I was honored when Christen Miller, newly promoted to visitor experience manager for Virginia State Parks, and Geoff Hall, Chief Interpreter at Hungry Mother State Park,
invited me to be the keynote speaker and lead several training sessions for their annual spring interpretation training.
I enjoyed five days at beautiful Hungry Mother State Park in west Virginia (not West Virginia). Christen and Geoff kept me busy, but I found time to hike to Molly’s Knob, walk some of the Lake Trail, and do a little fishing. Hungry Mother State Park is beautiful and very well maintained, especially the trail tread and signage. And now I had personal experiences in the park to use in my presentations.
I made several presentations to about 100 enthusiastic and talented interpreters, and some brand new folks who were trying to figure this interpretation thing out because whatever it is, that’s what they will be doing all summer. One of the comments made by one of the full-time interpreters was that I make interpretation simple.
I was pleased with that comment. I try to take away the mystery and replace it with a logical approach that focuses on purposeful interpretation. I’ve been studying interpretation and have been training people in the art of interpretation for a long time. That began with an awareness of the many skills required to be a successful interpreter, and I made an effort to train people in each of those. Over time, I realized that the volume of skills, taken together, was immense. Like Santa Claus’ pack – full of things to pull out one at a time, each an exciting discovery, but the bag never empties and soon you have so many toys and tasks you can’t play with them all. It’s fun and exciting, but can be complex, confusing, and overwhelming. All these skills combined with the available interpretive opportunities and topics at any one site creates a sense of continuous ‘overwhelmedness’ that can make interpretation appear to be complex, even difficult. I realized that we needed to brush away all that ‘stuff’ and focus on purpose, mission, and outstanding, dominant, meaningful, critical topics found at the site.
My presentations in Virginia focused on focus: giving meaning to your site through identifying your highest and best messages by knowing your distinctive competence and essential experiences. Once this concept is understand and these are identified, so much of the seeming complexity of interpretation fades away. Plus, once these are identified they apply to programs, publications, exhibits, napkins, placemats, menus, merchandise, logos, and more. Your site then has something special and specific, and you can create an image, a feeling, an identity for your site. If you are into marketing you might use the word: brand.
This can’t be merely a cute slogan or logo made up by an ad agency to catch attention. To be successful, meaningful, and relevant it must be based in the site’s resource so that it’s a real thing.
When a visitor arrives they can go there, see it, touch it, experience it – Freeman Tilden might call this being “face to face with The Thing Itself” – the deep meaning of your site, based in your most significant resource(s).
Because it’s based in your specific resource, this is not something that will go away in 6 months when the ad campaign changes. Rather, it is deep and long lasting, as long as your site exists. It’s the reason your site exists. You will tell the story in publications, exhibit and programs, and when your visitor discovers ‘the essential place’ they may have an awakening moment, an instant when everything fits together. You might even hear them gasp: ‘Ohhh – now I understand.‘