I’d like to introduce you to a type of Science Center visitor I call “Fish Stick Boyfriend.” Here’s a common demographic profile, based on my own experience:
-30-35 years old
-Visiting with a female companion (and sometimes children)
The interaction generally follows a simple pattern. Fish Stick Boyfriend frowns and paces while his companion darts from exhibit to exhibit. I’m siphoning a tank, and she is too engaged with the surrounding interpretive content to notice I’m there. Fish Stick Boyfriend notices me, though. He wants to talk.
“So,” he says, pointing at an equally disinterested rockfish, “can you eat those? What do they taste like?”
He’s being sarcastic—at least that’s what he thinks he’s doing. Fortunately, I’ve seen many Fish Stick Boyfriends before, and I know what’s going on. I tell him what rockfish tastes like and where to get it. Then I tell him why it tastes the way it does, and how that relates to the animal’s life history. Then I show him an animal that tastes different, explain why, and tell him where he can go to buy it.
Fish Stick Boyfriend is now usually smiling and looking at some exhibits, and occasionally we actually start talking. His initial comment reveals some useful things:
1. He feels out of place
2. He’s familiar with fish as food
3. He wants to interact with somebody, but he chose an aquarist over a designated interpreter
On the exhibit floor, I’m “just a guy.” Visitors sometimes feel comfortable talking to me when they might avoid an interpretive volunteer or education staff member. Part of the reason may be that I’m usually facing the same direction they are—a small but significant proxemic distinction. I’m talking with them, rather than at them. I’m having a conversation, rather than giving a lecture. It’s not even much to do with what I say—the visitors’ perception makes all the difference.
When it comes to engaging the peripheral learners in a group, I’ve found that the most effective interpreters are often not interpreters at all. Fish Stick Boyfriend doesn’t think he likes Science Centers, but he’s comfortable talking to “the guy who cleans the tanks.” He sees me as a peripheral figure, too.
Over the past few years, I’ve developed a rough, conversational interpretive plan for just about every object in the Visitor Center. The octopus sculpture at the front desk can be used to talk about anatomy. Laura’s footprint decals can be used to talk about population genetics via variations in calcaneal pitch. Exhibits under construction can be used to talk about interpretation itself.
Whether you’re a trained interpreter or not, it’s important to recognize your relationship to the visitor experience. If you’re not perceived as a representative of the institution, you can use that as a position of power on behalf of the visitor. You’re “just a guy” or “just a girl,” changing a light fixture or measuring a table or feeding a frog or miming the destruction of an uncooperative video player. Some visitors may see you as the only approachable person in the building, and your response is crucial.
Fish Stick Boyfriend is bored, and only you can help him.