• Cait McQuade

Writing in visitors' shoes


I recently visited Thomas Edison National Historical Park in New Jersey. The site includes several buildings in which Thomas Edison and his colleagues invented things we still use. Never mind the phonograph, he came up with a waffle iron!


Just outside the Park's entrance, there's a slanted panel with text and images on it. It's in the lower right of this picture.


It reminded me how well the National Park Service handles this kind of element, which they call a wayside exhibit. They can be upright or angled like the one I saw, and they tell you about something that happened where you’re standing. The people who make them say that waysides “caption the landscape.”


Jazz Guy via Flickr

The one I saw in New Jersey stands next the site's historic entrance and refers to it: “From 1887 to 1931 Thomas A. Edison, his laboratory employees, and invited guests entered the laboratory complex through this gate and arch.” The text names things you can see around you: the little building nearby, the chain-link fence between you and the wayside, the street behind you. There are old photographs that show these things as they looked in the past.


The combination of words and images draws an explicit connection between you, standing here in 2022, and the experience of people who stood here in the past.


At Harpers Ferry Center (HFC), the Park Service’s media services hub, there’s a whole division of designers, writers, and production specialists who work on nothing but waysides. Over the years, HFC has honed the criteria for excellent waysides and identified their best functions, writing style, types of images, materials—even the process to follow in conceiving and designing them. They’ve written an 84-page guide (PDF) to it all.


There’s a phrase on this wayside in New Jersey that hints at the NPS staff's expertise: “The wooden gatehouse to your left...”. It doesn’t sound like much, does it? It’s unremarkable when you're standing there: you look left, and, yup, there’s the gatehouse. Duh. But imagine if there had been a mistake, and it read, "...to your right."


When people were writing and editing the text for this wayside they weren’t standing in that spot. They might not have noticed a little mistake like that. The writer and designer were in West Virginia. The park staff who reviewed the design have offices inside the gates. The person who approved the panel at the manufacturer was wherever it was made—maybe Ohio or Alabama.


While I write exhibit text, I’m always imagining myself into the shoes of someone standing in front of the display. Which doesn’t exist yet. For a case full of vintage baseball gear, I think about the things someone might have seen before they get to it; what else is near the case; where the label will be in relation to it. Will the life-size figure be wearing the same style jersey as we display in the case?


The wayside group at HFC uses a process that helps them do this for each panel they design. Before they decide where waysides will go, they walk through the whole site with the park’s experts. Sometimes it’s an urban landscape like the Edison site, with buildings and sidewalks. It could be a trail by a glacier.

The team watches what visitors do, where people naturally stop to look. They think carefully about which direction each wayside should face. And they take lots of pictures.


As the writers and designers draft text, find images, and lay out the panel, they keep looking at those photographs. Do the trees block something they want to mention in the text? What's the best way to point out a rock formation that appears in the illustration?


Once the wayside (or baseball exhibit) is installed, all this work becomes invisible. Unless there's a mistake. If the wayside in New Jersey had pointed my eyes in the wrong direction, I might not have connected as easily to people in the past, those laboratory employees who entered through the same gate as I did.


If you find yourself in front of a wayside, looking back and forth between the panel and the place around you, will you feel the touch of people’s imaginations, those people who planned for your experience?