((( Musings on Themes as Design Poison )))

hy poison? A poison is a harmful influence, sometimes a completely destructive one. In interpretation, themes are often the poison that weakens the most well –intentioned offering. An interpreter doesn’t jonata-brush-2-2400pxcolor5need a theme; an interpreter needs a mission. “Why” should come before “how.” Visit one of the world’s public jewels today, and any weaknesses you find in its interpretive program can often be traced to a thematic starting point. There are several reasons for this result. By their very nature, themes are too broad for interpretive planning (that’s why some university educators keep trying to turn them into sentences). They focus on presentation instead of design, start in the wrong place, and don’t interlock well in producing an overall coherent interpretive program. Of course, one must be careful in painting anything with too large a brush, but here are some late night ramblings for interpreters everywhere. They may be critical for the survival of the profession.

Thematic Communication
Beware. There is a strange attachment to the idea of themes in the field of interpretation. Much tortured thinking has gone into attempts to justify this particular method of organization. Themes are not only unnecessary in interpretation; they are often misleading and counterproductive.

The idea of thematic interpretation probably arose from viewing interpretation as communication, and thus presentation, instead of guiding experience. A presentation should have a topic, right? “Ah, yes.” And the interpreter should develop that topic? “Okay, that seems elementary enough.” But where do those topics come from and how do they interconnect with other topics being presented in a place? And why expand this method of delivery into a general structure for the field of interpretation? Whether you call what you are presenting a topic, a subject, a story, a theme, a thesis, a point, or a message, how did you choose it and how does it contribute to the overall experience of the visitor?

birday-food-2400px2In common usage a theme is an overarching concept or narrative. The theme of a party, a conference, or an issue of your magazine helps organize its content, but that’s why it fails so often in interpretation. If you approach your interpretive task in this way, you begin looking for related and recognizable elements that you can incorporate in your design, and often miss the significant processes that created and support what you are interpreting. You end up clustering obvious sensory elements together – food, music, costumes, scenery, etc. – without probing their meaning. Themes may succeed for parties and perhaps conferences (professional parties), but they often fail in interpretation because they are too broad and all – encompassing. Think outcomes, not themes.

Until you develop a theme, you don’t know where you are going, and an interpreter needs to start with the ends, not the means. You don’t develop an outcome; you select it, and then figure out how to achieve it for your visitors. The problem with the idea of thematic interpretation is that it focuses on the delivery, not the design. That’s what happens when you start with the umbrella instead of the rain.

Thematic interpretation is long on delivery and short on design.

Basically, the term thematic interpretation is superfluous. We would not say “subject interpretation,” or “message interpretation,” so why attempt to define interpretation as thematic? Interpretation is interpretation. At some point in education parlance the term theme became synonymous with subject. Instead of an overarching concept to be developed in literature or music, for example, it became a method for creating brief presentations in order to practice writing and speaking effectively. Today, much interpretive discourse is stuck in high school.

Why be so critical? Why not just make a case for the “dance of experience” (as outlined in Interpretive Design and the Dance of Experience) and not mention themes? Easier said than done. If you feel strongly that the idea of themes in interpretation has resulted in serious damage to producing quality interpretive programs as opposed to presentations, then it is difficult to “dance around” the problem. This is especially true when themes are touted by many as a solution for interpretive work. They are not. In fact, they often lead interpreters and designers to start in the wrong place. Interpreters are not writing a novel, composing a symphony, or putting together a party; they are designing and guiding a dance of experience for the mission of the place they serve.

If themes are not the answer, what is? Interpreters should start with the natural and cultural processes that created their place and its products. That’s what they should celebrate and share.

If you start looking at interpretive offerings with a critical eye, you will see that the usual problem is not a poorly developed theme, but a poorly determined starting point. Sam Ham wrote an entire book on the idea of thematic delivery (Interpretation, Making a Difference on Purpose), with many helpful points on presentation, but the “mission” of a place does not even appear in his index. And that’s precisely where interpretation should begin: what is the mission of the place being served?

Messages Before Themes
In an attempt to give thematic interpretation some intellectual scaffolding, some educators contend that a theme is a sentence. Since when? According to my dictionaries a theme is a subject. If interpretation is merely a process of communication as many claim, then why can’t they be more clear in what they are communicating?

dictionary2If you asked the author of a novel or the composer of a symphony, “What is your theme?” would that person express it in a sentence? Unlikely. On the other hand, if you asked someone “What is the primary message of your work?” it is likely that you would get a sentence. So why not call your sentence what it is – a message?

Since most of the current emphasis in interpretation appears to be on its delivery, one would think that messages would fit this preference better anyway. A message is a way of delivering information. We even say, “I got the message,” not “I got the theme.”  So what’s the problem?

Ah, there’s the rub. The fuzzy constructionists are unwilling to specify that they want visitors to take home a message because they might have to justify which message. That’s hard work. Even worse, they might be held accountable for delivering it. That’s scary. Far better to say you just want people to think “thoughts around your theme” and not be confined by any particular thoughts you intend for them. This is constructivist escapism at its best, or interpretive absolution at its worst.

The Interpreter’s Role
Some educators in the field contend that the role of the interpreter can be classified as either a teacher, entertainer, or provoker. But what about facilitator? I thought that’s where the profession began, facilitating a richer experience with a place. “Interpreters” were those people who shared their understandings and feelings of a place based on their own firsthand experience with it. Why is that no longer a good model?

logo-dancer-bisA guide is someone who shows people the way, often highlighting and explaining major features en route. Interpretation should be one of the skills of guiding. There are others: sensory acuity, group management, interpersonal sensitivity, first-hand experience, intellectual understanding.

A coach is someone who helps you do something physically, with the intent of getting better at it. A perennial problem in teaching is that people often don’t have much to do with what they are taught. They “learn” it, usually in the sense of memorizing it, and often never use it again. But a coach provides ongoing practice and advice. A coach helps people refine and polish their own skills.

Properly viewed an interpreter is more of an experiential coach than a thematic presenter. The underlying assumption of thematic interpretation is that an interpreter is primarily a presenter, and a presentation should have a theme. That’s become communication theology in the interpretive field, but it’s inaccurate and limiting.

Of course, if you use theme, subject, topic, message, etc. interchangeably, it is easy to say a hundred years of communication research supports your position. But a hundred years of communication research does not support themes by name.

An interpreter is both a guide and a coach in service of the mission of a place. In this sense, an interpreter is also a promoter. To promote is to advance something, a cause or event or product. An interpreter is a promoter of a place. An interpreter is not a librarian for people’s interests, nor a therapist prodding them to think. An interpreter is there to show visitors the way, helping them do something to make their experience more meaningful and memorable, while promoting the mission of the place. The interpreter is not there to help them meet their interests. The interpreter is there to explain why the place is worthy of their interest. The place is sovereign, not the visitor.

A good interpreter hooks the visitor’s interest rather than caters to it.

Delivery or Design?
If you judge an interpretive encounter (be it a talk or walk, display or demonstration) on the basis of delivery alone, then it follows that you want a carefully thought out and developed subject, regardless of what you call it (topic, theme, message, etc.). However, that raises a fundamental question: where did this subject come from? And how does it enrich the visitors’ experience with this place and its products, and is that the best use of the visitors’ time relative to the mission of the place? Much of the interpretation available at public sites is not found wanting for its poor delivery, but its lack of fitting smoothly into an overall design, and contributing to its success.


Please don’t misunderstand. Delivery is important, but design is paramount. As long as the decision makers see interpretation merely as presentation, interpreters will be relegated to second class status at best. Professional interpreters need to up their game.

Interpretation should be more than “delivering” the tools adequately; it should include designing the blueprint for which the tools are to be used. And a “hierarchy” of themes is a poor substitute for an overall blueprint. Please don’t hire someone to build your house with nothing more than a hierarchy of themes for a blueprint.

Sharing Skills
A skill is something you can do, and that’s what we want to share with our visitors: ways of perceiving and experiencing that will serve as skills for them in getting to know a place and its products, and prove useful when visiting other places. People remember what they do far better than what they hear or see. Interpreters need to tie the understandings and feelings of a place to experiential skills for getting to know it.

Unfortunately, many interpreters get stuck on the beginner’s skill of naming. Identifying the products of a place may be a skill, but what one can do with that skill becomes most important. When you learn the letters of the alphabet, you don’t start teaching them to everyone else; you use them to build with. It’s the same with the names of things. What are the larger, universal processes governing such things that we aim to share with our visitors?

People are naturally drawn to skills. They enjoy watching those who have mastered them (almost anything will do, even youngsters stacking soda cups). So what skills do we want our visitors to take away, and can we make a case for why they are important skills for them? Being able to name some of the products of a place is not a useful skill for most visitors, but being able to perceive how energy flows and materials cycle on our planet to create those products in a particular place is a skill of great practical value wherever they go. Understanding the processes provides context for the products.

Commerce or Service?
In an attempt to justify itself perhaps and expand its reach, the field of interpretation in the US has moved into tourism and commercial promotion, but it risks losing the ethos of its craft in the process. In the beginning, interpretation was all about explaining a place that had been set aside for the public good and showing visitors some of its features. It was not about selling beer. Interpretation was about sharing a love for place. It was about enrichment and inspiration. Now it appears to be about promotion and its own expansion. Is interpretation losing its soul?

Illustration Instead of Display
Exhibit Design. The problem here is revealed in the title. Exhibit design is most often about presentation rather than illustration. If you think of the products of a place (be they plants, animals, minerals, artifacts, or art) as “illustrations” of natural and cultural processes, it will change everything you do and provide your visitors with lifelong tools. The task is not to display things; the task is to use things to illustrate the processes of the world. We need designers who can assist in achieving the mission of a place for those who visit it. Interpreters should be able to extract the essence of a place and ask the exhibit designers to illustrate it using the products (objects) found there.

Above all, interpreters must stop giving exhibit designers a theme. That’s all too easy. Interpreters should give them outcomes to achieve and hold them accountable for doing so. They should give them exactly what they want visitors to take away in service of the mission of the place. There are a lot of marginal “shopping mall” kinds of exhibits in public places now because the brief given the designers was thematic. Never, ever start with a theme. Start with the mission of the place and where its products came from, and figure out how visitors can experience those products using as many senses as possible, while fitting the meaning behind those products into their own mental webs of understandings and feelings.

Visitor Interests
As an interpreter, is your task to tap into the visitor’s interest and connect that interest to the resource (a terrible word implying the world exists for our use), or is your task to help them experience that place in meaningful and memorable ways relative to its mission?

The view that whatever an interpreter does must be relevant to the audience can quickly become a cognitive blind alley in interpretation. It does not need to be relevant to the visitors’ particular interests, but to their general understandings. Relevance means that something is related to the matter in hand. In interpretation, that’s the place and the experience the visitors are having there, not their current personal interests.

Visitors arrive at a place with hundreds of interests. Are you a reference librarian or an experiential coach? I think we can assume most visitors have some interest; that’s why they came. So are they looking for you to make a connection with their interests or to share why this place and these things are worthy of their interest? Perhaps your primary task is to strengthen an interest for some and create a new interest for others. Forget themes. Think webs. Interpreters are web-weavers. You are sharing things to do that will enhance and set to vibrating the universal strands in the visitors’ grasp of the natural and cultural web of life illustrated in the place. Freeman Tilden, often considered the father of modern interpretation, put it best when he said the visitors may be there in the explicit hope that you will reveal to them why they have come.

The idea that visitors will construct their own “knowledge” does not relieve you of the need to instruct them in yours. In fact, they expect that from you. But you need to do it in a way that enriches their experience with the place and its mission; not in a way that enriches their experience with you and your interests (or even theirs).

Let’s create new interests, not pander to old ones.

Yes, people construct their own mental webs (in both understandings and feelings). The interpreter’s task is to assist them in doing so relative to the mission served. The interpreter is not a personal trainer or tutor or therapist for whatever attracts the visitors’ interest. The interpreter serves the place and assists the visitor, not the other way around

Thought or Action?
Is the primary goal of an interpretive encounter to promote thought or action? I think this question goes to the heart of the profession.

What does it mean to say one promotes thinking? If we claim this as our primary outcome, then it behooves us to know what that means. When you are “thinking,” what are you doing? I suspect you are fitting something into your mental web (or trying to). The question that needs to be addressed is what do you want people to think about? Anything? “Ah, I’m a good interpreter. People were thinking about a small piece of a minor part of little significance for the whole of this place.”  Really? Is that it? When did the interpreter’s role change from explaining a place, sharing what makes it special, and assisting visitors in having a great experience with it, to stimulating thinking?

When you explain something well, weaving it into the visitor’s web of existing understandings in a captivating way, the visitor doesn’t “think” much about it at the time, the visitor absorbs it. It’s only later when the visitor does something with what was shared that the visitor will likely think much about it. If you really want to promote thinking, then you need to provide the visitors with something to do. There’s the problem. We have all these presentations (walks, talks, exhibits, audio -visuals, etc.), but nowhere to fit them in a web of understandings for the place, and nothing to do with them afterwards.

This penchant for saying the primary aim of interpretation is to provoke visitors to think, to discover their own personal meaning, is overwrought and pretentious. Sharing the natural process which causes the “Old Faithful” geyser to erupt in Yellowstone National Park will be enough for most visitors. They are not seeking some personal meaning. However, if your explanation focuses on what happens as an “illustration” of a natural process, in this case the internal mechanics of the planet’s molten core and its water cycle, then they will have gained something that can be revealing in other places. In that sense, it can be “meaning-full” for them. If we want to enrich the visitors’ experience, we should be provoking them to act, to do something with the processes described or witnessed. Their thoughts will follow. “You can see this same process happening in different ways when you explore other thermal areas in the park. Don’t miss that wonderful opportunity.”

Thought or action? Both, for it is the action which will give the thoughts endurance.

More Than TORE
I suspect it speaks to the relative youth of our profession, and thus the lack of critical analysis perhaps, that we got stuck on a method (themes). Taking Sam Ham’s summation of the characteristics of interpretation, TORE (Theme, Organized, Relevant, Enjoyable), and turning it into variations like POETRY (Purposeful, Organized, Enjoyable, Thematic, Relevant, You) is easy to do. In fact, I am tempted myself. If you just changed Ham’s Theme to Message (which makes more sense when you think of delivery, and which he appears to use interchangeably with theme anyway), you would have MORE (Message, Organized, Relevant, Enjoyable). However, in a design sense, I think it would be less. Sam Ham has pulled together a lot of good stuff for interpretation as presentation, but not much for interpretation as illustrative experience. Interpretation should be about using the products of places to illustrate the natural and cultural processes of the world that created them.

When one says that interpretation should be organized, relevant, and enjoyable, those are acceptable initial qualities perhaps for beginners in delivery, but they fail to provide much depth for an overall design. Giving a sequential presentation is being organized; making a connection to the visitor’s personal interests may be relevant; putting on a good show is enjoyable; but those are rather superficial experiential qualities. When the emphasis is on serving the mission of the place and the experience the visitors will have there, it provides more depth. Interpretation should be…

organizing, not just organized;
revealing, not just relevant;
enriching, not just enjoyable.

There is an important difference in each of these points because the emphasis is not on what the interpreter does, but what the visitor can do with the interpretation in the context of the place and its mission. For example, “organizing” becomes a tool for the visitor, not a method for the interpreter. carrot-cake-2400pxtip2Illustrating the processes that created Lake Superior’s Isle Royale National Park with an image of the upturned edges of a layer cake composed of alternating bands of hard and soft rock, provides the visitor with a way of organizing both the experience with the place and the understandings gained. And something that is “revealing” is more important than something that is merely relevant to personal interests. For instance, it may be relevant for most visitors to say that their ancestors came from the planet’s oceans, but it is revealing to explain that’s why their blood and tears are salty. Finally, something can be enjoyable, but not do much for one’s mental web. Watching fireworks is enjoyable, but interpretation should be “enriching.” If it is not, people will choose the fireworks every time.

Most people participate in an interpretive encounter hoping for something that will enrich their mental web, but what they often get is a couple of enjoyable tidbits that they struggle to find a place for in their web. “That was fun” should not be the criteria by which interpretation is judged. If it is, the “bean counters” will decide people can pay for such fun, and interpreters will become little more than minimally-waged (or volunteer) attraction greeters and helpers, replaced in due course by robots. That’s already happening. Is that the endgame of the profession?

Interpretation celebrates and shares a public place and its mission;
Interpreters guide and coach the visitors in experiencing it;

Interpretive design ensures that all the parts work together to make it meaningful and memorable.

Enough said. This is a tough analysis of the state of the profession, but a serious profession should welcome it. Sharing the jewels of the world is a vital pursuit worthy of thoughtful passion.

– Steve Van Matre
  Cedar Cove
  Greenville, WV, USA

Copyright © 2015 The Institute for Earth Education