UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 8 | Aug.
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 Vancouvers
Expo 86 and Brisbanes 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 cant remember what was displayed
in the pavilions, says Anderson, an assistant professor
in the Faculty of Educations Dept. of Curriculum Studies.
Their memories are centred around their social experiences,
culture and identity. Little kids, for example, remember going
to McDonalds, 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 cant 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
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
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 individuals
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
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 childs
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
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.