I recently received a request for ideas to improve interpretation at ‘stations.’ You know, programs where multiple people have booths or activity stations and groups walk around and ‘drop in’ at the stations to learn what is there. This often happens to accommodate large school groups. The several busloads of kids are divvied into small pods and sent along a trail where interpreters or volunteers wait at stations to give their spiel. This works OK. It accommodates the group, but often the messages are random and not coordinated. It’s as though there are a bunch of unrelated programs rather than one seamless, thematic story. The approach becomes one of expediency rather than purpose, and the result can be confusion rather than understanding.
You also see this in zoos, arboreta, museums, and other places where wandering and seeking are the style of the experience. In these cases individuals and families freely walk and enjoy the grounds and occasionally come upon a docent with a story to tell. These docents add value as well as education to the experience by being a person from the site to talk to. Their presence tells the visitor that the place cares about them and is there for them, and visitors like that. These are usually mini-programs, lasting five minutes, maybe up to 15 minutes, so things must be well organized and the message very clear. Here are some suggestions to get staff more comfortable with these mini-programs and in that short time really make a difference.
#1 – Be sure you have a purpose and a theme and that each station docent knows what it is. Don’t assume they know it, have it written down to hand to them, along with how their station relates to that theme. Craft a theme that rolls off the tongue easily that connects the exhibit or resource to the visitor (see #4). For the student group, be sure every station has a program or activity that reinforces the theme. For a zoo or garden I suggest the same thing, every docent relates his message to the theme. The theme could change daily, but throughout each day visitors learn about the station (bear, deer, lion, azalea) and a connection is made to the larger theme. Think about a universal concept that applies and build your theme and programs around it. Freeman Tilden’s third principle: relate everything to a whole concept. The theme is the whole, a big concept to which you have multiple points of approach. At the end of the day the visitor has a broad understanding of that larger concept.
#2 – Use what I call pocket exhibits. These are items that the docent or interpreter carries, sometimes in a pocket, and can show to visitors. Visitors can touch them, look at them and engage their sense of touch and employ kinesthetic learning. This works very well in museums where the ‘look but don’t touch’ concept is prevalent. This ‘don’t touch’ approach holds true in zoos, too. We usually don’t encourage touching the tiger, but if the docent hands the visitor a tooth, a claw, some fur – WOW! That’s a grabber that catches attention and is something to talk about.
Pocket exhibits can include pictures, food, keeper tools – anything that grabs the visitor’s attention, gives the visitor something to hold, and relates to the subject and illustrates the theme. Pocket exhibits create memorable interpretation. In a recent program about a CCC lodge the interpreter produced photos of the CCC boys as they constructed the very room in which we were standing. Those photos gave the program an added depth and increased our understanding and appreciation of the CCC.
#3 – Find a good teaser. A teaser is simply saying that you have something very important to tell and you’ll get to it in a minute… but first, notice this … (This happens every evening about an hour before the news!) If your staff has trouble getting visitors to stay and listen to what they have to say, they may have too much to say, OR, they may need a good teaser. A teaser is a way of telling the visitor that you are saving the best for last, and when the visitor knows the best thing is coming ‘in a minute,’ they will stay to hear it.
#4 – Realize that it’s about the visitor, not the flowers, not the tiger, not the forest. Freeman Tilden tells us that every visitor is interested in one thing – himself. That’s so true, and we fail when we forget it. Tilden’s first principle tells us to relate to the interest or experience of the visitor or “your interpretation will be sterile.” We want to know how that tiger relates to us, how that flower relates to us, and why we should care about the forest. Every docent should help the visitor answer “So what? Why should I care about this?” Otherwise all that happens is a verbal listing facts, and after one or two of those that’s all we want and we’re outa there.