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The Institute for Earth Education 2015
Musings On Themes as Design Poison
Why 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 need 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?
In 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 independent voice in the educational side of the environmental movement”

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