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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 interpreta- tion. 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?
If 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?
2/Annual Report

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