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?