Love in the Time of Visitor Studies

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!

Buried under a pile of literary pumice. A PhD on Pompeii

Pompeian books. OK there are some less 'academic' titles in there too.

Pompeian books. OK there are some less ‘academic’ titles in there too.
Photo S Hay

I am a field archaeologist (I write this to remind myself more than anyone) and although I find myself sitting at a desk buried under a mass of books, off-prints and scribbled notes (I am very much in the paper archaeology camp when it comes to research) it is only because I spent four years collecting data in the field that I now find myself inside, writing it up as a PhD.

Oh, and that “field” happened to be Pompeii.


Photo S Hay

The site has always resonated with people and no more so than now as the exhibition at the British Museum in London on ‘The Life and Death of Pompeii and Herculaneum’ (to rightly give it it’s full title and not squeeze it down to ‘The Pompeii Exhibition’) has caused a massive resurgence of interest in the Vesuvian cities.

UK television has been awash with programmes detailing the fate of both cities, but in particular, Pompeii. It was nothing short of miraculous that in one documentary you didn’t see the filming of another in the background, so crowded did the site become with Pompeian pundits. Suddenly, experts or not, people had something to say and everyone was listening. It’s a fortuitous time to be studying Pompeii.

I can smugly say I have not jumped on the most recent Pompeian bandwagon. I just jumped on one that was passing in 1997 when I was employed by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, the then director of The British School at Rome, to come and work on his Pompeii Project.

Just looking at a wall - wasn't trusted with context sheets in the early days!

Just looking at a wall – wasn’t trusted with context sheets in the early days!


The project studied the life of an insula – a block of 9 Roman houses half way between the forum and the amphitheatre on the via dell’ Abbondanza. It’s not a particularly pretty block of houses and certainly was not filled with the wealthiest of proprietors but this was the point. The project aimed to explore the non-elite life of Romans in Pompeii. The archaeology of this level of Roman society was much understudied at the outset of our project with the majority of research concentrating on the major public monuments and luxurious private houses and villas. We were looking at the common people. Integrated into the project was a study of all recorded finds from the excavations in the 1950s carried out by Dr. Joanne Berry.

One of my study houses during excavations in the 1950s Photo courtesy of Soprintendenza di Pompeii

One of my study houses during excavations in the 1950s
Photo courtesy of Soprintendenza di Pompeii

My research involved the design and implementation of a system to record standing buildings. This then forms the basis for the chronological analysis of a block of houses with a view to understanding the phases of development of a group of houses through time. Each wall (and they have 2 sides lest you forget) and floor surface was analysed stratigraphically using contexts, all 2585 of them, as you would in stratigraphic excavation. By putting walls and floors together to make rooms, and rooms together to make houses you can complete the jigsaw of the insula to reveal its current form but along the way, witness the changes in property divisions, the redesigning of internal spaces, and even the small repairs to cracks in the walls.

This may sound cold and remote but once you get to the desk stage, you get to see the small neighbourhood as a whole; like peeking into a large living dolls house. You get to see the transformations that the community underwent, the wrangles with neighbours over the heights of adjoining walls, the expansion of the successful drinking establishment, the vulgar scribbled words of a graffito by a cheeky neighbour, the mundane chore of an individual who perhaps grudgingly fixed the leaky pipe, and the general Smith’s keeping up with the Jones’ in terms of decorative fashions. It’s not just looking at walls, bricks and mortar (but I did do that. A lot. And when I say a lot, I mean it) but its about getting to grips with the inhabitants and the people who built the walls in the first place. And second. Well, and third and fourth places if wishing to do any justice at all to my phase plans.


Not paperless Archaeology

Not paperless Archaeology
Photo S Hay

So, I find myself, 16 years later, on Day of Archaeology buried under a pile of literary Pompeian pumice. The field work is complete and I just have to write it up. Simple enough, right? The wealth of Pompeian published texts is overwhelming. The sheer quantity of field notes and scribbled out annotations on plans I have accumulated from years of fieldwork is daunting. And somehow, I am expected to order, make sense of and process all of these things, whilst remaining coherent and retain a clear argument and rationale for my work. Not easy in 33 degrees of heat in Italy. But it’s a fun challenge. And besides, part of me simply believes I am participating in an ancient Roman neighbourhood watch scheme; checking in on each of the houses and their owners to keep tabs on what they are up to. Its just a scheme that happens to last for over 300 years.