Tis the Season…to share our story interpretively?

During the holidays we are often reading stories of Santa Claus, Rudolf, Tiny Tim to family member’s young (and old) to get into the “spirit of the season”.  Those stories come in many forms of media, including broadcasting information online, but they all have one thing in common; a theme or take home message.  Isn’t that the core of interpretation?  So I contend we should make our digital storytelling content the same way.  A recent article I read on Museum Hack’s website (they are awesome) comments on digital storytelling for museums.  While it is from 2005 (link below), the article still resonates today and during this time of year when stories are a central focus.  Out of the top 4 things they mention, I pulled a couple items out which really spoke to me.

The first was the content being thematic.  As individuals who have read “Meaningful Interpretation” and taken CIG courses, we know the importance of themes in our interpretive programs.  The central focus is needed to help guide ourselves and audience to a common goal.  Second, collaboration between people both at your institution and abroad.  While staff can be experts in certain fields, people in the community may have a bit of integral information that helps to shape, or change, your narrative.  Using them to help you create content builds a relationship between yourself and the larger world.  Finally, you are able to “recycle” objects you have already used either in exhibits or online previously.  By adding additional information or using a new perspective, a new dialogue can be started on an object that has been on display for years.


Archaeological evidence of life found at Fort Tombecbe.  We are constantly using these objects to interpret life at the fort over 250 years ago.

For interpreters, we can learn a little bit about adopting digital storytelling.  One of the best ways to reach people with content is digitally via social media.  Visitor centers, museums, parks have a limited capacity for engaging audiences.  Online, you are only limited by access to WiFi signal.  You can take small stories about an aspect of your site and broadcast them to the world.  Our museum does this a lot.  Since it is under construction, we have to rely on programs and online media to educate people about our region.  Facebook has been our biggest broadcaster.  Since our page became more interpretive and active in our posts 3 years ago, we had thousands of people learn about the prehistoric creatures of the Black Belt, life in colonial Alabama and even more that could not have been shared with people due to our exhibit hall not being done.  People have become more engaged in our how museum is growing, building capacity and doing community outreach than ever before.  All because we moved to sharing our story interpretively online.

I encourage everyone to share our stories in a more interpretive way.  You never know who you may reach.

Link to article:

black racer 2

Black Racer seen during an paleo survey by our director. Snake posts are garner some of the most traffic on Facebook.

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Who’s in charge here?

After attending the NAI National Conference in November, I came back to my Nature Center and dove headfirst into the hardcore planning for our annual Fairy House Festival (February 10th, 2018, you know you want to come!). As I lay awake the other night, trying to turn off the “Festival Brain” and actually rest, it occurred to me…

Planning and running a special event is like caring for a 2 year old. No, really, it is! Think about it for a minute. Things are going to go wrong, you just accept that fact and move along with your life. And when they don’t, you freeze and look around suspiciously. You are constantly braced for the barrage of questions: Why are we doing this? Are we there yet? HOW much did you spend?!? You provide answers again and again and again: Because it’s good for us. It’ll help us grow. Because I said so! Your pour time and energy and a little pieces of your soul into “raising” this beast…and then you see how wonderfully it turns out. You watch the happy faces of the participants and they see all your hard work. Every day working with a special event is a learning opportunity, I promise. Just make it a mantra: I am growing as an interpreter and this is good for me. Ommmmm.

A few things I’ve learned along the way (and am still learning):

  • Delegate! Whether your event is for 30 people or 3500, delegate those responsibilities! You’ll lose less hair!
  • The budget never works. Plan on that.
  • Don’t let your wings get stuck in a tree (doubly important if you’re a fairy). Have a Plan B! And a Plan C. And a Plan D, E, F, G…what does that spell? Backup!!!
  • Doesn’t matter what time of year it is, the weather will be wacky. Especially if you live in North Carolina. Plan ahead and have weather contingencies. I’ve worked festivals in rain and snow, wind and tornadoes. Be prepared!
  • You are not going to please 100% of the people 100% of the time. Nobody’s perfect and that’s okay!
  • Glitter never truly gets cleaned out of anything. Consider this before creating signage or activities. Also consider if your signage is legible and your activities accessible. And really, really avoid reaching for the glitter.
  • Stop. Breathe. Have a little fun yourself at the event. Walk around and enjoy it! If you’re not having fun, then what’s the point of doing it?

Now, I’m still learning and I love hearing from other event coordinators. Have you run a special event lately? What about sometime in the past? What have you learned???


Image result for funny event planner

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Breaking Down Barriers: Reflecting on NAI 2017

by Chris Smith

Falls on the Spokane River

The beautiful falls on the Spokane River was a great setting for this year’s national gathering.

The NAI National Conference in Spokane, Washington, was a profound experience. I always learn and recharge when surrounded by fellow interpreters, but this year was about challenges. It was about understanding more about what we – as frontline faces and voices – build for our many audiences. What are projecting into the audience? What expectations are we setting up through our words and actions for our audiences that supports or deters them from full participation? Are we asking ourselves hard questions, giving ourselves honest answers, being willing to take a risk, and using our skills and abilities to meet the needs of our audiences?

I was very excited to be at NAI this year, but I was also nervous. The conference program had a keynote speaker with a topic that promised to present tough historical issues and how to deal with them. I counted about 10 sessions in the schedule that planned to consider topics of diversity, inclusion, accessibility, and equity. Looking at the conference schedule, I could tell the theme of the year was going to be making space. Space in our programs, at our sites, in our language and approach to interpretation, and space in our minds. I knew I wanted to participate in these discussions, and I expected to be challenged by them. I even expected to experience guilt for failing to make the space in the past, but I found encouragement to learn and grow because it was obvious that interpreters all over the country wanted to have these conversations.

I volunteered each day of the conference, and my duties kept me running most of Wednesday so I’ll start my story with Thursday morning. The first Thursday session set the tone for me for the rest of the week. Thursday morning, Sarena Gill from the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation led a session entitled, “Let’s Talk About the Resource.” Her session was a discussion about the ways that language could lead our audiences down a less effective path to creating stewards. Specifically using the word “resource” to define our sites might invoke the idea that visitors make withdrawals, or take from, our sites without giving back or considering the wider community. Interpreters seek to turn visitors into stewards; we want the visitors to care about these resources like we do. Sarena used a game where each table had a communal fishing pond and a personal fishing pond from which each person could fish for the required number of fish to survive. We learned quickly that each of us tended to approach our personal resources more conservatively than the shared resources. This mentality toward our sites as shared resources might make a difference in how our audiences respond and how we build stewards. Even calling our sites a “resource” might miss the ways our audiences contribute and make deposits rather than withdrawals.

After thinking about how our language might be setting expectations for our visitors, I turned my mind to how language can include or exclude people from our programs. “From Diversity to Equity: Shifting the Way Interpreters Think,” led by Mac Buff and Julie Bowman, brought up the ways that interpreters can welcome diverse communities through mindful changes. The presenters emphasized that aiming for diversity and inclusion might still miss the mark if our programs lack equitable access for all. Language can make a difference in how we approach and respond to individuals. Replacing gendered language and avoiding making assumptions about individuals or groups can go a long way to making people feel comfortable in our programs. I especially appreciated when a suitable suggestion to replace “you guys” when addressing a group was “y’all.” Simple changes in the language we use to address others can create a comfortable, welcoming space for the many identities of the people we serve.

Japanese American children

Japanese American children on trains carrying them to concentration camps and away from their homes and communities following exclusion orders based in war hysteria, racism and prejudice.

Friday morning’s keynote session was an incredible example of the good that interpretation can do in the world when we consider the complexities of history and humankind. Clarence Moriwaki, President of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community, shared the story of the first Japanese Americans to be taken from their communities during World War II and placed in concentration camps. Racism, war hysteria and fear led to injustices that haunt American history. The keynote provided us an example of addressing complicated, troubling histories and using interpretation to bring healing and hope. Moriwaki’s comparisons of World War II racist cartoons of Japanese Americans side-by-side with depictions of Muslims following the September 11 World Trade Center attacks sent audible gasps through the hall. For me, it was a reminder that we’re not so far removed from complicated histories in America, and that we still have much to learn. The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial is a space for sharing the history, calling out the fear and racism that persisted, and pointing towards a future free of those evils. The Memorial’s example shows us that interpretation – a powerful framework for changing hearts and minds – can be a force for good.

NAI Fun Run

Gathering with interpreters is always fun, and this year we had a fun run, the inaugural NAI 5K!

As I had expected, this year’s NAI National Conference challenged me to think beyond the boundaries of what I thought interpretation could be. Interpreters can use their skills of communication and connection to build even stronger bridges for more people and feel empowered to make positive, powerful changes in their communities. We just have to take a deep breath, listen, choose our words wisely, and act.

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“Thanks” An Interpretive (Plan) Approach

Blog- THanks

In the spirit of the upcoming holiday and coming off the national workshop I thought it fitting to interpret the power of “thanks”, in an interpretive plan format.

WHY? (What are the goals?)

It’s healthy to give thanks.

It’s healthy to receive thanks.

Teams that are positive and give thanks generally perform better.

Make their day.

It’s super easy!


WHO? (Who’s your target audience?)

An employee who’s been knocking it out.

A mentor.

Someone you haven’t contacted in a while but played a role in your development.

Someone who could use a “pick me up.”

An organization after a visit to their interpretive site/center. Its great to get feedback from outside your organization.

A visitor at your program or center.

A supervisor who supported you somehow.

Teachers that support your programs year after year.

Your volunteers!


WHAT? (What are your tangible resources?)

Written cards.

Post it notes.

Provide favorite treat or gift.

Verbally in person.

Verbally in front of peers.

Email to the persons supervisor.




Acts of gratitude can go a long way throughout the year. Giving thanks is a simple, efficient, cost effective way to build community and buy-in for those associated with your organization.

Simply put, it’s a good thing to do!

Go forth and THANK someone!




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The Art, and not so much Craft, of the Homemade Sign

DSC01024At the risk of wrath from commercial graphic designers and sign companies, this post is in strong support of the homemade sign. I’m not talking about the ones that you can generate on your pc with multiple font types and glossy paper options. I mean the ones that you see when you drive down the street that announce lost dogs, garage sales, and fresh produce. I developed a special interest in those, and it’s fair to say that I go out of my way to stop and photograph ones that catch my interest—which I’ve done from Santa Fe to Singapore. Every culture seems to hang up a quick temporary sign to say something at some point.



I’ve made those myself at a public park that I worked at some years ago. I developed temporary signage to give visitors the name of the mushroom colony that popped up overnight or information on the temporary flowering of some wildflower or shrub. Or just to tell them that a trail is closed due to a fallen tree. Sometimes you just can’t wait for a quote from the sign company.


But I love homemade signs because they are endearing. Some are painted with day-glo colors that I could never envision using together, to just outright spelling mistakes. All of these are perfectly okay because the main thing is getting your information across– such as there is a band playing TONIGHT at the Bistro. That’s what matters. I have a friend who once told me that the number of temporary posters that you see stapled to telephone poles usually matches the level of action and excitement that’s happening in that town. And despite how city crews may feel about those, I think he is right.


Even if there are city ordinances enacted against the use of temporary signs, or even the next level of rogue signage—graffiti; people just can’t help expressing themselves, which is well demonstrated by rampant political signs. I don’t really have a point to make here, other than from my own perspective that homemade signs are not only okay to use, but might even convey a bit to out-of-towners about the unique culture or fabric of the local community. So with that I leave you with this short homage to homemade signs that I have found across the Sunny Southeast, and a few other regions as well………







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You Matter (… in case you forgot)

I recently received a great reminder that we impact people in ways we often never see. Sometimes the job of an interpreter can get frustrating because it can feel like you do the same thing, present the same messages, keep trying to get across the same ideas, and nothing seems to change. Heck, we’ve been doing environmental education for decades, and we still have to worry that the government might dissolve the EPA.

BUT – this broad perception overlooks all of the individual impacts that we make every day. And we often don’t get the benefit of the positive reinforcement of these impacts because they happen after people leave our sites and go home.

So I wanted to share this story with you that happened to me recently:

An old acquaintance of mine from college (yes, old … I graduated in 1998) took a family vacation to my area this summer. While here, she brought her kids to the nature center I used to work at, the Woodlands Nature Station in Land Between the Lakes. (I had recently left for a new job, but I had helped her with her travel plans …) She went, had a good time, etc. etc. etc. Seemed like a standard “been there, checked the box” kind of vacation stop.

Except that last week I got this email from her:

When we visited the nature station, my middle son Ryan was fascinated with the bald eagle in residence. He started reading about bald eagles and decided this summer he wanted to be one for Halloween. I thought John and your friends who work there might find it cool that he was so inspired. The costume was a team effort and Ryan helped a lot. I wanted to just share with you. 

Thanks to all of you for caring for these birds and inspiring kids.

I hope you’re doing well! 


These are the kinds of things that happen every day after people have experiences at our sites. It’s easy to forget, or to get discouraged, or to feel like maybe your efforts don’t matter. But they do. Take this little guy’s experience and multiply it a thousand times, and this is one small portion of the impact of what we all do.

Just in case anyone forgot.

P.S. She also attached some photos:




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It’s Getting Spooky

It’s that time of year when the cobwebs get thicker, pumpkins have faces and the threat of a clown appearing out of no where is high. Yes, to quote The Nightmare Before Christmas, “This is Halloween!”

It seems like everyone is doing an event to celebrate this time of year. From carnivals to trick or treating, choices can be overwhelming. What can you offer that will stand out above all the rest?

I find that real life can be scary enough. My nature center hosts an event not to scare but to educate about the organisms people despise, find scary, gross or slimy. We invite community organizations to bring animals and materials that people may dislike or misunderstand. It is different than other events in our community and provides a fun, educational time.


Visitors to SOS dressed in costume while learning about snakes.

If your organization isn’t hosting a fall/Halloween event, what can you offer that is unique to the community and to your site? Don’t forget adults love Halloween too! These events can be small, one night or multiple nights and range in age from 1-100! A few events I’ve seen offered include:

  • Ghost tours with a hint of truth
  • Haunted trail hikes, canoe rides, woods
  • Cemetery tours at night
  • Night hikes
  • Storytelling with a spooky twist
  • Boo in the Zoo
  • Zombie Farm (I pass this one on my way to work everyday!)

Have a spooky time! Happy Halloween!


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Leadership lesson from my 5 year old


Little leader and her puppy.

When you think about leadership most likely you think about a person you admire, a boss, mentor, relative, role model, etc. Leadership traits can be identified in the most unexpected places and situations.

A few weeks ago my 5 year old daughter wanted to play with our little puppy “nacho”. Often times she starts running around the house and he will chase after her making it fun for everybody and burns some of the endless energy that 5 year olds and puppies have in common. That particular day my daughter looked at nacho and yelled “chase me!!”, the dog was wagging the tail and was ready to play and run around but she was not running. Visibly frustrated she yelled a couple more times “nacho, chase me!”.

It took me a second to realize that this is a perfect example of leadership, when you want somebody to follow you, you have to lead, show them the path and where you want the team to go.  To get followers to move you must begin the movement, otherwise there they may take different directions or not move at all.

I told my daughter, nacho is ready to play, you just need to run, go ahead and run, he will follow you. Sure enough, as soon as she started running nacho sprung forward and chase her all over the house.

Next time you want to be a leader ask yourself, am I moving? Where are we going?

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Persimmons: a Sweet Sound of the Season

persimmon tree 2When most people think of the sounds of this season they think of the crunch of autumn leaves. For me it’s the sound made by the plunk or splat of falling persimmons. With its distinctive bark, reminiscent of alligator hide, the persimmon tree, Disoporus virgininanna was the first tree my father taught me to recognize. I now have a searching image of them and I can’t walk in the woods without all the nearby persimmon trees, silently announcing their presence.

persimmon seeds

Dad also taught me folk lore regarding forecasting the winter by examining the inside of persimmon seeds; a form of “folkcasting” that may be more fun than factual. These seeds are about the size of a watermelon seeds, and if you carefully split one so that it opens like a book, you will find the ghost-like outline of the embryo which becomes the root of the tree. According to various folklore, if this embryo is shaped like a knife, the winter will be cutting cold. If it’s like a fork, the winter will be mild. If however, the embryo is shaped like a spoon, you better grab your snow shovel! Although, I’d never bet on the accuracy of such predictions, I still enjoy this autumn ritual, and the metaphoric allure of looking into the heart of a persimmon seed, and pondering.

Persimmon trees usually grow straight and tall, between 100 and 130 feet and less than a foot wide. In cross section, the dark interior heartwood hints that the tree is a member of the ebony family. The wood of the persimmon has been used for things that resist splitting on sudden impact, like golf clubs.

persimmons & breadAlthough persimmons may be an acquired taste, the genus name, Diosporus can be loosely translated, as food of the gods, or divine fruit. The taste of a ripened persimmon is a memorable experience. It’s a gooey stew which conjures the sweet essence of autumn; all held together in a thin squishy membrane. Visualize a miniature water balloon filled with a spicy amber applesauce and you’ll have a fair depiction of a ripe persimmon. When a ripe persimmon falls it tends to fall with a splat. An unripe persimmon falls from the tree with a discernable plunk. If you bite into this “plunker” it is an even more memorable experience. Unripe persimmons are not sour but they are extremely astringent. Biting into one, leaves your mouth feeling like it’s full of fuzzy wrinkles. You never forget its pucker power!

An account written in 1758 in the History of Louisiana, stated that the Native Peoples made a breadstuff that “has this remarkable property that it will stop the most violent looseness of dysentery”. Thus, the persimmon should not be eaten by the chronically constipated.

opposumRaccoons, opossums and other mammals also fatten up for the winter by feasting on persimmons. In return for these calorie laden gifts, these mammals plant lots of trees by depositing seed laden scat (now enriched with organic fertilizer) some distance from the parent tree. The fruit is also eaten by many species of birds. Persimmons will fatten up humans as well. Some folks in our area gather them and remove their seeds (I use a food mill for this process) to use in baking cookies, puddings, cakes, and pies. I find that substituting persimmons for recipes that call for applesauce can lead to good results. I usually add a little extra moisture, in the way of yogurt, water, milk or oil to account for the persimmon pulp’s thicker consistency.

Many people mistakenly believe that persimmons will not ripen until after a frost; but some trees, like several here at Bernheim, ripen weeks before the first frost and are delicious! When judging the ripeness of a persimmon, I recall what my father taught me as a child, “If it’s a “plunker” it will make you pucker; but those that splatter, will make you fatter. So as you begin your excursions into autumn, be sure to enjoy the crunch of the leaves; but don’t forget to listen to sounds of the “divine fruit” falling from the heavens, or from the nearest persimmon tree.






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Interpreting Hospitals

We just opened a brand new hospital at the South Carolina Aquarium, and it’s not for people. 241 sea turtles have come through our hospital to be rehabilitated and released back out in the wild. This is something that we have always done, since we opened in 2000, but it is just now becoming a part of every guests’ experience. No longer do they have to pay extra money and go down to our basement, but every guest that enters our building will have the chance to see sea turtles in rehabilitation up close and personal, maybe catching a feeding, exam, or surgery.

This is a new kind of interpretation for us as educators at the Aquarium. It is extremely powerful to let guests have a glimpse into the world of sea turtle rehabilitation, but it also comes with a lot of responsibility. What most guests don’t realize, is that these turtles undergo surgery very similarly to people. Doctors and Nurses recognize the equipment in our surgery suite and can relate to the work that the Veterinarian has cut out for him. Guests have watched 4 hours of surgery where 4 feet of fishing line was removed from a Kemps Ridleys intestines. It is bloody, gruesome, shocking, and real. Letting guests in on our behind the scenes action calls for some necessary interpretation.

It is extremely important to educate guests on what they are viewing.. what injuries are what, what the x-rays are showing, why that turtle has a tube down it’s throat, why that turtle is bloody, and why that turtle isn’t moving… it’s a lot of information that could get misconstrued by guests if not explained properly. We strive to always have interpreters in our sea turtle hospital to walk guests through the experience of rescue, rehab, and release and the impact on our guests is truly life changing.

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