Monthly Archives: June 2017


by Eli Strull

Hobey Ford moved with focus. He was dressed in a relaxed way, all black. The backdrop was black too and the stage sparsely decorated. As I settled in for the puppet show with my children and parents, I realized quickly I was watching a master.

One thing I like about our profession is that I run into inspiration in unlikely places. While a skilled puppeteer who builds all his own creations was captivating an audience and celebrating the animal world, I was watching interpretation without words. It started with mime and moved to decorated foam animal figures moving effortlessly in an imaginary world he had painted with just gestures, movement, and music. Certainly thematic and universal concepts a plenty. Cool stuff!

So I have been thinking about ways to engage an audience beyond words. We all do that but a main focus for me is often the language I use. Have I been overlooking opportunities? I look forward to learning.

Hobey Ford can be found on YouTube and the inter webs.

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Knowing Your Audience

Do you know your audience?  I mean really know your audience?  We often think we do.  We make assumptions about who they are, what they are interested in, their values, and what they might need.  Years ago, while working in east Texas, I found out what a poor judge I could be.

I was working at a campground in the piney woods where the pines grew thick and tall.  On one of my early weekends, a section of the campground became occupied by guys riding Harleys and wearing lots of black leather.  Once they settled in, they wasted no time in breaking out their beer.  At this site, it was fine as long as you stayed on your campsite.  It was late afternoon and I thought we were in for an evening of trouble.

Imagine my surprise, when they and their families showed up for the evening program.  While I was avoiding them, their wives and children had driven in from the Dallas area.  They all seemed to enjoy the program.  They asked lots of questions and we enjoyed getting to know each other.  I helped the guys plan a road trip to take in the beauty of the forest.   I helped their families plan a day of swimming, hiking, and other adventures.  We all settled in to a nice, quiet evening.

I’ve often thought about that experience and what it taught me.  Appearances can be misleading.  Only when you visit with someone, can you begin to know them.

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Representation Matters


Texas Juneteenth Day Celebration, 1900 (Austin History Center, Austin Public Library) Source:

One day I pulled into a Connecticut gas station to check the air pressure on my tires. The weather was typical New England gray and chilly early Spring, so I didn’t want to spend more time outside my warm truck than necessary, but had noticed some slightly squealing on turns that concerned me. I hopped out, grabbed my pressure gauge and a couple of quarters for the air machine, and started popping the caps off of each suspicious looking tire. Ten minutes later I was ready to go; just another unmemorable stop at an unmemorable spot, destined to be forgotten within the week. One minute later it became an experience that has resurfaced in my mind at opportune moments for over fifteen years. Just as I was climbing back into the pickup, a woman approached me. Comfortable looking, dressed well, probably in her mid to late 50s. The car she had exited was a decent-looking sedan, but nothing too fancy. I thought maybe she was lost, as this was the time before smartphone maps, when people would print out mapquest directions and try not to crash into other cars as they rechecked their turns. She seemed nervous but excited, though, which was a strange combination.

“Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you, but could you show me how to do that?”

As I walked her through the steps, we chatted. All her life, anything to do with cars was a man’s game. She drove every day, but knew barely anything about cars: how to check her oil, how to change a tire, how to work an air pressure gauge. It was all supposed to be very complicated and involved, far too much for her to understand. She’d wanted to know how to change that, but it wasn’t until she saw another woman doing it did she get the nerve to say, “I want to know how to do that, too.” The mystery disappeared. This was simple, straightforward, and vital to the safety of any driver or passenger in her car. And now she could do it, too.

Representation matters.

Many of you have seen the Wonder Woman movie out now, or at the very least seen the avalanche of articles about it: the women-only screenings, the lists of kindergarteners who now have female superheroes to emulate, the adult women who didn’t expect to find themselves crying in the theaters, moment after moment. Being able to see that representation is vital to something in our very core, our very ability to see ourselves in those roles, to see ourselves as more than a bystander, a victim, or a sidekick to the real hero.

Representation matters.


Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving (By Source, Fair use,

Yesterday we celebrated fifty years since the Love vs Virginia civil rights case ensured that interracial marriage was legal in the United States of America. Three years before that ruling, on June 12th in 1963, civil rights paragon Medgar W. Evers was assassinated in his driveway by a white supremacist. It took three attempts to get a jury to convict him. Yesterday, also on June 12th, we remembered a horrific hate crime, the Pulse Nightclub shooting, that took the lives of forty-nine innocent members of the LGBTQ community, many of whom were also people of color. In six days will be Juneteenth, the oldest known commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States, a holiday that has existed since 1865 and which far too few Americans are familiar with. If you’re in the central North Carolina region, you can also join in the Juneteenth Celebration at Historic Stagville in Durham, NC:, or check to see if a similar interpretive event is happening in your area.

Please also take ten minutes to watch representatives of Biscayne National Park powerfully demonstrate what how what we do can play a role in putting all these things into context with the narrative of our history, our country, and our world, through a tribute to the victims of the Pulse Club Massacre:

Representation always matters.

Today I want to honor and thank all the interpreters who work tirelessly to ensure representation of all our community, who aren’t afraid to take a critical look at their exhibits, their hiring practices, their programs, and their outreach to see where they could improve, whose voices may not be being heard. Your work helps people understand the experiences of people who may live in very different versions of the same place, and it helps us grow, ourselves. It’s a difficult truth that the interpretive field isn’t populated with as much diversity as it should, and we need to make sure that as many people as possible can see themselves doing what we do, so I want to encourage all of us to either keep up the working, learning, and growing, or to have the courage to see where we can begin tackling a lack of representation from whatever point we find ourselves starting from.

What, and whom, and how, we represent matters.


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Partners, projects, working through issues and building consensus

By Joe Watts

Projects, whether they are about interpretation, design, mapping, or anything else, require attention to multiple levels of details. Moreover, they should always involve working with strategic partners. Concentrating only on one side of the details can be disastrous. Missing an opportunity to work with a partner can be damaging to the individual project and to projects in the future. The design can be great, but without buy-in from partners, you are doomed to failure.

Case in point, a recent series of posters developed for the Alabama Birding Trails project.

The first poster started straight-forwardly enough. Choose the 50 (it turned into 49, but that’s another story) birds of Alabama most commonly found here and create a poster. This had been done before. Simple, right?

Well, what really are the most common birds? How do you rank them and why? Simply based on numbers and ability to see them anywhere and you immediately begin to fill your precious space with European Starlings, House Sparrows and House Finches (all invasive species). Worse yet, you’ll certainly have to include Pigeons. And, if you’ve ever parked your car on a city street only to discover that the shade provided by the nice street tree is also a rest stop for these rats with wings, you know that including a pigeon is not the best way to endear casual bird fans to the intricacies of birdwatching!

The good news was that, with 49 species and working with partners from both birding groups in Alabama (the Alabama Ornithological Society and the Birmingham Audubon Society), we came up with a rationale for inclusion and a list of interesting bird species, not just the most common birds. The list included such common birds as American Robins and Blue Jays, but also birds important from a conservation standpoint such as Snowy Plovers and Least Terns. Robins and jays are everywhere; plovers and terns really occur only in a small part of Alabama along our coastline, but they are important for everyone to understand.

There were missed opportunities and there were birds that should have been included that were not, but mostly, the process we used to determine birds to include worked. There were a few quibbles here and there, for sure. But, the process worked because we included many of the people that might have had an issue with the poster otherwise. They had a voice in making the poster. They made it better. Everyone had, at least to a degree, ownership. So, when the time to find fault came (ie, the day after printing), the main partners were all happy with the product.

The lesson here: Inclusion. The more people you can involve in a project before completion (and, honestly, from the very beginning), the stronger the project will be. And, of course, the more bulletproof.

And the end of the story: the poster proved so popular that we received funding to develop two additional, smaller posters highlighting other birds found in Alabama. After working with those same partners, we developed a plan to include a Birds of Prey of Alabama and a Wading Birds of Alabama poster.

Since we worked so closely with partners, we were able to develop these lists quicker, and with more concrete reasoning, to explain why some birds were included and others were not. (Several people wished a rare bird for Alabama–the Saw-whet Owl–had been included. Others wondered why we included Oystercatchers and not Sandhill Cranes.) But, the research and cooperation with partners left a solid trail of evidence to explain both choices and, for the most part, offered a satisfying answer to the critics!


The first in a series: The Birds of Alabama Poster


Wading Birds of Alabama (this poster includes three birds not classified as waders, but often found near them)


Birds of Prey: missing from this poster are several extremely uncommon birds, like the Saw-whet Owl and a rare hawk.

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