Monthly Archives: August 2016

Fall…A Time to Gather Nuts

Fall is a season of transition in nature where animals begin prepping for the winter season. Some animals bust out to warmer climateIMG_1618s, some plants shut down their photosynthesis factories, some animals begin to gather in groups, and others use the fall as an opportunity to gather resources for the winter to ensure they thrive in the spring.


If we relate a few of those behaviors to our interpretive centers, some interpreters will migrate to other seasonal jobs. Like a flock of vocal migrating birds some interpreters will gather and make noise in Corpus Christi in November. Some facilities will shut down all together as their summer audience and summer staff head back to their home ranges for another year before they return again.


Let’s dig into the part about gathering resources a bit more. Fall can be a great time to “gather nuts (staff)” and slow down a bit to prepare for renewal.  Many of you are coming off long days and a busy summer. It’s a great time to evaluate yourself as an individual and interpreter.

What are some things you can gather and do this fall to be renewed in the spring?

  • As a team work through a leadership book with your staff. Work through a few chapters each week getting allowing you to reflect personally and getting to know your teammates better. What have you done today that will make you better tomorrow? The interpretive field is going to need more good leaders, so if not you …who?
  • Identify other possible mentors in your area and schedule coffee to talk shop. Connect with other interpreters that may not interpret the same interpretive themes as you.
  • Make time to call former staff, colleagues, to talk shop and strengthen and grow your network of people.
  • Make time for yourself. MAKE time for yourself to think about your goals and future. You’ve got to have a vision for yourself and you need to schedule that time. It can be really easy to get caught up in the fast pace of activity and forget about YOU.
  • Drive to a NAI Brown Bag Lunch if your state has one to gather ideas and colleagues. (See NC/SC coordinators if you want ideas on no/low cost state gatherings)
  • Check out the NAI National Workshop and gather knowledge, perspective, and peers.


Spring brings a time of renewal for plants and animals.  How will you renew yourself or your staff?

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An Object’s Best friend is Its Story


Meeting House

Maori Meeting House at Te Papa (Credit and story behind carvings: *Photographs of Maori exhibits in the museum are generally restricted out of cultural respect*

“…without it, it is lonely.”

This was one of the most striking statements made by Paora Tibble, a Māori Language Writer (currently a tribe-museum liaison officer) for the Te Papa Tongarewa National Museum of New Zealand, in a presentation overflowing with striking statements; the type that force your mind to sit up and take notice, hungrily holding on to each one as it opens new trains of thought to follow. The 2016 NAI/INNZ International Conference was full of memorable discussions and presentations, but I would like to focus on two particular interpreters that brought to the forefront the concept of objects as living, dynamic creations that have active relationships with the culture and people from which they came. Tibble’s excellent session – “Whakakōrerohia Ngā Taonga │ Giving Voice to Objects” – began with him passing around a heavy, carved paddle-like object that has been intimately linked to his family for generations: it is passed over each of their bodies, generation after generation, after death. All of a sudden what was an interesting and beautiful cultural artifact became an also intensely personal one: you could see the reaction in the room as many people instantly became more deferential, even skittish, about holding it, touching it, and so very carefully passing it to the next person. The moment he shared his story with the audience, that object came to life, complete with a whole family of relatives that were tied directly to our speaker. Tibble interpreted the object’s living connection by introducing us to its best friend: its own story. He also reminded us of a vital facet of interpretation: connecting communities with their treasures. He spoke of a Māori representative that traveled to museums around the world and – with their agreement – handled the artifacts in their collections, breathing into the musical instruments, giving them life again.

Puawai Cairns – Senior Curator of Māori in Te Papa – also had a living object tale to share. Her lively and deeply insightful keynote speech “The Politics and Practice of the Free Radical: Curation and Interpretation in the Contact Zone” gave us a glimpse into the pressures of being a museum professional with the unique relationship she has as a member of the Māori community with the museum and its artifacts. Cairns spoke of running tours through the archival collections where, per professional standards, it is understood that in the visitors are only rarely permitted – and only wearing protective gloves – to touch the objects they see. This philosophy came into direct conflict when a Māori guest recognized one of the artifacts as belonging to her family’s clan and immediately began touching it, rubbing her hands and cheeks on it, because this was what was respectfully done by her community standards. Cairns was at that moment caught in between her role as a curator and her role as a Māori, and in that instance recognized that what was appropriate was to give the Māori perspective primacy.

Partnership comes from mutual respect, and making sure that the people who have a personal and cultural connection to museum objects are empowered to speak for themselves requires an awareness of what that respect means for everyone involved. Interpretation does its mission no good if it attempts to restrict the people behind collection artifacts to “informants” and “source material”, or to focus too heavily on standardized methods over ones that incorporate the perspectives and approaches of the people who gave that artifact its story. How could your own interpretive work develop if instead of perhaps seeing an object as an inert piece of matter with no meaning other than what is ascribed to it, it is understood as something that has an inherent life and narrative of its own, and it is patiently (or perhaps not so patiently!) waiting for its friends and relatives to breathe it all back out into the world?

*For more information about the work of Puawai Cairns at Te Papa Museum: and

*For a recording of Paora Tibble reciting the story “Kiore Whispers” :


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Literal or abstract interpretation?

In 1980, a Yale architecture student named Maya Lin was assigned a project by her professor to create a monument for the veterans of the Vietnam war. Memorial war sculptures at that time were mostly cast as heroic figures, larger than life, with bronzed faces of valor and gallantry. But Maya took a different path, and instead created a shiny black granite wall that simply listed the names of those fallen in the war. From the air, it’s two simple bisecting lines resembled a black scar upon the Earth. She wrote that when she first visited the proposed site, “I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up, an initial violence and pain that in time would heal.” Lin entered that student project into a national design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Needless to say, this very abstract design caused a serious controversy because it didn’t represent what was expected—a literal interpretation of soldiers at that time. But Ms. Lin’s design eventually won out and overcame any resistance because it was too powerful to ignore. The deeper symbolic meanings of earth, sky, endless rows of soldier names, pain, and loss struck a chord with both veterans and the visiting public, and it is one of Washington’s most popular war memorials. In 2006, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was awarded the 25-year design award from the American Institute of Architects as a great design that stood the test of time for 25 years. Interestingly, another sculpture was added near the Wall that is a more traditional representation of soldiers.


Recently I visited Shanghai, China and I had a chance to see a number of historic sites. I noticed that in addition to the literal interpretations of standing figures with interpretive plaques, they also incorporated abstract interpretations that bore a larger story. For example at Doulan Road, is a small historic street that housed a number of significant writers that launched the New Cultural Movement of the early 20th century, it was filled with a variety of interpretive elements.


Certainly the statues of authors Ding Lin, Rou Shi, Lu Xun, and Mao Dun were there, but there were also silent memories of their daily lives. A chair and table next to an open window with windblown curtains, frozen images on a masonry wall, or metal cutouts of abstract faces. These freeform sculptures do not recite historical lore; instead they create moods, feelings, and touch some intangible aspect of the subject’s lives. Visitors do not learn about the subject—they feel it. Of course if there is no accompanying narrative for an abstract piece, visitors can end up confused about its meaning (which actually suits many contemporary artists). But Doulan Road had an interesting mix of both literal as well as abstract interpretive elements that created a very dynamic experience.


Anton Ehrenzweig wrote that “abstract art has helped us to experience the emotional power inherent in pure form.” It may be interesting to incorporate an abstract art piece for the right subject and right place. An old colleague of mine, Ed Blake, once told me to always leave an air of mystery in a design– so that visitors have a reason to come back.

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What are you saying?

People put up signs for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they may be to warn of danger or show a direction. In our line of work, we use signs for both of those reasons as well as to share messages we want to express. I like to look for signs when I visit different places to look for inspiration for future signs I will create and to seek out humor in unexpected places. Here are a few signs found along my travels as well as a few contributions from friends.

Slide1   Some signs can tell us where we are. Many of these may include a map to help you see what your surroundings are. If someone speaks a different language, can they still understand your sign? Way finding signs should include universal symbols that are easy for anyone to understand. Sometimes a sign may let you know when you arrive at your destination. These signs can mean different things to different people. I was happy to see the sign letting me know I had reached the top of Inspiration Point because that meant I had reached the top of the trail and it would start heading down after that point!  

Many signs are there to warn us of danger. These messages can be direct in saying “Warning!” or Slide3“Caution!” Often a picture is included as a universal language but those drawings can be humorous. Other signs may express the warning in a less direct way but one that still gets the message across. These signs serve the purpose of protecting people as well as protecting sensitive natural areas or wildlife in the area.

Slide4.JPG     When it comes to interpretive signs, there are many aspects to creating the sign. What message do you want people to walk away with? Who is the target audience? Where should this sign be placed? I found this fun sign about poop in the New Orleans Audubon Zoo’s bathroom. I thought this was great placement and had a captured audience. The other sign is a contribution from our adopted member of the Sunny Southeast, Amy Erickson. This sign is all sorts of confusing. It is placed at a trail head but the message is all over the place. Make sure someone looks over your signs before printing and placing signs out for the public. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to confuse the visitors you want to excite about your center.

Whatever reason you create a sign, think about your message. You don’t want people to ask “What are you saying?”


What do these signs say to you?

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Your profession is a 2-way street

905593_10156238454060564_6815222464763559734_oAs a your professional I was always looking at professional organizations to improve my skills, knowledge, networking opportunities, and at times, their perks. Time has gone by and I have learned that being a professional also means to be part of a community, with peers that often times learn from each other along the journey that we call our career.

I still look at professional organizations for personal and professional benefit but I also look for opportunities to “give back”, to share what I have learned along the way and give other the same opportunity to be involved.

NAI has been the perfect conduit for me to do so and I would encourage you to do the same thing. There are plenty of opportunities to contribute to our profession and here are a few that I can think of:

  • Donations: It could be some money as a direct donation, a contribution through our scholarship auctions, or other means. We can all donate a buck or two and it could mean that another young professional can attend a regional or national conference.
  • 1498908_10154852110865564_6834254784530283653_oVolunteer: Sometimes we don’t have the cash to make a donation but we can always find some time to help. You can volunteer at the next Regional or National Conference, be Perky’s Guard, Assist the planning committee to the next conference (great way to attend), or run for an elected position.
  • Supporting vendors: Organization support NAI and what we do. Some of them are event sponsors, commercial members or just donate a portion of their proceeds. Like Amazon Smile, select the National Association for Interpretation and support NAI by shopping.
  • Planned giving: At one point we will stop to be residents of this planet, you can plan to donate what you leave behind to your professional organization. This is a bit uncomfortable topic sometimes because we never want to think about death but nobody will escape it.

I am sure you will find the best way to support your professional organization just as much as we as community have supported each other.

Have a great end of the summer and I can’t wait to see you in Corpus Christi, Kentucky, or anytime in between.


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