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Let me start with a disclaimer: I’m not actually going to tell you what makes interpretation effective.  Rather, I would like to propose that we rethink some of the measures we use for determining ‘effectiveness’.

Take for example an article by Henker and Brown that was published in the Journal for Interpretation Research earlier this year [1].  Their study set out to ‘compare the effectiveness of three interpretive formats’ (online and on site podcasts, and personal interpretation).  They used the following measures for effectiveness [2]:

  • Enjoyment,
  • Knowledge gain, and
  • Conservation support (behavioural change).

They didn’t offer an explanation for why they chose these particular measures.  However, from their introduction, it’s quite clear that these measures are directly related to how they define the aims of interpretation:

  • Inspire visitors (although it’s not clear in what respect),
  • Make a connection between visitor and resource, and
  • Elicit support for conservation.

But herein lies the crux of the matter: Henker and Brown don’t spend any time on showing just why we should accept these as the aims of interpretation.  Do they really capture what interpretation is about?  Or could it be that this is interpretation – but only under certain circumstances?  Is there not also a long list of other, hugely important aspects (under certain circumstances) that determine what interpretation is (or should be)?  Why were these left out?

Please don’t get me wrong.  What Henker and Brown have listed are legitimate aims for interpretation.  In fact, I’m sure they are the aims that we would find most often asserted if we were to do a count across interpreters’ discussions and our literature. However, without further explanation, these aims just don’t satisfy me.

Let me elaborate.  In a nature preservation area with endangered flora and fauna, conservation is an obvious aim for interpretation (or is it – see note 3?).  At my site, however, this is much less the case.  For us, the objectives focus on bringing the site back into the heart of community life, and giving a sense of pride to the members of a community that has been thwarted by economic decline for decades.  These, therefore, are our measures for interpretive effectiveness.  Behavioural change or even knowledge gain are really not that important.

Would you argue that therefore, what we do at my site isn’t interpretation?  I know some interpreters that would, but as you can guess, I’m not one of them.  I also don’t think that such a narrow, original definition of interpretation (in terms of the nature conservation origins of interpretation in the US National Park Service) will carry the discipline far.  It’s certainly not what an architect, a teacher, or a marketing professional would be concerned with – and these are the professions that too often are still used within organisations to provide ‘interpretation’.

So to come back to my original question: what makes interpretation effective?  Well, it depends on what your aims and objectives are.  Make sure you can show that these suit your site, and why. Then choose your measures of effectiveness accordingly, and with any luck (and an interpreter’s expertise) you will have provided effective interpretation.

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