Shannon Zipfel, is a graduate student at the American University in Rome, Italy. With a knack for writing up her meaningful experiences while living and studying in Rome, she created a visitor questionnaire intended to provide particular insight into the background of the visitors to the Jewish Museum and what is important for them during the visit. Her questionnaire also investigated how the heritage at the Jewish museum is understood in relation to the visitors own lives and how they understand the scope of the museum’s heritage.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, PA in the United States, Zipfel earned her BA in Art History and French Studies at Fordham University in New York City. She specialized in modern and global art, and studied literature and art through her French studies degree. She was accepted into the graduate program at the American University in Rome in April 2021, and has loved living and learning about cultural heritage in Rome.

What can you tell me about your university program here in Rome?

The American University of Rome's Cultural Heritage M.A. program is unique in that its main focus is on community responses to heritage protection, heritage tourism, and heritage management - not on state or institutional responses. AUR’s program aims to train students in skills that lead to vital roles in the heritage sector working with communities, NGOs, and other organizations to ensure the restoration, protection, enhancement, and promotion of sites of cultural importance. In addition, the program wants their graduate students to experience work in one aspect of the cultural heritage field and gain soft and hard skills from the experience, which is why I sought out an internship experience. Knowing what I wanted to do with my research, I reached out to the museum.

What is your Master thesis about?

In a nutshell, my thesis will investigate how tourism decisions and site perceptions are influenced by the personal background of the traveler, focusing on reactions by visitors to a heritage site in Italy that has a strong connection to Jewish identity, Museo Ebraico di Roma, or the Jewish Museum of Rome. This will reflect the dynamics that can occur when complex socioterritorial areas create encounters at heritage sites. Jewish heritage sites have a long history and a palpable presence in the urban fabric of many European countries, and the motivations for and perceptions of this type of tourism experience reflects several truths about travel, identity, and heritage experiences. Specifically, this research aims to gather information on the way that the Museo Ebraico di Roma & Synagogue are understood in relation to the visitors’ own multilayer identities and how this background might influence the type of motivation that led to their visit to the site. This research will provide an image of how identity influences itineraries and tourism decisions, and how different identity layers interact within and between the European, Italian, American, national, international and Jewish social groups.

How long was your internship and what did you do at the museum? Did you interact with the staff and visitors or just observe?

My internship lasted just over a month from mid-July to early September and I came in on Fridays and Sundays which are some of the most popular days for the museum. I primarily answered questions from the visitors in the museum galleries and provided any needed assistance to the museum tour guides as they gave the synagogue tour. However, I wanted to learn a lot about the visitor experience in this museum so observation played an important role in seeing who visited, how they moved through the space, and what they wanted to do while they were there. This combination created a very informative internship.

Why is it important to understand the visitor experience of outstanding sites of cultural heritage?

This is one of the most important lessons from my sustainable cultural heritage program. The visitors and audience of the museum are essential for the living aspect of a site’s heritage. A site’s visitors keep its information, traditions, and importance alive, so by paying special attention to the characteristics of a visit and what the visitor hopes to experience, the site can sustain its longevity. Knowing what the visitor experience is like and which parts of it are the most impactful can create a stronger connection between a site and its audience, and this will help ensure its preservation for the future.

How can your work impact the future of one of the most important museums?

Using this questionnaire and the data from it can provide more information on who is visiting the museum, how they relate their own life to the heritage at the museum, and what motivations brought them to actually visit. By understanding what pulls people to the museum, whether that is a desire to explore their family heritage, learn about Jewish Italian history, or appreciate art, or some combination of many different motivations, can help the museum plan any future programs, special events, or similar things. In my classes, I have studied several case studies about how this type of information can offer any guidance on interpretive materials, such as what types of topics should be highlighted in informative materials. For this reason, gathering data, studying the most popular reasons that people visit, and discovering the background of who is going to the site, can help great museums continue to share their important heritage and reach broader audiences.

How has your internship impacted your understanding of the role of interreligious dialogue? And inter-cultural exchange?

My internship has helped me uncover how important interreligious communication is in order to promote better understanding and respect of the beliefs of others, and how this can create something beautiful. Religion is a powerful part of many people’s lives, and it has shaped their viewpoints, values, practices, and life goals. Creating a dialogue between different religious groups allows for a greater understanding of how different people practice their religion, allowing for greater respect of these practices as well as creating an opportunity to discover similarities. Similarly, intercultural exchange is essential for creating a stronger society on a broader scale. The diverse cultural backgrounds of the museum visitors were something that first impacted me when I visited the museum, actually. Intercultural exchange can start small by perhaps talking with a fellow visitor in a museum; but over time, by trading opinions, backgrounds, and ideas, people can learn to respect and appreciate the unique and often beautiful ways that people express their cultural identity.

As a young person looking to enter the work force and leave her mark, how has your internship at the Jewish Museum of Rome changed or reinforced your plans for your future career?

It has really shaped the way I think about working in the heritage field in the future. It has shown me how many factors should be considered when planning how to share the artwork, history, and traditions of a site, city, or country to an audience of people with diverse identities and backgrounds. My internship at the Jewish Museum has reinforced my plans to focus on the visitor experience, with an eye toward moving into sustainable planning for tourism and travel arrangements. I think this type of focused analysis will find ways to preserve tangible heritage as well as intangible traditions in a society where there are many different forces of change, from urbanization to economic fluctuations to simply the passage of time. I hope to continue to learn and help in gathering this type of information, and creating cultural experiences that will strengthen historical and cultural works.

Your 25-question survey of museum visitors probably elicited some interesting comments, can you elaborate on some key takeaways?

I am currently still analyzing the data for my thesis, but so far it has been interesting to see that the museum has multi-layered meanings for people of all different demographics. Visitors who are Jewish and non-Jewish, European and American, of a variety of ages and educational backgrounds, typically want to visit to explore the history and art of the site, connect with the community there, and have an emotional or reverential experience. The museum’s heritage is also perceived as existing on several different “scopes,” with the results indicating that it is a notable site of local heritage, Jewish heritage, European heritage, and global heritage in the eyes of its visitors. These early findings indicate how multi-faceted the museum is as a site for visitors and how its content can touch a wide audience.