Author Archives: elistrull

Allowing Interpretive Sites to Serve More People

My facility is starting a partnership I am super excited about!  It will make us more accessible and inclusive to the 1 in 6 individuals that have a sensory need.  For those sensitive to noises, light, smells, and crowds, it can be more than overwhelming to visit an interpretive site, it can be physically painful.  Luckily it doesn’t take much work on our part to gain awareness and offer acceptance and inclusion.

Many zoos, aquariums, and sports stadiums already partner with KultureCity, which offers free training and resources to help facilities like ours accommodate guests with sensory sensitivities.  According to the training I took, individuals with this medical condition (related to multiple diagnoses) compose the fastest growing demographic in the U.S.

To help them, we will have signs on our grounds to alert guests to areas that are often calm or busy and packs for individuals and families to use while visiting.  These include tools to help people with sensory needs and a lanyard for participants to wear to help staff identify them in case they need assistance.  Our staff members have taken a short online training so we know some simple ways to help and we are ready to begin a new chapter of accessibility.

For more information on the program, see or check in with me in a few months to see how it’s going.  If anyone reading this is involved in inclusion programs or initiatives please let me know.  I’d love to learn more.

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Bad News and the Growing Mind

How do you deal with questions adults ask with an answer that’s not especially suited to their children or other young people in the audience?  When there’s nothing inappropriate in the inquiry but it inadvertently introduces a topic that’s heavier than the young brain is fit to accommodate- do you have a method for handling it?  In Robert Hunter’s word’s “What’s the answer to the answer man?”

‘No Bad News Before Ten’ is the takeaway I have heard from the research about communicating subject matter that is in someway sad or otherwise difficult for single digit kids to assimilate.  What ends up happening is their grey matter does not yet have the fullness of development to file the information in a way that feels comfortable so later in life upsetting information just gets rejected and not dealt with at all.

I get asked how my owl coworkers became permanently impaired.  Car collisions are by far the most common culprit for serious raptor injuries.  Barbed wire has serious consequences as well.  I would say they both fall into the ‘bad news’ column on most score sheets.  I have explained it plainly plenty of times and always also include the good news that it is easy to help but maybe there’s is a better way.  I may try wording it so adults know what I’m saying and kids may miss it just to see how it goes.  Then again, my kids pick up on most things as well or better than many grownups.  Any ideas would be most welcome.  Happy fall all.

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Culture, Beauty, and Pain

Culture informs our craft more than I often consider.  If I hope to reach my audience on a personal level, their experiences in our culture inform how they relate to everything I do.  My place in society is crucial too.  How do I relate to others?  All this matters.  Even if culture is not overt in our site, or not featured in the stories we tell, its power is present.

There’s a whole lot of beauty in the cultural fabric we share.  Food, art, acts of compassion, people uniting to overcome adversity…the list goes on.  And in the subject matter we interpret, there’s also plenty of beauty to be found.  Beauty is great.  It is a powerful motivator and its presence is key to physical and mental health for us humans.  It is easy to work with and celebrating what’s beautiful should permeate our work.  The sticky thing about beauty though; if everything was beautiful, beauty would cease to exist.

It’s easier for me (and most of the masses) to experience beauty than pain, but pain is a powerful player in our culture.  If our interpretation is going to achieve Freeman Tilden’s fifth principle—presenting a whole rather than a part and addressing the whole person—pain should be considered.  What got me thinking about this was a workshop I took recently.

The training dealt with diversity, equity, and inclusion, which are all wide-ranging topics I will not attempt to tackle in a few paragraphs.  They are also frequently politicized and I won’t get into that but there were a few ideas presented about approaching difficult subjects that I think are applicable to our profession:

  • Setting intention toward learning is more effective than seeking perfection
  • Failing in the name of learning is natural
  • Discomfort is different from injury
  • Nurturing and nourishing creates connections
  • Intentions are important but not a substitute for considering impact

I hope this is thought provoking.  I look forward to thought provocation at the NAI regional conference in less than a month!  I hope to see you there.  Cheers, Eli

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What’s It Worth?

I had someone ask me for ideas on helping administrators understand the value of their staff members going through a NAI certification program.  How can we best explain the merits to individuals that may not be familiar with NAI or the field of Interpretation in general?

The NAI website has solid wording about what the certifications include but not much describing what individuals and institutions gain as a result.  I regularly use skills I gained from being certified.  It gave me a foundation of understanding about this profession I would not otherwise have.  It also helped me asses my skills and improve them.  That’s valuable but… can it be quantified?

What points can we make that will resonate with the people who manage our budgets?  My first thought was: improved interpretation improves visitor experience which is likely to increase repeat visits by individuals and groups, thus growing revenue.  In a general sense, professional development keeps staff engaged and therefore more productive.  What do you think?  I would love to hear any ideas people have on making the merits of certification more interpret-able.

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Inspiration from the Unexpected

It seems quality interpretation often comes from surprise events.  Planning is important, but thankfully not everything can be arranged in advance.  The same is true for professional gatherings.  I am excited for the regional conference in a week.  I typically get inspired in places I least expect it.  The sessions directly related to my work are often good but it’s the unplanned events that typically have the most impact for me.

Last year I went on a field trip about puppets.  I am a wildlife interpreter.  The history of puppetry is not something that typically applies, which is why it was so inspirational.  It allowed me to think about what I do in a different way and about inspiration itself.  They had an early Jim Henson puppet.  Before the Muppets, Sesame Street, The Dark Crystal, and all his other amazing work; he looked at a piece of corrugated drain pipe and saw a creature.  With some sticks and fabric, he created something unique by looking at the world differently from others.  That early character spawned a career that has touched the lives of millions.

A lesser known artist was the biggest spark for me when the regional conference was in Nashville.  There was a successful songwriter that spoke and performed at a sponsored event.  The theme that year was stories and this guy told lots of stories.  They were funny and widely appealing with tangibles, intangibles, and universal concepts but they were all about him.  Later that night I saw Kinky Friedman perform.  He also recounted anecdotes between each song and every one was about us.  What a great reminder of what’s powerful by feeling it.  Most if not all of us are in this field because of the powerful feelings of connection.  If you come to the regional this year, and if you don’t, I hope you find inspiration…maybe even in unexpected places.

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Templates for Program Evaluation Would Be Nice

It’s always a pleasure to escape the office, get an inside look at another facility, and connect with other professionals.  That joy permeated both state gatherings last month.  (Many thanks to the folks at Grandfather Mountain and Discovery Place for their hospitality!)  With group discussion topics similar every time we gather, I was struck by an idea that may make an important conundrum less of a constraint.  If we had a resource for evaluation templates, that could help a lot of interpreters.  It was not my idea but it is a good one and it got me excited, which is exactly why we have gatherings of interpreters.

The riddle is this: formative evaluation delivers evidence that your interpretive efforts are fruitful and demonstrates worthiness to fund those programs.  Although it is important, often the planning and delivery of interpretation leave little time to plan and deliver assessment.  Also, even experienced professional are often not experienced with theory and research related to evaluation.  If we had access to templates for pre and post assessments in various formats for the different groups commonly served, and if it was created by experienced professionals in interpretation research with a concentration on evaluation, that could be very helpful.

Logistic hurdles will always limit how close we can get to ideal evaluation but a concentrated effort to build and make available templates modeled on methods proven to be effective would help us get closer.  Do you know someone qualified to work on it?  It could make a big difference in the field!  If you like this idea, please spread the word and maybe we can make it happen.

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Storyteller Spotlight; Robert Hunter

Since story lines are vital to interpretation, I decided to highlight some of my favorite storytellers in this blog.  This is my second spotlight and features someone whose words have had an impact on the lives of 100’s of thousands but his name is not recognizable to most.

Robert Hunter made a living combining stories and poems rooted in American folk culture while incorporating the new ideas and ideals behind the dramatic social shifts that occurred in our country during the 1960’s.  He worked side by side with a man that’s much better known named Jerry Garcia.  Whether or not you dig the Grateful Dead’s sound, Hunter’s lyrics comprise a huge body of work that stands on its own and is quite interpretive.

Hunter once wrote “The storyteller makes no choice, soon you will not hear his voice.  His job is to shed light not to master.”  I wonder if he knows about Heritage Interpretation.  He sure described it and many of his lyrics provoke thought.  “Lady finger dipped in moonlight writing ‘what for?’ across the morning sky.  Sunlight splatters dawn with answers.  Darkness shrugs and bids the day goodbye” is an image I have found compelling for years.  It gets me interested in learning more, which is of course what we try to accomplish with our audience as interpreters.

In looking at Tilden’s Principles of Interpretation, I’d say Hunter’s stories hit every one- except interpreting to children and that wasn’t the audience.  So if rock and roll lyrics are interpretive, what is the resource?  The answer is the same as so many great storytellers, our collective experience.  And that is a resource that is cultural, historic, and natural!

You can find Robert Hunters’ work in his book Box of Rain; or, a set of annotated lyrics including many by Hunter; or most any Grateful Dead song by Jerry Garcia.  Two of my favorites are Ripple and Days Between  You might want to check them out.  “Once in a while you can get show the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” -Robert Hunter

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Storyteller Spotlight

Stories are central to our profession.  I thought this sphere would be a cool space to highlight artful storytellers.  I’ll start with Utah.

Many folks I talk to have never heard of the guy.  I wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for Ani DiFranco.  You may have heard of her.  She’s a musician and founded the independent record label Righteous Babe, a move that has afforded creative freedom.  Well, two of her more than twenty records feature the stories of Utah Phillips.  A resident of Nevada City, California, when he was alive, Utah collected stories all over the country from people often overlooked by society that he felt deserved a place in our cultural fabric.  He mixed these storylines with accounts from his own life.

My favorite story weaves an encounter he had as a child facing the humiliation a family friend and his father experienced with racism and a narrative about his own involvement with international conflict.  These events are told through the context of creating memories with his own son.  You can listen here

Working with themes of heroism, struggle, equality and independent thinking, Utah addressed American History in a style both unabashed and contemplative.  He used humor to make points, not just for laughs. He put energy into seeking out individuals that were on the frontlines of events and movements that shaped a history we all share as Americans.  That’s a lot of effort.  His passion was undeniable.  I find that level of dedication and skill inspiring.

Thanks Utah and thanks Ani.  Thank you too to interpreters for all you do.  The stories we weave connect people to the intrinsic value of our sites.  That creates a magical feeling for those who get it.  Discovery is powerful.

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Point of View Finder

I have a friend that uses a GoPro camera to capture all kinds of video.  It is compact and easy to operate, which he puts to use for the extreme sport of parenting, mostly.  I read in an airplane magazine that the company’s founder wanted to watch himself surf and show his buddies.  No products existed so he built one and with it, a whole new industry.

As interpreters, our products are built to connect people to places and ideas.  One powerful technique is using point of view.  That is also GoPro’s approach.  For us, and them, the impact of technology is important.  GoPro’s success is aligned with the social media movement and, I think, a general desire in our culture to generate excitement from a grass roots level.  Granted, not every Facebook post, tweet, Pinterest thingy, rookie mountain biker video, or Instagram photo is exhilarating, but that is often the aim.

eagle pov

Eagle eye view.  Video here

I had an idea sitting on my couch the other evening about using a helmet-cam to film something mundane and be that guy that shows up with a helmet and the adrenaline mindset for an otherwise low-key event.  The thought amused me.  Then I started thinking, what if we could use an action camera to help our audience gain a unique perspective of our interpretive site?  Then I remembered I have a blog-post due.

I haven’t had time to try anything yet and don’t own a pocket camcorder, a.k.a. action camera, but maybe you do.  Does anyone use one related to interpretation?   Or does this spark ideas of how you might?  The GoPro founder reportedly strapped one to his chest during the birth of his sons.  Though I am by no means recommending anyone try that, what else could we attempt?

What outside-the-box thinking can we find to help our audiences gain perspective through a unique point of view?  Hollywood directors, extreme athletes, The Rolling Stones, and our military all use GoPro’s.  Like them, we are innovators.  So go ahead, be a daredevil.  Let me know what you come up with and I’ll do the same.

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State Gatherings; Free Easy Way to Strengthen Your Interpretation

Feeling inspired comes in handy when creating and delivering quality interpretation, but finding the zone where creativity flows is key.  That spark can be elusive.  Some professionals have rituals to get the juices going.  My lucky Lakers socks have always come through for me, but even they are no match for the power of networking.

Conferences and workshops often leave us enthusiastic and motivated to put new ideas into practice and help us gain fresh perspective on the successes and challenges of our own work.  They help me feel the passion I have for my own resource and the joy I get from sharing it with others that sometimes takes a back seat to budgets, emails, deadlines, meetings, and the like.

Formal professional development does have its limits though.  Money and time are not always abundant in the workplace.  Enter the NAI statewide gatherings.  Here is a chance to meet like-minded, talented folks doing similar work with much less obligation than other networking opportunities.  Who doesn’t want to spend a few casual hours sharing ideas and seeing another site and still get home for dinner?

In states like North Carolina, this was geographically impossible, until recently, when changes to the structure of state gatherings were made to accommodate multiple sectional get-togethers.  I am super excited to get to meet more folks in my area, both NAI members and others.  I hope you are too.  Stay tuned for info about gatherings in your state and take a day to get energized.

Save the dates: NC Mountains- August 26; NC Piedmont- September 15

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