On Cranky Visitors and Creating Positive Informal Science Experiences

This weekend I got to experience the wonders of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the finest aquariums in the world. We’re so lucky to have this in Northern California.

It was 100% a positive experience for me and my companion. Their exhibit spaces are incredibly well designed, showcasing some magnificent marine flora and fauna from all over the world. Their science interpretation and environmental messaging is always so well crafted. And their staff always seem so on point, helpful, and informative.

That said, there was one negative encounter that reminded me of the challenges of running a shared learning space like an aquarium.

We were waiting for the 1:30pm feeding in the sea otter tank, one of the most popular exhibits at the aquarium. Several people had gotten there ahead of us, probably camped out from at least 1pm for the show. As the time grew closer, more and more people arrived, crowding around the four small windows facing the otter tank. It was getting warmer as more people arrived, kids and adults grew impatient as feet got tired and people got bored.

I was fairly close to one of the windows, only a couple of people between me and the front. Behind me, a group had just arrived at around 1:20, one of them expressing her displeasure about how “no one was moving.”

“Why isn’t anyone moving? That woman has stood in that spot for 10 minutes!” she complained loudly, referring to an older woman who was standing toward the front.

“Let’s just come back later. Let’s go to the cafe,” one of her companions suggested.

“No! I want to see the otters. Why won’t that woman move?” she continued.

I turned to her and calmly explained that that person and everyone else had arrived earlier and were waiting for the 1:30 show to start. The woman seemed unmoved by my explanation.

“You could move up a little and stand beside me,” I offered, sidling over a few inches.

“I don’t want to stand beside you!” she replied.

“Well then I can’t really help you,” I said, turning away.

The sad part was, if she had just gone to the cafe and returned 30 minutes later, she would have lots of access to the sea otters. But she wanted to see them right now and everyone was in her way.

I mean, I get it. You probably came from some distance to get to the aquarium. You paid quite a lot for admission. You want to get your money’s worth from the experience.

But this is also a shared space, which means making some accommodation for other people’s interests and needs. You don’t push your way to the front to get a better view when others are waiting. You have to get in line to get food at the cafe. You say “excuse me” when you bump into people in the dark corridors of the aquarium.

For the dissatisfied visitor, I wished for her a bit more empathy for others who had gone to some trouble to secure their spots to see the sea otter show, instead of putting her own wishes first. I sensed that no one was going to change her view of her rightness at that moment. Which is a shame, since she kind of ruined her own experience at the aquarium, and soured it for those around her, particularly her companions.

I don’t have any easy answers for the staff in shared public spaces like aquariums, museums, and zoos. It’s a reminder to me of the critical role that the front-of-house team play in helping people have as smooth and enjoyable a day as possible. Everyone we interacted with on the Monterey Bay Aquarium staff was uniformly cheerful and helpful – from the ticket-taker, to the cafe cashier, to the show presenters, to the docents, to even the guy bussing tables in the cafeteria. Really impressive.

But you know, you can’t force someone to have a good time.

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