site.
More and more museums and archaeological sites in Europe are doing what it takes to make visitors want to come and feel welcome and make sure they’re eager to return. Herculaneum is determined to make visitors ‘fall in love’ with its archaeology; and HCP is there to facilitate this process.
But, first things first: who the hell are these people coming and going from the site every day?! In order to answer this compelling question, an Audience Development Program was set up in early 2013.
The initiative I am personally contributing to is a 12-month campaign of questionnaires for independent visitors. The research, which is the first of its kind in Italy, aims to cluster tourists to Herculaneum under different profiles, in order to eventually produce targeted outreach and interpretation campaigns. Together with other shorter studies (targeting non-visitors, organized tours, schools and the local community) the program itself aspires to develop and nurture a relationship between the archaeological site, the local authority managing it and the public over the long term.
What my team does in practice are face-to-face interviews with tourists to the site at the end of their visit. We designed a questionnaire in order to gain information about their type of holiday and the reasons why they decided to come to Herculaneum. We also collect personal impressions, criticism and suggestions. Anything is welcome, as far as it helps us improving the visitor experience onsite.
Me and one of the visitor-interviewee in Herculaneum
I enjoy the work on the field and the whole experience of collecting data as it gives me an everyday different perspective on the site. When you work with archaeology, you are quite likely to forget that an archaeological site or a museum are also places where people come just to have a good time and maybe learn something new.
Visitor studies are then an essential tool not just to center the interpretation and outreach strategy, but also to keep the archaeology and the institution relevant to current societies and future-oriented.
You always need new tips to keep the spark alive!