The years I have been in the interpretation business have taught me a few things. I had a strange but perhaps typical beginning. I liked the outdoors, liked to hunt and fish, but what made connections for me was canoeing beautiful rivers. Each float was an adventure into wild and beautiful places, and the good fishing was a bonus. Along the way I began to learn the plants, birds, history, and landscape as I traveled to far places and floated wild rivers.
I encountered many fine interpreters as I traveled and realized I loved learning about the land and sharing special places and stories with people. When I got the chance I headed to graduate school and studied wildland management and interpretation. This was a complete change in direction caused by personal experiences and people I met along the way. Our special places and our interpretation can, and do, change people’s lives. I am a testament to that; you probably are, too. This is a powerful thing if w
e recognize it and if we get tough with it so that our interpretation is focused on the important stories and meaningful to our visitors.
People bring their baggage with them. Tilden‘s first principle addresses that: relate to the experience of the visitor. Relate to their baggage, to the experiences that have made them who they are! People bring their memories, their skills, and their knowledge with them, and they are comfortable with and attracted to things they have had experience with. When we talk about things they have no experience with their minds quickly glaze over, their eyes wander, and they freeze you and your message out.
It’s about time for spring interpreter training, and it’s good to remember that every new interpreter is like that, too. They come into your system with their baggage, whether it’s a community nature center, a dramatic historic site, or a beautiful nature park. That baggage includes notion of who they are, who you are, and what they will do there. Their baggage includes almost two decades of structured ‘sit here, listen to what I say, take notes, I’ll test you on this’ learning, and scores of experiences somewhere, often vacations to museums, national parks, summer camps, fishing and hunting and swimming. That has given them a desire to have fun working outdoors and with animals. Some will have worked in similar jobs and maybe in similar places. They all bring their baggage and with that a sense that they know what to do because they took a class in geology and visited the Grand Canyon.
As a manager, you and your site have baggage, too. Maybe it’s: “We’ve always done it that way,” or “You’ll know what to do, just go interpret,” or “Read this about frogs and figure out what you want to say,” or “The last interpreter did it this way.” Your training culture is part of your baggage.
As a manager you have a couple of options – welcome these young interpreters and let them figure out what to do, or welcome them and begin a strategy of tough interpretation training that connects their knowledge, skill, and ability with the messages, meanings, and values of your site. The latter approach leads to meaningful interpretation.
Tough interpretation begins with being tough on yourself, knowing who you are and what you are doing here. Yes, I said YOU, manager; you and YOUR SITE. For interpretation to be more than fluffy little fun activities with cute little animals to touch, and paper cutouts to color, or a random walk in the woods, or a stroll down a sidewalk past animals in cages, you must ask yourself some simple, but tough, questions, and write down meaningful answers. Simple questions like: Who are we? Why are we here? Why does this place exist? What are the values of this place? What sets this place apart? What is our most important message? Why should anyone care?
Those are simple questions, but they require deep, thoughtful answers that address the resources and values of the site. They are best answered by leading a team of your staff through heated discussions that finally get down to the nuggets of truth. Tough interpretation requires you to identify your site’s primary resources and through them get to the values, meanings, and deep messages of your site. Once those questions are answered, you are ready to begin training that eager, new interpreter.