We adjust our interview questions for full-time park interpreters fairly regularly. A few years ago I added: Name three ways you turn information into interpretation.
I like the question and believe it tells us a lot about what an applicant understands about the art of interpretation. I feel it’s a very easy question with a lot of choices for answers, and I’m surprised when an applicant doesn’t understand the question or can’t find an answer, and I wonder if they really know interpretation.
Just for the fun of it, here are my top ten ways you can improve your interpretation and you’re park interpretation program by turning information into interpretation.
Do you agree?
What would you add?
1. Don’t confuse nomenclature or lists of facts with interpretation. Freeman Tilden tells us: “Many a guided tour is simply a vocal listing of facts and figures. It is information that is so often given; it is interpretation which should have been accomplished.”
2. Have a clear definition of what you are doing – a definition of interpretation. There are several. NAI has a fine one; Freeman Tilden’s is excellent. One of my favorites, one that really gets to the core of what interpretation is, was written by our folks at the Ozark Folk Center in one of our workshops: “Interpretation is relating what things mean, how they fit together, and why it matters.” This doesn’t say to name things, instead, it quickly goes to the heart of Tilden’s principle of the ‘Whole,’ and it answers, ‘So what?’ It’s a pretty powerful definition. If you accomplish those three items you will be an interpreter, not a fact spewer.
3. Combine cognitive and affective learning. NAI says interpretation is emotional and intellectual. Interpreter Brad Holleman says: “You must touch the heart before you touch the head.”
4. Making scents makes sense. Involve all the senses you can. We experience through our senses. Enhance your program by incorporating sight, sound, touch and smell. Taste can be a little iffy, so be careful with that one.
5. Use props, be active, be creative.
“Preach the good news; use words if you have to.” – St. Francis.
He’s saying actions speak louder than words. Often we talk when that may be the least thing needed. Perhaps our talking should be approached as if it’s the short caption beneath a beautiful image rather than being the reason everyone showed up. The experience exists without our talking to muddle it up. I love the valuable tool of ‘pocket exhibits.’ Having objects in your pocket or pack to pull out at just the right time to show and pass around. These vary from pictures to objects, but pocket exhibits can underscore a concept with a tangible, and bring into reality something that might not be seen, like in June showing the color of an April wildflower, or the skull, skin or rib bone of an animal whose track you find.
6. Link your programs. If you have a strong message related to the meaning and resources of your site, don’t stop with a single program. Create a series of programs that present your message through different activities, locations and viewpoints. Give your visitor several opportunities to connect with this meaningful message, and the opportunity to hear the message several times, but in different ways.
7. Create a package of interpretation. Once you define your most important and meaningful stories, present those in multiple media: Program, exhibit, publication, video, workshop, and activity. People learn in different ways. Get your important message to them in different ways so they can choose what they like.
8. Stay the course, or as Peters and Waterman said in “In Search of Excellence”: Stick to the knitting. Know your resource and your messages, and stick to them. Thomas Merton said “People are like crows; they are attracted to anything shiny.” This is true for our visitors; like Tigger, they are attracted to anything that is fun, fun, fun! But we must remember that we too will follow shiny things in the wrong direction if we don’t have a clear mission and clear themes based on interpreting the specific resources and values of our place.
9. Interpret the park. So simple isn’t it. But it means we need to know our site, we need to understand its values and greater meanings and compelling stories and put our message there, and only there and not be distracted by other shiny things. Interpret the park! Your visitor has sacrificed time and money to come to your site, they deserve to hear how things there fit together, what the site means, and why it matters. As creative, thoughtful interpreters we find the fun for our message, never abandon the message for fun. We interpret the park!
10. Show your passion: Your enthusiasm is contagious and has a powerful, positive effect on your fellow employees and your visitors.