Posts Tagged ‘Lisa Brochu’

In a recent meeting, my PhD supervisors asked me: Is interpretation missing the point by focussing on messages?

That interpretation is about communicating messages is a conventional wisdom in the field.  Distinct messages are inherent in the definition of interpretation as a ‘mission-based communication process’ [1], and they are the basis from which we measure knowledge gain and attitudinal/behavioural change [2].  Expressed as objectives, we consider messages to be the core of any properly planned piece of interpretation.  In another guise, messages are also our interpretive themes, and I’m not even going to start to list the many books and studies that have persuasively argued the case for themes [3].

I establish objectives and themes in every one of my interpretation plans.  I scorn plans that don’t have either, and I have done so for years.  And yet, for years, I have also argued that interpretation is facilitation.  I have stated over and over again that interpretation is not a one-way street of imparting knowledge, or worse yet, educating our visitors. Now I wonder if on some level my practice – despite my best intentions – does actually miss the point I’ve been making.

When visitors tell me during my current research that they want ‘facts’ presented in an accessible way, and facts that equally represent both sides, then what they may try to say is that actually, they want just the opposite of predetermined messages (unless, of course, your message is a simple, ‘here’s the dough, now go and bake your own bread’).  Similarly, any meaningful theme, able to be expressed in a single sentence, may also sail right past visitors’ desire for an overview and orientation, and the ability to find their own space within the event narrative.

So while themes and objectives are without the shadow of a doubt the perfect and most effective way to get across a message, and help us be clear about what it is we want to achieve, I’m beginning to wonder whether they steer us toward focussing on achieving the wrong thing altogether.  Am I, by holding on to SMART objectives (especially of the learning kind) and snazzy themes, in fact hindering the very facilitation that I want interpretation to be?

I’m not sure yet, but the answer is probably a conditional yes.  We’ll probably still need objectives to prevent us from going all over the place, but the objectives are likely to have to be more focussed on the interpretation, rather than any expectation of what our visitors should know/feel/learn. And as for themes?  My instincts tell me that heritage events do have a core, a key characteristic, even if it is as vague as ‘a tragic battle’.  This, however, should probably be treated more as a context and cradle for engagement, and not as a message for visitors to ‘take home’ and remember.

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In her keynote speech at the 2010 National Workshop of the National Association for Interpretation in Las Vegas, Amy Lethbridge asked people for their personal mission statements as interpreters.  Participants’ responses varied widely.  Many people said their mission was to contribute to conservation of nature and heritage.  Others said they wanted to share their passion about a site.  Some said they wanted to inspire visitors.

I thought this was an interesting exercise.  We all know that putting something into words can uncover things we’ve not been aware of before.  It can strengthen what might need strengthening, and it can help us address what needs changing.  As interpreters in particular, understanding what motivates us in our work – knowing what our personal mission is – can be very revealing about how we approach an interpretive project.

Let me use an example.  At another workshop I’ve attended recently, one participant said their mission was to ‘rescue the past from the present’.  Granted, this was an archaeologist speaking, not a trained interpreter, but they were running volunteer programmes to support their conservation efforts.  When I heard their mission statement, my immediate reaction was one of unease.  How can you expect to engage anyone if your primary motivation is to effectively take a site out of people’s present-day equation?  The use of the verb “rescue” is also unfortunate because it evokes a sense of urgency and images of a guardian ripping an asset out of a villain’s hands (and I cannot help but feel that the villain here is the visitor).  The separation between “the past” and “the present” also sits uncomfortably with me, for to me there is a beautiful continuation, the past leads into the present leads into the future, and that is why we interpret: to help people feel that continuity (which does begin to formulate my own mission statement).  I doubt that a personal mission to ‘rescue the past from the present’ will pave the way to successful and positive visitor engagement.

By looking closely at our personal mission statement, we may better understand how we approach interpretation.  Sometimes we may need to alter our mission statement, as I would suggest for the above, because it may not help us be good interpreters.  We may still have the same objective, but we may need to change our inner attitude. The archaeologist from above may, for example, say that it is their personal mission to ‘ensure the survival of the past’.  For an interpreter this may still not reach far enough, but at least it creates a more positive energy that leaves room for others to engage with the past.

I think we should all formulate our own personal mission statements as interpreters.  We should spend some time analyzing these too, and comparing them to the aspirations that have been postulated for interpretation.  Since Amy’s challenge in Las Vegas I’ve spent some time contemplating my own mission statement, and today it goes something like this:

“I want to be an invisible facilitator for people to find their own inspiration in their surroundings, and to help them become the protagonist and creator of their own stories about these surroundings.”

I’m quite happy with my mission statement for now, but I’d like to share with you one that absolutely blew me away at the NAI workshop.  This is what Lisa Brochu, author of Interpretive Planning said:

“I want to start ripples so that others can create the waves.”



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