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”