Thinking back over the past year of working on the creation of the Museum of Russian Icon’s family audio tour that highlights stories from Russian folklore, the one lesson that I keep coming back to is the importance of testing the impact of a project with an audience that mirrors your target audience before going live. I knew this, but it’s easy to forget, especially when deadlines loom and everyone is eager for the finished product to be unveiled. In this case, the feedback from our testing made us realize we had to completely rewrite and rerecord the tour that we considered essentially finished. Despite the delays and the hassle this created, the final tour went from good to outstanding after the changes were made. I can say this because I’m not bragging about myself, but about the two scholars I was lucky enough to work with: Bonnie Marshall and Sibelan Forrester, both scholars of Russian folklore.
Let me give a little background about the project. In the fall of 2009, Mass Humanities generously funded the development of an audio tour for families at the Museum of Russian Icons. This tour would highlight connections between Russian folklore and icons. It would complement our existing audio tour, which focuses on Russian history and culture (and is available in English, Russian, Spanish and, soon, Portuguese). It would also complement our award-winning printed gallery guide for families. Our goal was to create another interpretive tool for families. We also wanted to emphasize the narrative role of icons, exploring that function through the literary tradition as well as through the visual art.
Bonnie spent several weeks writing the stories, based on extensive research as well as original fieldwork in Russia. Sibelan served as editor, advisor, and sounding board, while I coordinated the schedule and commented on the drafts from the point of view of the Museum visitor, thinking about things like the length of the stops and familiarity of vocabulary. By spring, we had a solid first draft, which we recorded last April. Shortly thereafter, I created a survey to gather feedback. We used this internally for family visitors and externally for a class of middle school students in Connecticut, who received the icon images and the audio recordings electronically.
To be honest, I thought of this step as a formality; I didn’t anticipate that it would require a complete rewrite and rerecording of the stories. Sixth graders don’t sugar coat their feedback: “The story was very confusing to me and a little boring,” said one about the St. Sergius legend. “It was just another Bible story,” said another about Elijah. Some of the feedback was more positive: One student thought that “there was good action,” in the Archangel Michael story. “I liked it a lot!!! Cool!” exclaimed another student about the Mother of God Lucky Icon. Some of the feedback was disappointing: several kids commented that they didn’t know “where or what Bearute [sic] was.” Other comments were pleasantly surprising. For example, many kids objected to the violence in the stories of St. George slaying the dragon and the beheading of St. John the Baptist: “Really, really, violent [double underlined]–make it less violent.” They were also concerned about whether younger students would understand the tales. One student made a list of simpler alternatives for the vocabulary she thought was too advanced for younger kids (“You should use the world ‘boy’ instead of ‘lad.’).
Overall, the feedback indicated that the stories had to be shortened and simplified, with any extraneous Russian terms deleted (for example, place names that were not crucial to the narrative). Of course, this group of surveys is a very informal means of evaluation, but it was enough to help us realize we needed to make some changes. Bonnie undertook the rewrite with the challenge of deciding which comments to act upon and which she needed to disregard in order to keep the integrity of the legend intact. She rewrote the entire script, simplifying the vocabulary and the Russian terms where she could, and we entirely rerecorded the story.
We have heard nothing but great feedback about the final version of the tour, which is now available at the Museum in both English and Russian. We have found, in fact, that adult audiences like it as much as family audiences. This is my personal test of good family program–does it provide engaging and informative interpretation for everyone, regardless of age, even if it’s targeted to younger visitors? I think ours does, thanks to Bonnie, Sibelan, and the support of Mass Humanities. Come visit us in Clinton and see if you agree.