Our new goal should be to become Charlie when doing interpretation. He is a dog, by the way. “So wait, you want me to be a dog? Who is this crazy guy and why is he equating being an interpreter to a dog?” Well, let me show you…
For those of you who don’t know, two months ago I adopted a rescue dog name Charlie. He was a stray, then rescued, surrendered to animal control, and finally taken in by me. In those two months, I have learned a lot about caring for a dog again (it has been 16 years since my last one, sad story) along with being more cognizant about how people react to a strange dog. In those months, people have ONLY talked to the dog, coming up to Charlie in the truck window at the gas station while I am filling up on the other side to pet him, even stopping next to me in traffic to ask about his health since he was wearing the cone of shame. Little kids point to him, saying “Puppy!” or “Doggie!” which usually leads to an impromptu petting session. A few negative reactions have been cataloged too, with people retracting from the sight of a dog coming towards them or simply giving him a wide berth. Usually the fear can be calmed with “He is really friendly,” but some people are just afraid of dogs.
After watching all these behaviors, I saw a parallel to our work in interpretation. Visitors either engage with uniformed staff, avoid them at all costs, or children want to be like them when grown up. Staff in living history clothes also garner a different level of attention since they don’t look like “official” staff or the “man,” leading to a completely separate type of engagement. However, not everyone is willing to hear our story, or they are afraid of being out in the woods, or don’t want to learn about the science or history we are there to protect and share.
How do we reach those people? Dressing up in a dog suit? …Candy? We find common ground between us. All of the different techniques we use (living history, active engagement, videos, digital) work to meet the audiences on their terms. We seek to bring our content out into the world for the public to consume, desire to learn more, and possibly even visit your site one day.
One new way I have been learning more about over the past few years is digital interpretation. At the Black Belt Museum, we started a Facebook page approximately 3 years ago. Two years ago I took over content creation due to inspiration from friends in the National Park Service Interpretive Development Program. In those years I have learned A LOT, but we have grown in our reach dramatically to people who may not get to see our interpretive programs, but also cannot visit our museum due to it being under construction. Two weeks ago, after consultations with Museum Hack (check out what they are doing, it’s freaking awesome) we started an Instagram page to target a new audience: millennials, especially the 1500 students on University of West Alabama’s campus. Over the summer, we plan to grow and learn about the app; then when students return in the fall, we can be ready to offer special tours, etc around the app. We have moved online to meet a new audience in order to garner more interest in our museum while pointing out the incredible aspects of our region.
Our lessons learned to be more like Charlie the Interpretation Dog:
1.) Be approachable! Body posture, actions, and demeanor all dictate how people are going to interact with you. Charlie greets people as if everyone is his friend. Shouldn’t we do the same?
2.) Point people in the direction of what is important; don’t just tell them all the facts. Charlie, to my knowledge, does not talk. Yet I can tell when he has something important to “say”, if there is danger nearby or if something new and/or interesting is present.
3.) Be happy! Charlie goes towards the people he meets and always has a smile on his face. Similarly, we should all be happy about our positions. Every one of us chooses this career for our love of the outdoors, science, history, etc. – not to be rich. Why not share the passion with the visitor? It is contagious, after all.
So let’s be all like Charlie the Interpretation Dog this summer and let him inspire us to be better interpreters. #charlietheinterpretationdog