Theme Quest 2012 (or, I Am Not Normal)

In May I retired from the Florida Park Service. What does a retired park ranger do? Visit more parks, of course! Early in August I left on an RV trip that would take 79 days and 11,021 miles through 21 states, hitting 25 National Parks and Monuments, plus an uncounted number of state parks, museums, and roadside attractions. I wasn’t all that happy with some of the “interpretation” I saw.

Since I’m no longer an employee of the Florida Park Service I can admit it: my former organization has no clue of what interpretation really is. What I know about interpretation I had to learn on my own which is what led me to NAI. FPS had nothing to do with my involvement with NAI. I found NAI on a web search, and I’ve had to go to regional and national workshops on my own time and my own dime. I did my best to return what I learned though, teaching the FPS Basic Interpretive Training every time it was offered for the last 6 years in my district.

As I watched program after program on this trip I was stuck by how many of the young interpreters I saw suffered from the same problem that plagues the Florida Park Service. About two-thirds of the interpreters taught rather interpreted. They had plenty of (too much, really) great information. To me their programs were useful, but to other visitors little of the information would stick because they lack the knowledge that provides the framework required for long-term memory.

The framework visitors need, of course, is what we interpreters call a theme. All these teaching programs had an interesting topic but not a theme; usually they were an inventory of organisms (Plants of Canyonlands, Predators of Glacier, etc.), or a chronologic geology lesson (“Millions of years ago this area was a vast inland sea…”. I don’t mean to beat up NPS or any particular park, but I was genuinely surprised by the number of non-interpretive programs I experienced.

I know why this happens; I know the pain of trainers. It is hard to convince new interpreters of the value of themes and other interpretive techniques. I’ve tried to understand why this is so hard (and thereby to avoid the obvious answer that I’m not a good interpretive trainer). First and foremost I think it is a matter of relative exposure. By the time someone gets hired as an interpreter they have spent somewhere between twelve and twenty years being taught. Teaching in our society is usually lectures followed by cramming followed by multiple choice regurgitation. Unlearning all those years doesn’t happen overnight.

A big contributing factor is the public doesn’t crave or recognize interpretation; they have been taught their whole life as well. When they see a teaching program they aren’t horrified or even disappointed. If done well teaching programs can still be entertaining and enjoyable. But we aren’t entertainers. What teaching programs don’t do is leave the audience with a mission-appropriate message or with inspiration to take action. Too often the audience leaves thinking “that guy/gal was really smart”! The “take home” shouldn’t be about the interpreter, it should be about the resource.

I try to drive the point home when I teach the principles of interpretation. Tilden had six, Beck and Cable had fifteen, and Ranger Steve adds one: I am not normal. Of course, any of you that know me are saying “Well, duh”, but I mean it in a specific way. People that become interpreters have, when compared to the general population, abnormal intelligence, abnormal education, and abnormal interest in our resource. I didn’t become a real interpreter until I accepted my abnormality and began to meet the needs of my audience and my agency rather than my own.

So please, if you have contact with new interpreters, convince them that themes really are central to interpretation. I hope to spend another twenty or thirty years doing road trips and I don’t want to spend them all complaining about non-thematic programs!

And I can’t resist throwing in my best photo from the trip, “Breakfast in Yellowstone”

Categories: Interpretation tools | Tags: | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “Theme Quest 2012 (or, I Am Not Normal)

  1. Gerald Ritter

    Thanks for this interesting post. As an amateur trying to improve a local program, I would really appreciate any info, like where to find the principles of interpretation. I definitely related to your points about a frame of reference and the effects of a lifetime of experience shaping expectations of visitors.

  2. Bill Beatty

    Enjoyed your post. I too am disappointed in today’s interpreters. After two years as a professional interpreter I accidently reinvented myself. Worked 18 years full-time at a municipal park and basically discovered unique and fun ways to show the wonders and beauty of each and every creature. Had the opportunity to train many college interns in interpretation…some would become great while others wanted an easy way out; they seemed to be satisfied repeating the same old, same old day after day, just getting by. I did themes, but my success was in knowing my subject matter inside and out…very strong in identification of birds, wildflowers, fungi, trees, insects, spiders, etc. and their individual natural histories. The themes combined with knowing the individual subjects was a key to my success. Very nice photo.

  3. Gerald,
    I am glad to hear that you enjoyed the blog post from Steve Dimse, there are lots of literature about principles on interpretation, the ones that are constant references are: “Interpreting our Heritage” by Freeman Tilden, “Environmental Interpretation” by Sam Ham, “The Gifts of Interpretation: Fifteen Guiding Principles for Interpreting Nature and Culture” by Larry Beck and Ted Cable and there are many more.

    If you are interested the National Association for Interpretation has lots of resources check out the website


  4. sdimse

    Today at the National Workshop someone said I shouldn’t be so tough on new interpreters. I’m sorry if anything I said could be misinterpreted that way. I do not in any way think this is the fault of the young interpreters. If there is blame it is on their supervisors, butthere are budget issues, time pressures, and staffing shortages that factor in as well. Still, since it is often said that bad interpretation is worse than no interpretation, time, budget, and staffing issues make it all the more important that the interpretation we are able to provide be as good as possible,

    Gerald-welcome to the wonderful world of interpretation. Above is a post with a few books, I would personally recommend Beck and Cable as the best for a first book on interpretation. The best book in the world won’t match the benefit you can get by contact with other interpreters though. You don’t mention where you are from, but there are NAI members and regions all over the country and world. The NAI Certified Interpretive Guide program is a great way to get some personal instruction, classes are held all over, click on the certification link on If you have specific questions I’d be glad to help.

  5. sdimse

    A question from a linked group:

    Your comments have me interested, but for those who have never trained in interpretation and don’t have time or dime for NAI, what is a theme? What are key differences b/t thematic and “teaching” (I read “academic”) programming? I have suspicions, but would love to hear more- maybe an example from your trip? What an epic journey, have fun!


    Conventional teaching is about the transfer of a body of knowledge. Think about the last time you took a class. You sat in lectures where information was presented. Was that enough for it to be learned by you? For me the answer is certainly no – I would need to read the text, review the lecture notes, maybe make some flash cards to learn some important points and cram. No one in an informal setting like a park, museum, or nature center makes that sort of commitment. If you give them a lecture like you would receive in a classroom little or none of the information will be retained even a few few hours later.

    Interpretation takes advantage of an informal setting to convey a message about the resource that will, if done properly, inspire at least some of the recipients to further action. For example, I gave guided walks through the hardwood forest (called a hammock in the south) in my park. I know a lot about the flora and fauna of the ecosystem. I can (and do, in the Florida Master Naturalist course) lecture for hours about this fascinating place. But if random people show up for the walk and I lecture about the organisms we encounter it is meaningless information. If they had to they could study the information after the walk and eventually master it well enough to pass a test, but of course they won’t study. If I teach in an entertaining way they may leave happy, but they will have no greater respect for my resource; I’m just an entertainer and might as well juggle for them.

    Instead of lecturing, I interpret using a theme. In the case of the nature walk, my theme is “Life is hard in the hardwood hammock.” As we walk I don’t talk about all the details that fascinate me. Instead I selectively talk about those things that fit the theme. I talk about the thin soil in the Florida Keys, the high salt content, the effect of hurricanes, and the adaptation of plants and animals to this harsh environment. The stories reinforce themselves and drive the theme into the visitor’s brain. By having all that I say support this single theme by the end of the walk the visitor has a real understanding that this apparently lush tropical landscape is actually a fragile, delicately balanced ecosystem that ought to be protected. And interpretation wraps up with “action outlets” – I end with ways they can help the hammock, from joining the Citizen’s Support Organization to coming out at the next work party pulling invasive plants. They aren’t likely to remember any of the details I gave, but if I do it right they remember the theme and they care a little more about the resource and some are moved to action.

    Another way to think about it is themes are the “take-home messages”. What is the one thing you want tattooed in their brain when they leave. Do I want my visitor to remember that red mangrove exclude salt from their roots and black mangroves excrete salt from their leaves (factual knowledge), or do I want them to remember that it is really hard for plants to grow around salt and we should protect those that are able to do so (a theme)?


    • Bill Beatty

      Did you ever considered the ideas that, if your audience enjoys themselves (regardless of your presentation being thematic or not) then that is enough for them to want to return again or go to another walk/program elsewhere? Or perhaps that most humans are inherently selfish and that aspect of out makeup should be addressed? If someone becomes excited about birds or wildflowers then they in turn want to protect the planet to save that part of it they wouldn’t want to live without. I used to ask one question before each nature walk; Is there something in natre they would like me to emphasize on the wallk? Ninety-five percent of the time it was birds resulting in most of my walks being bird heavy. My goals were to entertain, provide a reason to be earth conscious (not by teling them they how bad they are), and to teach to the kids.

    • Well said! I am an Interpretive Coordinator at Nahanni National Park Reserve in Canada’s Northwest Territories and we do not have a whole lot of time to train our staff before they go out in the field and on the front lines…do you have any practise exercises that would help them connect the themes and topics more dramatically?

      • sdimse

        I find it very hard to convey the concept in lecture; example and critique seems to work better. I also think that people get so hung up on their resource and their knowledge of that resource that it really helps to pull them out of the familiar. An interpreter ought to be able to make you care about a ball of dryer lint! In class I and my fellow instructors select an object that has personal meaning and use it to interpret ourselves. I then ask the students to pull out the themes and universals from our interpretations. Their homework is to pick their own object and develop an interpretation of themselves. The next session each student interprets and the others critique them. It quickly becomes apparent which got the idea and which need more help. Another thing I do is grab a bag of everyday items from around my house (e.g. pen, candle, tape measure, water bottle, coffee mug, bar of soap, etc.) and have the students pick an object from the bag. Working in pairs I ask them to come up with themes they might use to interpret the object. Again, I try to get the group to do the work of critiquing their presentations.

  6. sdimse

    It is great that you ask your audience what they want to hear about, knowing your audience is an important part of interpretation. Keeping things enjoyable is also important, whether one is a teacher or an interpreter. You definitely want people to come back, but nothing about interpretation makes that less likely; just the opposite in fact.

    But satisfying visitors and getting them to return is not enough for the interpreter. Interpretation aims to increase the connection of the visitor with the resource. There is a large body of research that shows thematic interpretation is far more effective at forging those connections than teaching. Most interpreters also work or volunteer for an organization, and therefore must tailor their message to those promoted by their organization.

    Interpretation gives one the tools to induce the excitement in visitors you mention.

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