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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 8 | Aug. 7, 2003

The Way We Were

Study reveals selective memories of Expo ’86

By Erica Smishek

2010 Olympic organizers take note -- despite your best efforts, people may remember conversations in line-ups or the state of washrooms more than the international displays, competitions and lavish ceremonies.

David Anderson, a museum learning specialist and science educator at UBC, has completed a study of long-term memories of world expositions. It shows that visitors to Vancouver’s Expo ’86 and Brisbane’s Expo ’88 are more likely to remember sharing a meal with a boyfriend or steering children through the crowd than any of the international displays.

“By and large, people can’t remember what was displayed in the pavilions,” says Anderson, an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education’s Dept. of Curriculum Studies.

“Their memories are centred around their social experiences, culture and identity. Little kids, for example, remember going to McDonald’s, fighting with their brothers and sisters, and climbing on the expositions’ outdoor sculptures. Young moms remember what the bathrooms were like, shepherding kids around, setting up blankets for a picnic lunch, and conversations with other moms in the queue.”

Anderson says the findings speak to the ways people filter their experiences as a function of who they were at the time of these experiences.

“They are only able to perceive a very thin set of memories,” he says. “They have a sense they did a lot of things, saw a lot of things but they can’t report many details of what they saw.”

In the Expo ’86 study, adult males aged 40 to 50 at the time of their visit stand out from all other visitors in terms of their abilities to report details of their experience. Anderson says the sample size is too small to make assertions about gender.

“It could be that these men went with different agendas,” he says. “They went specifically to look at and learn from the exhibits. Perhaps they were by themselves while their wives went off somewhere else. Or perhaps what was in the pavilions -- boats or trains, for example - was of a personal interest.”

Anderson interviewed a total of 50 visitors, ranging in age from 25 to 65 years (therefore eight to 48 years at the time of their visits). Verbal questions, visual cues and stimulated recall were used in interviews to probe an individual’s memories.

Anderson said even people who worked at Expo tend to recall the experience through the cultural filters of their own professions. Police officers, for example, recall the duties of crowd control, crime investigation or security for VIPs, but had difficulty recalling what was on display in pavilions despite the fact they visited many of them on numerous occasions.

Moreover, visitors often used Expo as a marker in time to differentiate other events and phenomena in life. One participant, for example, recalls driver courtesy being better before Expo ’86.

Anderson says the study findings would be a valuable resource for developers of future world expositions, other international events and museum exhibitions.

In order to make an impact, he says developers must understand and factor in the needs of their audience so visitors can more successfully interact with what is being displayed. Then a young mother may remember the actual exhibits rather than the time she spent looking for a facility to wash her child’s face.

“Developers have a lot of reasons for doing what they do. Educational impact is just one of them. You put an exhibition or event on for political reasons, for cultural reasons, for economic reasons.

“But if you were investing all this money with a view for impact, you need to provide experiences rich in social interaction while allowing for the diversity of the people and their agendas.”

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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