Text Labels: Necessary?

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The cutest panda there ever was!

Today we began at the Smithsonian National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute. Although I’m pretty local to DC, I actually have never been to the Zoo before! Prior to visiting, I was unsure about the Zoo’s interpretation methods. Although the Zoo does provide interpretation panels and texts, the staff noted that not all visitors utilize this tool. When visiting, I was distracted by the animals, especially the pandas. It seemed like visitors would have a similar experience.

However, what I found to be most useful was our group’s interaction with one of the Giant Panda keepers. I am sure that the keeper provided details that were mentioned in the text panels throughout the Panda House. However, it was easier to pay attention to the information while still keeping an eye on the pandas. During our session with Zoo staff, we were asked how the Zoo could best present information and stories to visitors. Our group suggested a few different approaches: through the use of volunteers, the potential development of apps, or multimedia approaches. In my mind, the use of volunteers or keepers was the most effective. Humans can’t resist cuddly animals. They are more willing to listen to information from staff or volunteers since they can view the animals at the same time.

I’m definitely a “text heavy” person, so this was a new experience for me. As the staff members put it, working in a zoo presents a unique set of challenges. It seems unsurprising that different interpretation methods would work better in a zoo setting.

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Entrance to the Hillwood Museum Mansion

At Hillwood Museum, I was also drawn to their interpretation methods. The museum attempts to interpret the home of Marjorie Merriweather Post. As is the case for many historic homes, labeling is scarce in the mansion. Other interpretation tools, including an audio guide and a paper guide, were provided to us. As such, I didn’t feel that these tools were effective or allowed me to get an interesting grasp on Marjorie or the history of the home. Walking through the home seemed impersonal, especially amongst the ropped-off rooms.

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Japanese-style Gardens at Hillwood Museum

Instead, I felt more comfortable outside of the home. I really enjoyed the gardens, the pet cemetery, and the Japanese fountains. I thought that the grounds and the Dacha exhibit were more accessible to visitors and provided much-needed interpretation. Unlike the Zoo, I didn’t have the opportunity to listen to a staff member provide information.

At the end of the day, I thought that the Zoo could get away with less text interpretation since the volunteers and staff were so effective. At Hillwood, I would recommend investing in some sort of text interpretive panels or consider making more rooms in the mansion accessible.