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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 wonder- ful 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 characteris- tics 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, Enjoy- able). 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. Interpre- tation should be about using the products of places to illustrate the natural and cultural processes of the world that created them.
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