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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Notes from the National Conference in New Orleans


Sunny Southeast Represent!

Greetings all! I wanted to take my first post of the year to update as many people as possible on the exciting discussions and plans that occurred with Sunny Southeast during the NAI National Conference in New Orleans.

First off, we were wonderfully represented, with seventy attendees total and about thirty showing up for our regional session. (Our region as a whole is up to 1191 members, showing a steady increase on par with the other regions and NAI in general.) Several of our states, along with Puerto Rico, were represented, and a lively discussion ensued over two major subjects. First, the request by National to participate in a pilot project to merge the national conference with the annual workshop of the region it will be held in, in the hopes of benefiting some of the less active regions. After spending a great deal of time going over logistics and benefits vs negatives, we are tentatively a go for merging the 2020 Sunny Southeast Regional with the National one in St. Augustine, Florida. Our previously planned workshop for that year, in Alabama, had fallen through with the acceptance of its coordinators to jobs out of state, so this seems to be an ideal time to try the experiment. We also discussed the difficulties with regional members either not being able to afford a national conference or preferring to have the more intimate atmosphere of a regional and will be planning to have 1-2 days before the national dedicated to a mini-workshop for the Sunny Southeast. There will be some configuring of dates, as the national is in November, as opposed to our regular one in the Spring, though the possibility of two shorter workshops has also been floated as a possibility. We will keep you all updated as the options develop. National will cover the money that would have come from our scholarship auctions, field trips, etc. based on our previous workshops’ incomes, and it committed to making sure our region only benefits from this experiment. Fortunately, we had a large contingent of Floridians in New Orleans who were able to give us some great starting ideas on the how’s and what’s of moving forward in the area, so we look forward to continued coordination with them.

Regarding this year’s Sunny Southeast workshop, if you haven’t heard, it will be held in West Tennessee at Montgomery Bell State Park April 2-5, 2019 and is being coordinated through the dedicated efforts of Laura Franklin, who will be providing registration information and a call for presentations this week!

Our second major discussion was held over Sunny Southeast’s support of the NAI Journey Home project, in which the organization raises enough money to pay off the mortgage and repurpose those funds to support members and on advocating for the interpretation profession, including designating an additional $18,800 a year for scholarships.

You can follow this link: donation page, for additional information; the attending members of our region voted to donate 10% of our current account toward this goal, for a total of approximately $700. If you are interested in personally donating to this cause, you can download the NAI RoundUp app for your phone, iPad, computer or other device, which donates the change from your credit card purchases through secure encrypted technology.

The Sunny Southeast was strongly represented additionally at our Trade Show booth – which we shared with the Four Corners Region to mutual benefit – and in the variety of sessions presented by our members. Many great ideas were shared, and several new folks stepped up to volunteer for everything from writing blog posts to taking on State Coordinator positions, so we have a lot to be proud of in our community. A giant thank you to all who made it, and all who kept the home fires burning in the meantime. Here’s to a better 2019 for our community; let’s keep looking out for each other as best we can! If you have any questions, ideas, or concerns about any of the above subjects, or anything else, please don’t hesitate to contact me at

Marisol Asselta Castro, NAI Sunny Southeast Regional Director


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Resources for Birds

Since I work with lots of birders, I run across lots of resources. If you’ve ever been in the field, you’ve almost certainly been asked to identify what that red bird with a big crest is (hooray–an easy one, at least in the Eastern U.S.–that’s a Northern Cardinal). But you’ve also probably been asked about that small hawk-like bird chasing other birds at a nearby feeder. Could it be a Cooper’s Hawk? Maybe a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Maybe something else altogether. And what about those wading birds at the far edge of the park?


Cooper’s Hawk, looking fierce, but mostly trying to impress a female Cooper’s Hawk on a nearby branch.

Luckily, there are even more resources than birds to be seen. Here are just a few:

Top of the list for do-it-yourselfers: Merlin. This app lets you specify location (or it uses the location from your smart phone), date, and specifics about the bird. Then it tries to narrow down your choices. It can be really useful. It can be a complete bust. The app is made by Cornell University and is free. Worth every penny! One of the greatest benefits of the app is the photo ID portion. If you happen to have a photo of the bird, you can use the app to ID it that way. It works pretty well, assuming a decent image of the bird in question.

Cornell University’s All About Birds website. This website is fantastic. It has maps, photos, videos, and lots of information, plus highlights birds that are similar to the one you think you’ve seen. Terrific website, but beware of the range maps. Though they are reasonably accurate, climate change and other patterns are having a substantial impact on bird ranges and seasonality.

Ebird. It’s an app. It’s a website. It’s a scientific data collection tool. It can help you with your ID by looking at what others are reporting. Wondering if it is a Greater Yellowlegs or a Lessor? If 10 other people have reported seeing the Greater in the last few days, odds are good (not for sure, of course) that your ID is Greater…. Plus, you can do your part by reporting what you see. It helps science, other birders and can really drive people to your park.

The National Audubon Society Bird App. Free! (As are all the apps listed above). This smart phone app has bird photos, ranges, details about the birds and, wonderfully enough, bird songs! You can listen to the song of the bird you think you just heard to confirm! Well worth the download!

There are a host of great apps for purchase (IBird Pro, Sibly, etc), but the above free resources are an amazing place to start.

If you are out an about, several states have information specific to them. In Alabama, our Department of Conservation has great information about birds found here, sometimes more regionally accurate than information found nationally, especially as it relates to seasons. We also have the project I’m personally involved in, the Alabama Birding Trails project, with hotspots, information about what birds you can see when and more.

Helping people understand the birds that they see can be a wonderful way to introduce them to so many other topics, from climate change to the need for open spaces. And people love birds!

By the way, Cooper’s Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks confuse birders every day. It’s can be a good way to start an online war! (But, a couple of tips: Cooper’s Hawks have thicker legs, a more pronounced “cap” atop their head and are, overall, a bit larger than Sharp-shinned. No matter what, the resources above can help you help your visitors!


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The Tangible, the Intangible, and the Instagram Web Comic

For anyone who has grown weary of the post/share abyss that Facebook (or the internet for that matter) has become, Instagram may seem like a welcome respite. It isn’t perfect by any means, but Instagram is essentially the platform for a world wide game of interpretation, better known as Show and Tell. 

We all know that Show and Tell starts with the good stuff: the specimen. Then, pending the curiosity of the audience, gives way to the realm of conversation and understanding — the connection to the intangible behind the thing. 

While instagram is full of perfect photos of wild spaces we dream of visiting or wildlife we hope to spot one day, it is also full of another kind of interpretation, too. The web comic. 

These illustrations, in my opinion, are some of the best examples of connecting the tangible with the intangible, no matter the subject. As someone who connects their audience to the natural world, these comics generate a chuckle or offer a twist on communicating ideas about a subject I hadn’t quite considered. If nothing else, they ignite my imagination and get me back to the curious headspace that encourages inquiry. The genre has even encouraged me to pick up my drawing tools again to take a closer look at some aspects of my work through the lense of illustration. 

I don’t want to bog you down with my ramblings about the works that fit my fancy lately, but instead, I’d like my Festivus gift to you to be a highlight reel of the work that’s been inspiring my art and keeping me and my fellow interpreters chuckling this year.

Whatever your reason to celebrate, I hope it is full of laughter and light!

Please feel free to share your favorite illustrated web comics below! Make sure they are family friendly, as we are a family here after all, and tell us why it resonates with you. 

Rosemary Mosco describes themselves as a “Science communicator, wrtier, cartoonist, and unrepentant bug nerd.” If “poop twig” isn’t an effective interpretive phrase, I don’t know what is. According to The Washington Post, “mistiltan” is an Old English derivative meaning “dung twig.” 

You’re welcome. 

False Knees is some of my favorite work. They do a really great job at connecting some universal human emotions by depicting some simple bird based behaviors. This one works on two levels. If you’re feeling small, just remember, you have the power to do big things. Or, if you’ve eaten too much this holiday season, take heart, birds eat entire forests at a time.

Cartoon Connie draws comics about being and “odd, introverted human with a wise elephant companion,” but also finds the time to include some nature themes. I don’t know about you, but I am a little envious of how comfortable that koala looks. 

This one goes out to all the new (and previously established) moms in my life this year. You’re all magical and selfless creatures who have powers beyond mere mortal understanding. Bird strips is another consistent favorite. They describe their mission as depicting the “existential distress of the flightless through the eye of the flighted.” 

Birdstrips’ work is also really fun if you’re sharpening your bird identification skills as they focus on two of the big three for I.D., shape and color. They also will make puns about the type of bird presented in the context of the work. 

Say what you will, but a singing spider seeking refuge suddenly becomes more deserving of relocation instead of extermination for anyone who may not understand the influx of indoor critters this time of year…

Tiny Snek Comics covers a lot of topics, but opossums reappear in theme. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love a good opossum. 

Ok. Last one…

This one is, hands down, the winner of the year for me. I like to imagine, when all the crows are occupying my yard for whatever reason, that this is the kind of stuff they are cawing about. 

That’s the whole thing behind these comics for me. It sparks my imagination and often those creative conversations between coworkers that lead to new ways of connecting with our audiences. If nature isn’t your fancy, there are web comics for librarians, historians, medical professionals, and on and on.

Find your genre and let it fire you up!

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Beignets, Buttons, and the Beautiful Bayou

by Juliann Chavez, 2018 Scholarship Recipient

Heading to New Orleans, I was so excited to be in the city of music, food (I ate a lot of beignets of course), and historical places, but I had no idea what else I would bring back with me.


Of course, the thought of the conference, seeing wonderful colleagues, and hearing about some amazing work everyone is doing at their site was what I was also looking forward to. I was ready to present my session and open my mind to new possibilities for staff and programs at my site. What I encountered was so much more.

This conference was different than any I had attended and very progressive in the way we are headed in the field of interpretation and through the lens of inclusion. The first piece of flare I found for my lanyard was a pronoun button. Attendees had the choice of pronouns so we would all be aware of everyone’s preferred pronoun. This was definitely something new and made the thought of inclusion really come to the forefront.

Pronoun button

Next up was the keynote speaker. Michael Twitty, a culinary historian, got my mind working with an amazing presentation. In it, he delved into the story of why he wanted to be an interpreter. It was during a living history program where he met a man at colonial Williamsburg who looked like him and told the story of the enslaved people in a way he had never heard before. I was challenged after this presentation to think about how diverse of a team we have at our site and if all the guests we serve can find a similar connection. How can we be more inclusive? How can we attract staff that can change the culture of our site?

The final stop on this journey of inclusivity was a session on Queer history and how to engage a diverse and meaningful audience by Casey Bries. This session really brought everything home for me and made me reflect on the things I do that create exclusivity instead of inclusivity.

The entire conference was amazing but the eye opening inclusive connections throughout were the most meaningful and impactful for me.

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It’s All About Perspective (and Communication)

One constant found throughout interpreting any part of the past, “it is all about perspective”.  From the private soldier’s view of a military campaign to a student at Kent State in 1970.  Depending on what perspective you examine, it will dictate how your audience views the event being presented.  As interpreters, we know this bias and counter it by presenting multiple viewpoints in order to tell as complete a story as possible.  Have you ever considered the same may be true for our outreach into the education system?  Could schools/teachers be reluctant to efforts from museums, parks, aquariums for reasons other than lack of funding?  Let’s take a moment to examine this issue.

Recently I decided to take what no spare time I have available to get a doctoral degree in education in order to become a better interpreter.  Going into the program with a completely different perspective than all the teachers and administrators, it creates an interesting dynamic.  While I try to keep my perspective/personal feelings in check, occasionally them come out.  In a recent class, an exchange took place between me and another student who is a superintendent of a local school district.  In our online discussions I said this in response to a comment about the need for more research on students learning:

As someone who does works outside the framework of a school, I tend to be more vocal in the issues seen within the brick and mortar of educational institutions.  For museums, parks, etc we are always constantly evolving, changing and pushing the envelope due to the individuals who comprise our peers, but also we are given greater leeway to experiment in the field and not constrained by having to teach to test.  We rabble rousers though have a hard time effecting real change in schools because we sometimes take a little too confrontational attitude towards K-12 education.

As you can see it was semi-confrontational yet got my point across.  I felt my thoughts were correct in stating them.  Here is the response I got:

There are rabble-rousers in from the education world as well.  Just ask!  The ALSDE is very aware of my bias, concerns, and passion.  But they always know I am in it for what is best for students.  Many times outsiders forget that those inside the education world love and want what is best for students probably more than anyone, so we get defensive when we perceive that someone from the outside thinks they know better than we do and almost assuming that if we don’t know that we must not want what is best for students.  But educators are blinded often and need help, a push, or an idea from those who have not always be in the school world.  I think the idea that is important to understand is that we need to work together and try to understand each other.  Covey’s principle of “Seek first to understand before seeking to be understood” applies very well here.

As my new 10-year-old stepdaughter would say “BOOM! ROASTED!”.  This individual showed me how just one perspective can cloud your judgment.  It is only through communication between a museum and a school administrator can progress be made in educating K-12 students.  Communication between our sides is desperately needed to get a complete story of how to best complement each other to educate the next generation.  Without each side talking to each other the students do not benefit from a museum, in this case, and our programs are designed to what we want and not to want is desired from the school/curriculum.  Be sure to get the whole story not only in your interpretation but in how to you engage schools about programming.

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Thankfulness At Work

‘Tis the season for thankfulness and reflecting on what we have that aids and makes our lives better in some way. We tend to focus on the good stuff that occurs outside of work, but what about in your work space? Sure, work can be frustrating and we can sometimes forget how awesome our jobs really are. But a little reflection can help turn that frown upside down! This year, I’m thankful for…

  • My work site: My “office” consists of nearly 1500 acres of land, with trails and streams and boulders and really climbable trees. I can go for a walk anytime I want and I can go outside for the express purpose of “playtime”!
  • Doors: I can use my office door to signal a number of things to my co-workers: Open-I’m available. Closed-I’m not available. Half Open-I’m here but do you *really* need to talk to me? Closed followed by a quiet “Arrrrrgh!”- I just got tipped out of a canoe by a camper who wouldn’t sit down and I don’t have any extra clothes today. Non-verbal communication is awesome.
  • My co-workers’ tolerance for my many oddities: I have many different quirks that make me “interesting”, not the least of which is my reptilian love of my window heater. My colleagues tolerate the annual winter transformation of my office in the Sahara with good grace and humor. And my habit of carrying on conversations with the snakes. And my penchant for leaving art supplies and crafts all over the place. And my…well, all of my “Me-ness”.They’re a loving and supporting crew,  for which I am eternally thankful.
  • Opportunities to grow: growth through trainings, conferences (NAI Regional 2019, coming up soon!), programming (my own or other’s), the chance to lead and manage my site, all of this is invaluable!
  • The many resources I have at my disposal for my programs: not everyone has the same access to interpretive tool kits as we do at this site. We have a fairly diverse library of research books and workshop pamphlets, all of which can aid any programmer in planning. My site also has furs, skulls, tree cookies, and all sorts of nature related artifacts I can use for programming…or just to play with…


What are you thankful for this year?

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Building the right team for your exhibits


If you or your staff are involved in the making of exhibits or exhibit planning, here’s a great resource to download and peruse at your leisure. Entitled “The Making of Exhibitions: Purpose, Structure, Roles and Process,” the guide was authored by the Smithsonian Institution in 2002 (available as an online pdf at This white paper was developed to summarize how both small and large museums were administratively organized, and how this structure resulted in long-term and short-term exhibitions that were high quality, cost effective, and timely. The guide discusses how exhibitions tie into the organizational mission statement, idea generation, how museums are structured for exhibition-making, and the actual making of exhibitions and work teams. A section on the team approach to exhibit making is interesting as it defines the roles of suggested personnel. As example, the paper lists five key roles of personnel for exhibit planning: the client (museum director); the curator (content specialist); the designer (graphics and construction); content interpreter (interpretive planner), and project manager (schedule and budget). The paper concludes that while there is no model that guarantees a high quality, cost effective and timely exhibition; that there are appropriate models available based upon the facility’s scope and staff talents.

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A Community-based Approach to School Programs

I don’t know how it is at your site, but here at Land Between the Lakes, our public events and our school programs operate very differently. With our public events, many different partners often get involved. For example, at our annual Hummingbird Festival at the Woodlands Nature Station, groups such as a local beekeeping association, a master gardeners club, a nearby national wildlife refuge, the local university agricultural extension office, and others all get involved and participate in the event. These various partners bring resources, support, and experience that we can not provide on our own, and they gain a venue with a large audience to promote their causes and their services. Many of our public events work in this fashion.

However, with school groups, it’s a different story. We tend to manage our school programs fairly single-handedly with our own staff. There have been a few exceptions, but for the large majority of cases this is how our school programs typically have run.

Until recently.

A few years ago, our living history farm, the Homeplace, started a community partnership with the local school system that has been an amazing experiment to watch develop. I wanted to share this story because I find it to be an inspiring and impressive example of how community involvement can bring a whole new type of meaningfulness to a program.

The story begins about 5 years ago. At that time, one of the interpreters from the Homeplace had been participating as a guest presenter in an annual event at the local elementary school, a special day for kindergarteners called Pumpkin Patch Day. She noticed that while it was a great event, the grounds were a bit small, and the topography was hilly and a bit awkward for some of the activities. So, she decided to suggest to the event coordinator the idea of possibly holding the event at the Homeplace in the future. And the event coordinator thought the suggestion sounded interesting.

The following year, in 2014, they decided to try this out. And they decided to offer the event on two different days: one for each of the elementary schools in the school system. Unlike typical school programs, this wasn’t simply a program that our staff was planning on their own and inviting schools to attend. Rather, the school system was playing an integral role in planning the program, and working with our staff to make it work well at our site. Well, it turned out to be a huge success! In fact, both our staff and the school system liked it so much that they have expanded on this structure so that now we offer similar programs like the Pumpkin Patch Days for about 5 different grade levels, each its own grade-level-appropriate topic.

What is so unique about these programs, and different from our traditional school programs, is how involved the whole community becomes. At the Pumpkin Patch Days, about 25 high school students who are members of the high school leadership club help lead the groups of kindergarteners, and some of them even run some of the activities. For example, several students led an activity for the younger kids where they learned the difference between a fruit and a vegetable. The local Kiwanis Club donates snacks for all the kids. Their members also lead an activity in which one of them does storytelling in the character of Johnny Appleseed, and the kids learn about this legend. Teachers from the school system plan most of the logistics of the day, as well as provide the pumpkins for the pumpkin patch. And our staff lead several activities in which the kids learn about their agricultural heritage, such as learning where wool comes from by getting to meet our sheep, touch real wool, and watch it get spun into yarn.

Because the program has been set up as a community event, tons of parents attend. You can see the parents both happy to see the little kids having such a great day, as well as being proud of the high school students for taking on such a leadership role. As an observer of the program, it was so inspiring to see how so many members of the community came together at our site and enjoyed an experience that both connected them to their local heritage as well as brought them together as a community.

And now that this model has expanded to multiple grade levels, this kind of program is taking place numerous times throughout the year at the Homeplace. It feels really good to see that our site and our interpreters can offer something that the community really wants and enjoys.

And by the way, did I mention that it’s not that hard either? Because the community is so invested in it, many other people besides just our staff take on a lot of the planning work, supply many of the materials, and even lead many of the activities!

Now, maybe we’re behind the times here at Land Between the Lakes and many of your sites have been working with this kind of community partnership model for some of your school programs for years. I don’t know. If so, good for you! But it’s something that has recently taken root here, and it seems to be a really great thing, and I thought I would share the experience. Maybe it will give you a different way to look at your school programs and some possible opportunities for the future.

Aviva Yasgur
Executive Director, Friends of Land Between the Lakes

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My Dream Trip, part 2



My dream came true! An elephant in the wild!

Back in July, I wrote about planning my trip to Africa and the importance of having easy to find information. Now that I’m back, I wanted to report some of my interpretive experiences with tour guides.
One of the best ways to learn about an area you’re visiting is to hire local guides to show you the sites and share information you wouldn’t hear on your own. The whale watching tour staff was passionate about their mission and made sure everyone that participated in their tour understood how the tours helped to support their sea life rescue and

township tour survived

My traveling companions and our township tour guide

environmental education in the community. My friends and I visited a township and the tour guide lived in the township. Who better to share what life is like than someone that experiences it every day. Unfortunately, there were some guides that could have benefitted from an interpretive organization. Some were great with information but we all know that information alone is not interpretation.
I was in awe the whole trip and wondered if the guides were excited to go out on safari every day. I asked one guide if going out got old and he said yes! It made me think about how often I lead groups and if I ever get bored. Teaching repetitive programs can get tiresome but I remind myself that is the first time that the participants are experiencing it. Anytime I lead a hike, it never gets old. I can walk the same trail every day and find something new to see. I think the big difference is passion for what I do. Most of us don’t get to work in the vicinity of elephants or lions every day, but we can find excitement in watching a cardinal build a nest or a monarch caterpillar morph into a chrysalis. If you have the passion, every day can be like an African safari.


Our bush walk guide teaching us about bush antibiotics. He took quite a few hits off the burning elephant dung. I think that takes passion for your job to a new level!


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