The Ice Age has met the Audio Age at Mastodon State Historic Site.
Missouri State Parks chose two sites on either side of the state – Mastodon at the south edge of the St. Louis area and Weston Bend State Park north of Kansas City – for a one-year pilot program to evaluate the OnCell Mobile Tour System in which personal cellphones are used to access audio tours.
OnCell is already providing mobile tours at more than 100 national parks, including battlefields, historic homes and natural areas.
The staff at Mastodon State Historic Site and Weston Bend State Park wrote the scripts and then recorded the audio that is heard by visitors who use their cellphones to access the information at several stops along short trails. OnCell uses the scripts and photos provided by the parks to create the audio tour.
At Mastodon State Historic Site, the tour is of the Kimmswick Bone Bed and the audio explains that it was the first site in North America to provide evidence that humans co-existed with mastodons during the Ice Age.
At Weston Bend State Park, the audio tour follows a short trail along an old farm road and explains the history of the settlers who began arriving in the 1800s.
Brooke Mahar, the interpretative resource specialist at Mastodon State Historic Site, wrote and recorded the audio, and explained how the system works during a walk along the trail. She said the audio segments at each of the five stops were kept short, taking about a minute to hear.
A visitor uses a hand-held mobile device to either access the OnCell app or dial the number listed on signs the size of a notepad at each site. Smartphone users also have the capability to scan the signs and call up photos.
“We talk about excavations and quarry operations that were along here,” Mahar said. “The audio can say, ‘You are now standing on the spot where the excavations occurred’.”
The historic site does not provide regular guided tours of the bone bed, Mahar said, and the audio system allows visitors to access information outside of the museum’s normal hours.
“We get people who come here and don’t always come into the museum and see the movie that explains what happened here,” Mahar said. “People are so plugged in to technology today, they always have their phones with them.”
“The audio system allows them to access the information at their own pace. We can reach a broader base of people with it.”
Enhancing the Park Experience
At Weston Bend State Park, the first stop is at a barrel-vault root cellar built in the early 1830s by a French Canadian fur trader who established a tavern and trading house at the location. Another stop explains the abandoned corn picker along the trail and the last one talks about a Missouri River survey marker placed in the 1880s.
“The Missouri River Commission marker is really unique, it’s rare to have one of those still around,” said Matt Carletti, superintendent at Weston Bend.
The audio stops request visitors to leave comments, and Carletti provided one recorded by a 7-year-old girl, who made the two-mile walk with her father. The youngster said she cannot read “big signs,” adding, “That was cool to listen about the different things.”
“It opens up interpretation of that trail to anyone who has a phone and walks it,” Carletti said. “You go from just taking a hike to learning more about the park.”
There are numerous attractions at Weston Bend State Park that could be enhanced by expanding the audio tours, Carletti said.
“We have a historic tobacco barn, we have trails that highlight the importance of Weston Bend State Park as a birding area, with different views of the Missouri River,” he said. “It increases peoples’ investment in the park itself. When you know more, you care more.”
Potential for Expansion
At the end of the one-year trial program, the system will be assessed with the possibility of adding audio tours at other parks, said Kendra Swee, interpretative resource coordinator for Missouri State Parks.
“I’ve been listening to the comments left over the last six to eight weeks and all have been good – people see it as an added bonus,” she said. “You can go out on a Saturday morning and take a hike and learn more using technology that people are using every minute of their lives.”
One added “green” benefit to the mobile tour system is that it decreases the demand for paper trail guides.
The OnCell system has many capabilities, Swee said, citing a system at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia that allows visitors to go on a scavenger hunt in the living-history park.
“It gives information and clues and answers to riddles,” Swee said. “You’re asking questions, getting answers. It makes you more interactive at that site.”