Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Why The Old Ones Are The Best

Recently I entrusted my life to a piece of 80 year old technology. I was given a flight (and did some flying!) complete with an open cockpit (see above picture) in a WW2 era biplane trainer, a Tiger Moth.
This was a boyhood dream come true, but as I gingerly shuffled up the wing so as not to put my feet through it, then climbed into the open cockpit and looked at the canvas sides, big control stick, wooden handled throttle control, exposed wires and metal, it was a bit of a shock to see how very basic it all was. State of the art in the early 1930's, but not at all 21st century.
We had to have someone swing the propeller to start up and as we taxied to the runway, because the 'plane was a "tail dragger" i.e. a wheel on the tail so the nose of the aircraft pointed up to the sky, we had to weave from side to side so the pilot sitting behind me could have a vague idea where we were going and if anything might be in the way. It seemed ungainly, impractical and potentially dangerous. 
We rolled onto a tiny grass strip to the modern tarmac and awaited permission to take off (a radio and intercom being the only modern concessions to the 'plane), as there were helicopters doing circuits of the airfield. These fast flying manoeuvrable machines only emphasised our tiny biplane's ancient origins.
Then, we were given clearance to take off, the throttle opened up and smoothly and without drama we were airborne and climbing. Wow! The little 'plane was suddenly in its element.
The next 30 mins saw me taking control (under supervision), experiencing a loop the loop and a "Victory Roll". Despite the small size, it's apparent fragility and obvious antiquity I felt far safer in the old trainer than I do in modern jet airliners (even while I was upside down hanging on my seat straps).
Later, on the ground, while reliving it all, the experience got me thinking about redundant technology. Obviously aircraft design has developed very quickly - only ten years after the Tiger Moth had been launched the first jet plane was taking off. But here was a basic, functional design that was created in 1932, and had not needed to be improved upon since for the job in hand, as evidenced by the number of Tiger Moths still in use as trainers, still doing aerobatics and still teaching pupils to fly. How many other pieces of technology do we use regularly that are that old and that useful?
Much as I love heritage and history, I'm a big, big fan of technology. I love digital marketing and the reach, communication, statistics and sheer possibilities that it provides. I am also aware that in some markets there are people becoming digitally excluded through the propagation of new communications and marketing methods, who view modern technology with mistrust, a lack of understanding or fear.
Has the way we do things changed that much? We still use traditional marketing methods don't we? We still use print, posters and flyers at times but perhaps we underestimate the benefits of these traditional methods more than we realise. For example I was reading a comment from someone on Facebook (quoted below), thanking his housing association for sending communications material in hard copies to him:
Nice, also, that I received my copy (like the Quarterly Magazine) in 'real' (hardcopy) form, in a nice white envelope through me letterbox. One can keep such things on one's coffee- table, for awhile, to browse through etc etc, without having to 'fiffle- faffle' with one's PC. ie: It is a more 'occasional' way to absorb. info.... just as effective as having to 'focus' on a PC screen, which can get tiring to the eyes after awhile...
It's interesting reading. I have no idea of the age of the author, but despite what he says about hard copy, it is noteworthy that his "thanks" were still communicated digitally through social media. But that sort of proves that traditional and modern can live side by side doesn't it?
While we're rushing to expand our digital marketing, our apps and converting customers to online engagement, it is always worth evaluating your target market and stopping to ask what is the best form of communication for a particular audience?
Will I use modern aircraft in the future after my bi-plane flight? Of course, I'll have to. I can't travel great distances in an 80 year old aircraft, I have no protection from the elements, there's no luggage capacity, the ratio of pilot to passenger is impractical and it would have been a little chilly if I'd not been wearing specific flying clothing. But it did do the job it was designed for; it also made me happy and appreciate that what is now old, or what has been superceded, does not necessarily make it redundant or pointless.
So in future, planning communications strategies and deciding on the methods of delivery to your target audiences, just remember that sometimes, like the Tiger Moth, the old ones are the best.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Keeping Albert Happy

Recently my wife and I went to a tourist attraction in Hampshire. We were looking forward to it, it was a quiet day and all was well with the world. 
Then at the ticket office we bumped into Albert and his parents. Now Albert is not his real name, we will protect the innocent here, but he was a young lad, probably about eight years old and an only child. The member of staff on admissions said he'd enjoy the museum  as there were pirates in there, to which Albert looked interested and his parents immediately gave great exaggerated whoops and bending into his face said "How exciting Albert, pirates!"; they also took the child activity trail they were offered.
Now, from experience museum trails can vary considerably in quality and interest but as we had no view of this one we were not going to judge. But Albert was not looking very exited at the prospect of filling in an activity sheet with his amazingly enthusiastic and constantly whooping parents who seemed to think it was essential that each whoop and exclamation of some new found fact should be communicated to Albert, even though he was quite a considerable way away at the other end of the room. It was also part of the enthusiastic whooping that the parents should make every effort to catch our eyes (the only other people in the room) to ensure that they were seen to be educating their child. 
For Jo and I this became excruciating, intrusive and very annoying as we tried to read and take in the information panels. We are all for young children coming to museums, it has been strongly encouraged in our families, but all we could hear were comments such as "Albert! Albert! Come and find three different types of wood!". At this particular point Albert was quite engrossed with a model of a ship and obviously wanted to know more about that with his pointing and asking, rather than looking for three different bits of wood but to no avail - the activity sheet had to be completed.
And so it continued to the point that Jo and I made the decision that this parental noise cloud following us around was too much, so we left the museum to come back later. We spent the next hour plotting a course around the attraction maintaining the maximum distance from Albert's parents.
Because actually it was the parents and not the child causing the problem. It was them not understanding their child's interests and natural discovery of exhibits that was causing the issue, by trying to force him to learn in the way a museum's kids trail had decided. They wanted him to do the children's trail whereas he obviously wanted to find out things in his own way. He was interested in the models and dioramas and his parents would have been better off looking at these with him instead of trying to answer all the questions on an A4 piece of paper.
Many "Children's' Trails" I have experienced are actually quite poor and only designed probably to say there is something to do for children rather than being designed for children. Albert may have been a problem child or just wilful but the parents were not allowing him to find his own level of interest and were spending a great deal of (loud) energy bending him to the fact that the approach they had adopted was the only way to do it (and making sure all around them were seeing that they were "good parents" in doing so).
What can those of us working in Heritage and Tourism learn from this? 
Firstly, try your children's' trail on some real children to see if they find it engaging. Don't make the assumption that what you find interesting or what the message of the museum is will appeal to an ordinary young visitor.
Secondly, adult exhibits and interpretation can stimulate the interest of children, but it is probably better to add in a layer of simpler interpretation for younger visitors to engage with rather than filling in a separate piece of paper that smacks more of school learning than holidays.
Not all child activity trails are poor, but many seem to miss the mark.
We last saw Albert slowly walking back to the car park with two slightly deflated and silent parents. They had given up on the trip. We were glad that our visit was now more peaceful but couldn't help having a little sympathy for Albert, whose growing interest in some exhibits had not been noticed and no doubt he would be going through very similar defined learning exercises again in the future. 


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