Including visitors in a fun and educational mediation practice.

 The 9th of April last, I held in Châteauroux (France) a rallye for two classes of a ‘ZEP’ (an Education Priority Area). It had its own hashtag on Twitter (#rallyeCHTX). At first I thought I would just write about this particular experience and then I wonder: why just stop at that? Why not write about my experience with rallyes? You have to seize the day they say!

Where to start? Châteauroux is a middle-size town in the middle of France, about three hours away from Paris, along the river Indre.

rallye chtx - France

If you were to visit Châteauroux, you would find a little town, with a medieval past, some preserved heritage (a castle, churches, chapels and an industrial heritage) but no real desire to pass this on.

This is where I enter the game: my cousin is a teacher in Châteauroux and a day she called me asking if I was available to create a rallye for her class and her colleague’s. I said why not, I am not against some challenge (did I mention that the town motto is “far from everything, close to nothing”?).

Once in the town, my cousin and I had to create this new rallye and it gave me the opportunity to think about my previous experiences with this specific type of cultural mediation.

How I got there is part of my own reflection about visitors’ role in their interaction with cultural items.

To be brief, in my family, people are not big fans of museums/guided tour/culture and I am like an exception. When I decided to make a job out of this eccentric passion, I started wondering why some people like culture and why some people don’t.

Most of the time, the problem lies when people have to get in touch with heritage: they fear looking foolish because of their supposedly lack of knowledge and the fear of being asked about art/history/heritage is worse because it might force them to reveal the said lack of knowledge. This statement is more potent when it comes to the different types of face-to-face mediation (like the guided tours): there is no escape, you are held in a group of people you don’t really know, with people you consider smarter. The group became a mock-classroom, with the “teacher’s pets” on the front row and the “duffers” in the back, busy looking busy.

Despite the fact that guided tours were considered in the 80s in France a part of cultural democratisation, it now often had become a redundant and dull activity[1]. So I started studying what museums/exhibitions would do and it even became the subject of my master degree memoir!

rallye chtx - memoir

For we didn’t have much time to lose with my bragging babble, the core of my reflection is

  • We have to allow visitors to take a more important part in mediations.
  • For both children and adults.

Yes! Visitors make the conscious choice to visit a piece of heritage, the least we can do is to give them some credit and let them be actors of their own mediation experience and more importantly, let them play, have fun with heritage! It doesn’t have to be an old and dull and lifeless thing (I don’t think Melissa Hawker and Silvia Filippini[2] would disagree with that and I invite you to get in touch with them!). It’s not because you wear corduroys jackets with your glasses on the tip of your nose that what you say is more interesting!

The rallye?

When I was looking for a nice way to achieve my goal, I came across le rallye[3]. I don’t know if the word has totally the same meaning in English but I am clearly not talking about that weird gathering of really posh people cavorting on well moaned lawns, eating cucumber sandwiches and mini-quiches. Neither am I talking about crazy dudes and chicks driving race cars through deserts…

Third time’s the charm, the rallye ­– a.k.a. rallye pédestre, rallye culturel or rallye patrimoine – is a practice close to the “treasure hunt” where participants move around a town/heritage/exhibition thanks to indications or hidden clues on their path. (I think in English you talk about ‘trails’ so now one I will use this word!).

Why a trail?

First of all, even though the guided tour is more redundant and tiresome, a trail and guided tour are not that different and they can easily replace one another. Yes the guide is not physically in front of visitors but he/she lies within the indications and clues given to the public. Here are – for me – some perks for visitors:

  • Visitor is free to accept the challenge or not;
  • If one does, the task is less repetitive than just following a supposedly cleverer person (i.e. the guide);
  • Trail is built upon a team and is there to build team spirit;
  • This way visitor won’t have to feel “less smart” if someone asks a question he cannot answer: the experience is built upon the knowledge of every member of the team;
  • The trail exercises the power of observation and sometimes people learn things without even noticing. Better than just feeding people facts.
  • The trail binds learning to experience (in education, the best way for someone to learn something!);
  • People can learn at their own pace;
  • And last but not least: it is more fun! (Never forget the power of fun).

For mediators, it is interesting too. Amongst others perks:

  • You will use the same material for a trail as for a guided tour (you kill two birds with one stone!);
  • You have to put yourself in your visitors’ shoes: if you are not clear in what you show and say, it will be a disaster;
  • You can welcome more visitors without being overwhelmed by the number;
  • You can welcome a large range of visitors: single people, groups of adults, families (parents and children can then cooperate!) and groups of children.

Some advice

There after some of the steps I have to think about every time I have to create a new trail. Maybe it can be of help for your practice too.

What is there to share with visitors also called “is there something to see in here? Is there really?!”

If you think that your town[4] has nothing to offer, you are dead wrong! It is just a question of perspective!

Yes, your town is small and sometimes appears dull. Yes, the church has been bombed down by the RAF during WW2 and is now in ruins. Yes, your town has been remodeled in the 70s and now every buildings display nice shades of brown and orange[5].

At the end of the day it is not so much a question of what you have to offer rather than a question of how you can display it that really matters. Think big! And then think very small: sometimes it’s the little things that count (a detail in an apse chapel rather than a whole church). You can virtually show anything to anyone!

Look at the audience you are trying to reach

A trail is fundamentally made for one type of audience (adults, family and children) so you have to make sure the audience you have chosen will be able to get what you want them to see: there is no need to ask children to see a tiny detail on top of a roof when it’s clearly out of their sight.

Unfortunately you will have to repeat this step all along the process of creation… You are working for people who might have no idea of what you are blabbering about! (Yeah… Bummer…)

Find a possible course

The harmony of your trail will largely depend upon the harmony of movements of each team, the less they cross paths with one another and the less they have to go around in circle the better.

Course of the trail in Châteauroux – Google maps.

rallye chtx - plan
Oh!
I’ve almost forgotten: the trail in Châteauroux lasted all day but often I limit the number of items seen to eight per half day (for teenagers).

If thou shalt succeed this trial you shalt go forth: the question of the trials

No worries! No one will have to fight for their life but the point of a trail is to set different trials[6] all along the course but you get the idea: visitor can only go on the path if they pass the various trials you have created. Yet you have to keep in mind the result you are expecting: no chugging bier or jumping through hoops on fire, the trials have to be fun BUT educational.

Of course, they will be thought according to your audience (again). Younger children (for example) may not have access to reading comprehension (or not like you would want them to) so you have to keep your text short and concise. You also have to keep to a minimum written answers (have you ever tried to write something down while standing up?) even more when it is easier to locate on a map, draw, underline, sort, circle and so on.

rallye chtx - extrait

Here the children had to draw, complete and circle. On the right page, the idea to complete the picture by a drawing was to show the pupils there is symmetry in classic architecture but without telling them because it’s a geometry notion they haven’t seen yet. © Kevin Offelman & Virginie Jan.

 

“Once upon a time…”: fuel the imagination

Never forget the power of imagination. If you want your visitors to finish their trail, you better be really charismatic or have a great thing to offer.

An easier way would be to create a whole story to underlie the practice. I won’t deny that it is more efficient with younger visitors (but still): if you create room for their imaginations to grow they are not visiting anymore, they are unveiling mysteries, unravelling the truth, they are taking part in the (hi)story.

One of the ways you can reach this goal is by creating an avatar. “Great idea!” I can hear you say in front of your computer. Indeed avatars are awesome but be careful: please! We beg of you! Your avatar doesn’t have to be a cartoon character! 90s are dead, let them rest in peace!

Children may be young(er) but they are far from stupid and they aren’t impervious to “more serious stuff”.

This appeared on my Twitter timeline the other day and gave me a rash. The fonts, the colors, the cartoon character: keep it to a minimum, pretty please! Moreover, those characteristics are often the reflection of what adults consider cute.

This appeared on my Twitter timeline the other day and gave me a rash. The fonts, the colors, the cartoon character: keep it to a minimum, pretty please!
Moreover, those characteristics are often the reflection of what adults consider cute.

 

For the trail in Châteauroux we use the name of Henri Gatien Bertrand, close to the Emperor Napoleon I. who was born and died in Châteauroux. He is now buried with Napoleon in les Invalides in Paris and the pupils were going to visit this museum a month after the trail. © Kevin Offelman.

For the trail in Châteauroux we use the name of Henri Gatien Bertrand, close to the Emperor Napoleon I. who was born and died in Châteauroux.
He is now buried with Napoleon in les Invalides in Paris and the pupils were going to visit this museum a month after the trail.
© Kevin Offelman.

This one I made for a trail in Brittany. This mock-biography use fake fact but true one as well linked to the history of the town the trail was held in. Even the journalist who interviewed me afterwards thought Arthur Cavendish really existed. I used the appearance of an Internet article because most children are used to Internet research and have visited Wikipedia (for example) at least once. © Kevin Offelman.

This one I made for a trail in Brittany. This mock-biography use fake fact but true one as well linked to the history of the town the trail was held in.
Even the journalist who interviewed me afterwards thought Arthur Cavendish really existed.
I used the appearance of an Internet article because most children are used to Internet research and have visited Wikipedia (for example) at least once.
© Kevin Offelman.

In my (little) experience I had better result when the avatar was “real”: for example, Cavendish who was a bit of funny person, lost some of his stuff along his way (a bit like Waldo) and the children who I accompany had a chance to found it back. In the end, even the older members of the group had trouble thinking if this adventure was true or not.

I take this opportunity to convey a message from Maria Montessori, the great pedagogue of the early 20th century.

Even though she worked for children, you can often apply her reflections to all sorts of learners.

Montessori gave a special role to the appearance of her learning tools: aesthetic has a part to play and it can help the visitors to comply with what you will have to say because they will be keener to interact with the tools you are giving them (that you have created). It is the same process at play with tech tools (even though I will not share my point of view on that matter!).

 

This is the cover of the book "written" by Arthur Cavendish. I wanted to recreate the appearance of an old book, bound in leather displaying shuminagashi. It is the same principle used for the "letter" of Henri Bertrand above. © Kevin Offelman.

This is the cover of the book “written” by Arthur Cavendish. I wanted to recreate the appearance of an old book, bound in leather displaying shuminagashi.
It is the same principle used for the “letter” of Henri Bertrand above.
© Kevin Offelman.

 

A last advice

I will end my long monologue saying that each team shouldn’t have more than eight members: it’s enough for them to share thoughts and feelings and points of view without having groups splitting up between leader(s) and follower(s).

Two children drawing the patterns on the "piliers de la République" designed by Guy de Rougemont – Châteauroux. © Kevin Offelman

Two children drawing the patterns on the “piliers de la République” designed by Guy de Rougemont – Châteauroux.
© Kevin Offelman

One team before the "Château-Raoul". © Kevin Offelman

One team before the “Château-Raoul”.
© Kevin Offelman

Another one trying to found their way in Châteauroux. © Kevin Offelman.

Another one trying to found their way in Châteauroux.
© Kevin Offelman.

 

In conclusion, you can use the trail as a sort of reformed guided visit: less dull and more fun, the trail makes visitors the masters of their own cultural experience, deleting in the process the gap between cultural items and themselves (the gap is more intensified when there is a guide in front of the audience who might appeared as guardian of some sort).

I hope I help made you change your mind about trails: they are not half-visit. You might need more times the first times to plan one than for a guided tour but it is never lost time, because you will find a purpose for all the new things that will come out of the reflection (brainstorming for a trail is like opening a Pandora’s box: you come with one idea and you end up with pages of notes for future projects!) and there are lots of alternatives to guided tours which have not been explored yet.

To conclude the conclusion, there is nothing wrong with enjoying heritage, it’s even the other way around and if other cultural mediators, learning officers, museum educators and visitors altogether would share this point of view it would be great and museums/castles/exhibitions/anything cultural would be (even) more alive places.

Anyway I’d be thrilled to share on the topic, don’t hesitate to ask questions or argue. I’d love to have some feedback.

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[1] Of course, there are still very good guides and guided tours! Moreover, it remains the easier and faster way to pass knowledge.

[2] According to their Twitter bio, Melissa Hawker is “Learning Officer for [the Ancient House] and [Lynn Museum]. Part of [Norfolk Museums] Service” and and Silvia Filippini is “Director of Interpretation, Media and Evaluation [at Indianapolis Museum of Art].

[3] En français dans le texte.

[4] It can work with almost anything but I only have work with towns’ heritage (for now!).

[5] You can replace “70s” by “80s” and “nice shade of brown and orange” by “a nice East-Berlin flair”).

[6] Trials, tests, exercices, games…