Concord, Massachusetts is a sanctum for lovers of colonial history and literary figures. With an abundance of historic homes and museums, it is rather easy to get lost inside a world of objects and labels. That is all well and fine, but Concord’s history extends far beyond the walls of any one structure. Walden pond and the surrounding woods shaped the philosophical and political history of the area; secrets of a different time period are imbedded in the landscape of the historic town. So how do museums get their visitors outside the institution and exploring the surrounding area? This past spring, the Concord Museum came up with a creative and practical solution. The Thoreau Trail is an app that connects visitors to all the historic and natural sites in the Concord area. Easier to manipulate than several Concord tourism websites, the app lays out for visitors what the area has to offer along with interactive elements that help enhance, not dominate, the experience.
Not wanting to spend a beautiful autumn afternoon cooped up indoors, I tested the app while visiting the Walden Pond State Reservation. Navigation throughout the app is simple. The main features are easy to find and each place of importance contains its own labyrinth of tidbits. Important information, such as a brief description of the site, is kept to a minimum and is easy to scan. Site pages link to websites for more information but most of what visitors need to know, such as operation times and addresses, are available right through the app. One drawback is that the app has no graphic map or link to a navigational app, making finding these sites a bit more difficult for visitors who are not familiar with the area. Options for each site page vary, which is both interesting and potentially distracting. I could have easily spent my visit to Concord exploring every nook of the app, but that would not have made for a very enjoyable experience. Once visitors decide which sites they will visit, the app proves to be a valuable addition.
In one of his many journals Thoreau writes, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” (Journal, 5 August 1851). This thought highlights the educational goal of the app. In the museum experience, it does not matter what visitors are looking at on an app but what they will be able to see because the app pointed them in the right direction. What observations and connections visitors are able to make through new media in museums is key in the creation of the app, and key in creating a positive visitor experience. The Walden Pond State Reservation page contained a “To Think About…” section: two questions prompting visitors to absorb their surroundings and question what it is they are seeing or hearing. This can spark dialogue between visitors, and and internal dialogue between a person and nature. Rather than bringing visitors to a place where they will quickly look at some trees and water and move on, the app indirectly asks visitors to stop and consider the natural world. Thoreau would be pleased and no doubt gladly taken part in the conversation.
Visitors can choose to leave the app here, or dive deeper in the Thoreau-inspired conversation. An option to explore Thoreau’s Walden brings users to a new page with four excerpts from Walden. The brief audio stops include a reading from Walden that pertains to some aspect of the collision between humans and nature. Interestingly, in the audio stop “Railroad,” Thoreau is both impressed by the modern technology but laments its intrusion on nature. This concept itself has the potential to create a conversation around using an app to explore an nature reservation. This is really where the app excels, not in its design or interactivity, but in its ability to create those important conversations and develop the inquisitive mind of the visitor.