The Power of Real People

Using photos of real people on signs and exhibits is an especially powerful method of telling the stories of communities. Here are some examples we have seen around the world that were interesting choices connecting visitors to real people in the region.

The people of the Warm Springs area are shown on life-size cutouts behind the museum stage reminding you that the Paiute and Wasco people still live nearby.

The Native American  people of the Warm Springs area in Oregon are shown on life-size cutouts behind the museum stage reminding you that the Warm Springs, Paiute and Wasco people still live nearby.

The Warm Springs, Wasco and Paiute people of Oregon share their stories in the Warm Springs Museum and their images appear beside the projection screen in the museum theater. Cultural stories could be told just with artifacts and artist’s drawings as is done in some places, but photos of local people help visitors understand that this community is still here and the people in it serve as your hosts.

This sign at the Mamu Tropical Skywalk explains that you are visiting the traditional lands of the Mamu people. That alone would not make much of a connection to the community.

This sign at the Mamu Tropical Skywalk explains that you are visiting the traditional lands of the Mamu people. That alone would not make much of a connection to the community.

Other signs like this one have photos of elders and community members with text that interprets their community.

Other signs like this one have photos of elders and community members with text that interprets their community.

The signs are engaging and the photos really keep the Mamu people on your mind as you look at the beautiful landscape. The highly reflective material and text very low on the signs make reading a bit difficult. Those are design choices to be considered when placing signs along a trail. It is easier to read text if at chest or eye level.

The signs are engaging and the photos really keep the Mamu people on your mind as you look at the beautiful landscape.

The highly reflective material and text placed very low on the signs make these signs at Mamu Tropical Skywalk challenging to read, but the intent in using Aboriginal community members as spokespeople is sound. It would be easier for visitors to make the important connection to the stories of local people if text was placed closer to average eye level and sign material made non-reflective.

Dr. Chris Mayer worked with Vivamos Major, a non-profit, in the Santa Clara La Laguna by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.

Dr. Chris Mayer worked with Vivamos Major, a non-profit, in the Santa Clara La Laguna by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala to plan and develop The Refuge Trail using local images.

The signs placed on The Refuge Trail at Lake Atitalan used artist’s images of local people to create a strong connection with the project. The planner  engaged local artists and artisans in designing and building the trail and signage so they had a great sense of ownership and pride in their creative skills.
(Photo by Chris Mayer from Put the Heart Back In Your Community.)

This sign in the highlands of Malaysia at a Semai village show one of the guides who lead ecotours into the forest nearby.

This sign at a Semai village in the highlands of Malaysia  show one of the local guides with a Rafflesia flower.

The Malaysian Nature Society assisted this Semai village economically in shifting away from selling bird-winged butterflies and Rafflesia buds from the world’s largest flower to museum shops with ecotourism training in guest experience design. When you visit this charming village in the highlands a guide from the community takes you into the forest to see the Rafflesia, the butterflies and amazing insects found only there. Income from ecotourism is much greater than the income from selling organisms and they are now protecting their local forests and its inhabitants.

In Singapore they have life-sized posters of local customer service agents with an inviting message.

In Singapore life-sized posters of local customer service agents invite guests to learn more.

In Singapore, the history of the community is shared on interpretive signs on the streets. These interesting cutouts of life-sized photos of local customer service workers made it clear that they are proud of their friendly welcome for visitors. Since staff cannot always be on duty, the sign lets you know that assistance is available.

It is important that representing real recognizable people on signs and exhibits is done tastefully and with permission of those whose images are used. Talking about indigenous communities and local guides may be good but photos of them provide a much more direct connection to the community.

– Tim Merriman

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