Worrying About the Wow

New museums, interpretive centers, nature centers, zoos, and other interpretive sites often worry about having a “wow” factor – something big and splashy and attention-getting that will cause visitors to stop in their tracks and later say to their friends, “that place had a sensational (fill in the blank here – could be building, exhibit, animal, landscape feature, whatever).” I worry about the wow factor too. I worry that sometimes the desire to have something big and splashy and attention-getting will completely overwhelm the message that a site wants to convey. The expensive new building designed by the current trendy designer, or the IMAX theatre that mostly sits empty may cause someone to say “wow,” but if that’s all they say, then we’ve missed the mark.

Last week, Tim wrote about the Kigali Memorial Centre in Rwanda. Now there’s a place that makes you say “wow,” but in a very quiet, very thoughtful way. The building isn’t flashy, the exhibits require contemplative reading, the images are disturbing, in direct contrast with the peacefully bland burial gardens . . . taken as a whole, the story they tell conveys a message that will never be forgotten. That’s the power of what I call “design balance.” It’s not about any one thing standing out – it’s about all the pieces working together to give the message staying power. I know when I’ve found a place that has this sort of balance, because I am completely in its spell while I’m there and when I leave.

It’s easy to forget that we’re in the business of connecting people to the meanings of the resources and collections we are responsible for preserving. And it’s easy to forget that real emotion, not the superficial “wow” elicited by some grandiose display, is what binds that meaning to our brain. Unfortunately, many organizations and agencies are determined to bog their visitors down in pure information that distances people from the resource instead of drawing them in. What if we made a point of trying for the subtle, slow, revelatory wow, instead of trying to create the flash in the pan?

Wikamedia photo.

I think Mr. Rogers had the right idea – you may not remember him, but he was a big part of my children’s growing up years. He spoke slowly and softly, encouraging children to use their imaginations and be kind to each other. At a time when Sesame Street and other children’s shows were gearing up with a fast-paced educational approach filled with short bursts of color, clever patter, and humor that often bordered on bullying, Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood was an oasis, a thoughtfully paced and refreshing change that my children and I cherished.

Wow comes in many ways. But sometimes I think it’s most effective when it’s the kind that creeps up on you and lodges in your heart and mind, so you can think about it from time to time, as you have the opportunity to reflect. I’m not suggesting that the bigger, flashier wow is to be completely avoided, just that we make sure it’s the most appropriate way to help solidify the message before relying on it as part of the picture. Think about the places you’ve been – what sticks for you? Is it the message or the media? If we’ve done our job right, it’s the message the media conveys. When we get that, we get “wow.”

– Lisa Brochu

The Kigali Memorial Centre in Rwanda

Kigali Memorial Centre

George Bernard Shaw wrote “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.” Museums of social conscience around the world remind us of tragic human errors in hopes we will remember and behave differently in the future.

We just returned from eighteen days working in Rwanda and enjoying some amazing national park experiences at Nyungwe National Park in the southwest and Volcanoes National Park in the north. On the last afternoon we had free time and visited the Kigali Memorial Centre, a burial site for 250,000 of the more than 1,000,000 people killed in the genocide of the early 1990s. It serves as a place for Rwandans to grieve and visit the gravesite of lost friends and family. For a foreign visitor it is a sober reminder of the realities of hate crimes and the lasting heartache for all affected.

The circular path of the exhibits in the stone building pulls the visitor through the sequential events leading up to and following the genocide. The local kinyarwandan language is at the top of each panel followed by French and then English. As an English reader, it meant my language of choice was at the bottom of the panels, which caused me to lean over a bit to read the text, but because each panel was organized in the same fashion, I knew exactly where to look to find the English version, which was much appreciated. I rarely read many of the labels in a museum. It usually is overload, but I read each and every word as we went through the story and watched every video. Tears streamed down our faces as we read the painful stories resulting in the slaughter of a million people, adults and children. The images are graphic and purposefully disturbing, the large murals haunting.

The videos contain interviews with survivors relating what happened to their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, wives and husbands. The pain in their eyes and voices is palpable. You cannot go through this place without being touched by the brutality and hurt of what occurred. One girl who saw her sisters and mother killed explained how she was protected by a neighbor and family friend, despite the danger it put him in. Some people tried to help as they could, but too many more were caught up in the fervor of harming others under the influence of an inexplicable campaign of hate initiated not by Rwandans but by those who colonized the country.

The last panels tell the story of the UN officials and the world standing by and watching while events unfolded. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan admitted his mistake in reducing troops instead of sending in more forces when requested. One of the more poignant stops along the way is a room full of snapshots of the deceased of all ages with another big video running with personal testimonies. The snapshots and personal stories are overwhelming. How do people live with such pain? How do they forgive and go on? Admirably, Rwanda has chosen a path of reconciliation, not revenge.

A room with glass cases containing skulls and leg bones from unidentified corpses is sad but not so emotional. The bleached bones are too cold and detached from the personal horrors of those who died. Yet the next room, filled with clothing and personal items recovered from those bodies, is chilling. Another room holds larger than life photos of small children with a plaque below each, giving the child’s name, hopes for the future and cause of death. It was hard to even breathe in there. And yet, I needed to read and learn of the children’s unrealized hopes and aspirations.

The quote on the wall says it all: “If you really knew me, and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.”

We walked out of the building and onto the path along the mass graves of 250,000 people. A group of middle school children were lined up along one of the massive gravesites, heads bowed in prayer. Here at the final resting place of those who died, the beautiful hills of Rwanda surround you in all directions. A peaceful garden frames the story beneath your feet, and you know that the extraordinary sadness will live on in the memories of all who were affected by this tragedy.

The Aegis Foundation of the U.K. and City of Kigali built the Memorial Centre together. The interpretation is thoughtful and powerful in telling the story. There is no charge to enter, but we felt compelled to leave a contribution to help support operations. I looked at Tripadvisor.com after getting home and noted the 150+ reviews with almost a 4.8 of 5.0 bubble average. Others agreed that this troubling story is worth your time at Kigali Memorial Centre to try and understand what occurred.

The exhibit hall at Kigali Memorial Centre includes a section on other genocides around the world. Their archive holds many books and research materials from the Rwanda Genocide and other similar events. Some people come to study and learn from the tragic years of conflict. Each of us tries to find hope in understanding the pain and devastation of such a conflict. We must hope there is a way to inoculate mankind from repeating such horrors.

One of the last panels in the Centre aptly expresses the Rwanda that we find today and we leave you with that thought.



The Burial Place for 250,000 victims is beneath the massive slabs of concrete.

Almost every corner of Rwanda was touched by the genocide in some way . . . Many families have someone who was either a victim, a perpetrator or a collaborator . . . It is impossible for us to forget the past. It is also extremely painful to remember. We remember the victims of the past because they were our family and friends – they should still be here.


We also remember the events of the past. It is a terrible and unavoidable warning for our future, if we do not take active steps to avoid it all over again.

–      Tim Merriman

In a Word – Ubuntu


Our words define us in many ways. As I write this, we are in Kigali, Rwanda, doing work and being inspired by the people and the wildlife we’ve seen on our travels around the country. This evening, I noticed a Facebook post by Michael Barth regarding the word, “Ubuntu.” I went to Wikipedia and found a lot of variations of this word in the Bantu languages of the southern parts of Africa, but all had similar philosophical meanings.


Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave a definition in his 1999 book, A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.


Peace and reconciliation are the terms often used to describe the work being done after the genocide, civil wars and guerrilla conflicts in many African nations. Those words embody the spirit of “Ubuntu” (“umunthu” in Malawi or “unhu” in Zimbabwe). The sense of respect and responsibility for others seems to be in each of these variants as part of a philosophy not too unlike the “golden rule” of western countries.


The idea of ubuntu just fell out of the Facebook cybersky, but it has been around a long time. U.S. President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt talked about the principle of ubuntu in a 1903 speech:


It is all-essential to the continuance of our healthy national life that we should recognize this community of interest among our people. The welfare of each of us is dependent fundamentally upon the welfare of all of us, and therefore in public life that man is the best representative of each of us who seeks to do good to each by doing good to all; in other words, whose endeavor it is not to represent any special class and promote merely that class’s selfish interests, but to represent all true and honest men of all sections and all classes and to work for their interests by working for our common country…


In these waning days of the election in the U.S., I hope we remember what unites us as humans and quit dwelling on that which divides us. We need a spirit of Ubuntu to find solutions to the many social, economic and environmental problems that plague us in the United States and abroad. It’s time to lay down the rhetoric and find a better way for America and the world. In a word – Ubuntu.


– Tim Merriman

Advance Organizers

Great signs prepare people for a visit to an aquarium or other community attraction.

Much of what we do in life, travel and tourism is about expectations. About twenty years ago, I was leading an ecotour in Belize. I had two very unhappy ladies at a four-star resort, who could not believe there was no bathmat in their room. The food was great, the rooms were beautiful, the beds comfortable, the service was spectacular and the location was perfect on a gorgeous jungle river – but no bathmats. They expected a bathmat. I was taking them to the Jaguar Reserve the next night to sleep on cots in a concrete block building with scorpions hanging from the ceiling. The pit toilet was fifty feet behind the building in total darkness at night in jaguar and venomous snake country. I painted such a bleak picture of the next night’s venue, that on arrival, they commented kindly, “This is really much nicer than we expected.” Whew, I was glad I underpromised and overdelivered.

David Ausubel wrote about advance organizers in 1960. They help people understand what will happen next so that they are more likely to pay attention. In a presentation, the theme statement at the beginning is an advance organizer. If it is thought provoking and telegraphs the essence of the talk, my audience will stay tuned. If it is vague and topical, they do not know what to expect.

At a resort or in a community, the signs, brochures, Internet websites and advice from a travel consultant are advance organizers. If they are accurate or even suggest a little less than what we discover on arrival, it is good. If they set up an experience as world class and it’s not, we are disappointed.

Nametags on staff are advance organizers. Even uniforms that telegraph a worker’s role give advance information to visitors and make it easier for visitors to find the right person to talk to.

Many of us use TripAdvisor.com as our advance organizer. It does not give the company line about a tourism or community experience. It is the voice of other travelers telling us what we will find or may not find. Not all of us have the same experience at a place so the high and low scores may be suspect but a good strong 4 bubble score average tells me the place was pretty good by all accounts. And when a destination or attraction has fifty or sixty reviews, I have more confidence than when only three reviewers tell me glowing things or how the experience lacks in charm. I especially like the feature on TripAdvisor.com that allows the reviewer to give personal advice about which cabin or room to select at a hotel or resort. Nuanced decisions can make or break an experience.

In a seminar, training event or on a tour, the itinerary or agenda suggests what will happen and when. It is good to make the advance organizer as helpful as possible without being too specific. If you promise the morning break at 10:30 AM, some people will be unhappy with a 10:40 break. If you say “mid-morning break for coffee and snacks,” you have some wiggle room on when the break will occur.

Nametags are friendly cues about more than the person’s name when it includes a work title and professional affiliation.

A lot of what we call “culture shock” is the way advance organizers vary from nation to nation and community to community. Some cultures have very few cues about what will happen in a park or community experience. Attracting American or European guests may require a destination to work at some details as advance organizers. And, of course, not every American or European is the same. We live in sub-cultures that are slow in some geographic areas and fast in others. We have varied expectations, based on where we grew up or have spent most of our lives.

Great experiences are planned and executed by people who understand cultural competencies and know who their guests are likely to be. We can start to make more of our guests happy by providing a great Internet site that explains options and gives thoughtful advance information. We can greet guests with advance emails, appropriate signs, and excellent reception services and orientation. I love the fruit juice and warm wet towel offerings in East Africa on arrival at a hotel or safari lodge. It starts the conversation and experience in just the right way.

Advance organizers help people relax and enjoy an experience. They keep us from running away when we simply fear what will happen next at a place. Planning and training your staff to prepare for guests/visitors/tourists can make a big difference. If you need help in determining what your best advance organizers might be, let us know. We can help you improve your visitor experience and encourage guests to write that five bubble review at TripAdvisor.com.

– Tim Merriman

A Place to Play


Last weekend we visited Vandalia, Illinois, where I was raised. My old house is no longer there, but the memories remain. As we drove down eighth street, my mind drifted to summer evenings playing Kick the Can in the street. Some of my neighborhood friends from the 50s were at the all-class reunion, another reminder of childhood games in our yards and along the stream by the Scout house nearby.

I saw a very small child of five or six operating a lemonade stand in the front yard with a patient father sitting next to her, knowing she might be young for this business. But he didn’t tell her she was too young. He sat with her and did business. I remember the railroaders that would stop at my lemonade stand to buy a glass of lemonade or Koolaid for a nickel, more to encourage than for the quality of the beverage I would guess.

My dad sold lawn mowers, so we had dozens of big boxes to throw out each week. My lemonade stand was a modified 36” riding mower box. We built mazes and forts out of the large cardboard boxes before they met their fate in the ash pit (long before box recycling was considered). Richard Louv chronicles the power of building forts and hideouts for children in his book, Last Child in the Woods. Creativity is alive and well when kids have a chance to invent, fantasize and collaborate in the outdoors.

Some nature centers and parks are creating playscapes that engage a child’s imagination and they vary in size, theme and objectives. Cleveland Metroparks has a great playground with mastodon bones protruding from the sand and playspace. It’s a chance for kids to play paleonotologist. Austin Nature Center in Texas has a similar play area that allows kids to sweep the sand away to discover fossils that stay permanently embedded. These are interesting thematic play structures that I think would appeal to most kids.

A playground in Canada along the St. Lawrence River has a boat for imaginary trips on the water in the safety of a playground.

A Canadian park along the St. Lawrence Seaway opposite New York State has a playground with a rowboat kids can sit in and play out there own adventure on the water on a padded pond with adult supervision. They also have a cabin with several levels and most of the walls missing, allowing some imaginary adventures.

But my favorites are not in my photos. They are the ones that kids pull from their imaginations. They are made of leaves, compacted snow, and discarded boxes. I am not around kids much these days. Do they still build these. I hope so. They are special because they are limited only by the child’s imagination.

Some very innovative programs are just setting aside areas in the woods and along streams where kids can still play. Wading, flipping rocks, floating stick boats and crawdad watching will always be an adventure for a child out in nature. Our electronic devices imagine games, worlds and intrigue of varied kinds. I can understand a kid being interested in these high voltage games. But the planet is still an organic place where kids can discover themselves as they imagine the fort they are building.

As we drove by the Town Branch in Vandalia, I told Lisa about the wide spot in the stream that used to freeze and we played hockey with sticks we found and any sort of puck we could create from natural debris. She reminded me she has heard this story a dozen times before. These memories carry with us through life and the creative choices we make in our work started in the woods, out in the yard and playing in a stream. We need to keep facilitating these opportunities before everything fun in nature has a sign restricting the imagination of youngsters.

-Tim Merriman