Learning Interpretation

New things are so interesting!

Because Tom is planning to throw his hat in the ring for a seasonal interp ranger position this summer, and I’m doing this NPS volunteer gig at the visitor center, we’ve both gotten exposed to the Interpretation classes provided at Eppley.org. In park parlance, interpretation isn’t translating from one language into another. It’s translating an understanding of the amazing things around us, into terms that other people can understand and appreciate – in Interpretive terms: Connecting the visitor with the resource.

I’ve been kicking this idea of “Interpretation” around in my head since I was first exposed to it back when I was still working at the Mountaineering School, but even though Interpretation is supposed to be all about answering the question, “So what?”, I had trouble putting my finger on the answer when it came to Interpretation or Interpretive Themes themselves. How was it valuable?

The Interpretive Process

One of the things I really liked from the Eppley course was this idea of highlighting emotional connections and meanings from something physical that you experience in the park.

1. You start with the thing, the tangible resource – say, El Cap.
2. Then you look for its intangible properties, some of the qualities or emotions it might provoke (adventure, friendship, exploration, overcoming challenges, fear… whatever), and then
3. try to figure out which of those are universal – something that almost everyone will connect to or have experience with.
4. After taking who your audience is into account you then,
5. Come up with a theme that includes some of those universal concepts that you figured out (something like: The challenges of climbing El Cap forges trust in yourself and your partner.)
6. Develop that theme with information about how tall El Cap is, what the challenges might be, how those climbers get up there in the first place, the skills they need, the communication and cooperation between partners etc. using various techniques to make those facts easy to relate to.

This process is more formalized, but essentially the same in principle as what I learned in my Conversion Optimization online marketing course about tailoring a message to appeal to people who are looking for a certain feeling or emotion, as well those who are looking for facts. In Interpretation, you’re selling people on the idea that this big chunk of granite is important, relevant, and meaningful. Very similar.

One Central Idea or Many Themes in Harmony?

But what if you have a 2-hour walk/talk/program/tour, or something even longer? Is that really a one-theme experience?

One ranger explained that when planning a walk or talk, you want to have a central idea that you return to again and again, something people can take home with them, something that will sink into their minds and become part of the way they see the world, long after they forget how to tell a sequoia tree from a cedar. OK, so I can see the benefit there.

On the other hand, if the Interpretive Process starts from the tangible thing, and then expands into a theme, are you limited to choosing only those tangible resources that are going to be universal across your entire tour? El Cap provokes a different subset of intangible associations than the terminal moraine. Do you have to choose only from those intangibles that overlap them both? Does the requirement of a single theme encourage Interpreters to favor the story that fits the theme over the most powerful stories?

Or, from a different perspective, if I develop a sound interpretive theme about El Cap, and then the tour bus moves on and I develop another sound interpretive theme around the eroded banks of the river, is that any less Interpretive than the single theme which would apply to both?

3 thoughts on “Learning Interpretation”

  1. I worked in DNC’s Interpretive Services group as a seasonal interpreter back in 2005. Best summer of my life, hands down!

    Interpreting was completely new to me so it took a lot of rewiring to get outside of simply pointing out facts and moving towards telling a bigger story and communicating a message.

    I would say that a sound interpretive theme flows throughout the tour. It’s not that there aren’t separated chapters and unique stories, but you have to find a way to bring them all together. When I gave tours of the Ahwahnee, there were very different things I talked about in each room, but they all came together.

    It’s hard. I was pretty resistant to it. Like I said, I’m more of a facts kind of guy. I hated missing out on a detail just because it didn’t fit into the story! But I came to realize that the story really does matter. People really do take that home. And the people who want facts will always ask for them in Q&A!

    Good luck. I’m very, very jealous!

  2. Hey Joey, thanks for your thoughts.

    I don’t think I’m particularly attached to specific facts, and I understand the idea of a story that gets people to relate to The Ahwahnee (or whatever resource you’re talking about) on an emotional level, so I guess my question is, do you think that the tour-length theme really has more impact than a series of shorter interpretive themes as long as each of the short themes are truly interpretive? If so, why? Or to put it another way, can a book of short stories have as much lasting impact as a novel?

    I think I’m going to ping Emily Jacobs (another Minnesotan, go figure) and see if she can weigh in. Was she here yet when you were in Interp? She came in as the assistant manager under Julie Miller sometime around then.

  3. Emily and Julie hired me! I see Emily periodically when she’s back in Minnesota (her family is the Twin Cities area here) and when I’m out there. I was in Yosemite this summer and spent some time with Julie, Jen Graves, and Andrew West. Actually, the story of how I got hired into that whole group is pretty crazy, but would probably take more time and would get away from the theme here. I may have to make that a blog post for this week…

    I think your question would be great for Emily. From my perspective, I actually have no problem with the “book of short stories” approach rather than a novel. I do think it’s helpful if they come together somehow, otherwise it’s going to be tough to bring it all together in your conclusion. Besides, most books of short stories still follow some pattern. I don’t know what it would look like if they really were completely independent from one another. I’d be interested to see someone make that work though. Looking back, I feel like there were some things we made very interpretive, such as the Ahwahnee tour or the starry skies program, but I don’t remember approaching things like our campfires with quite the same interpretive lens. I’m thinking with something like a tram tour though, you really would need to approach it from a strong interpretive perspective.

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