What I know…and what I don’t know
The highs and lows of evolving our interpretive craft
For more than 50 years, The National Park Service’s Mather Training Center has been a leader in defining the craft of interpretation. For more than 20 years, the Interpretive Development Program has helped the field define and achieve success.
As Training Manager for Interpretation and Education for the National Park Service, I’m often expected to have some answers – as are you as field practitioners. I alternatively embrace and resist that role of expert. Here in this blog, I will share that struggle…maybe it speaks to your own.
Today’s topic – What is our full potential as a National Park Service and how do we reach it?
I know the tours I gave in the Everglades more than 10 years ago hit the mark. Visitors exclaimed when I could find an alligator nest or identify a heron as it took flight, they asked rich and probing questions, and thanked me when the tour was over. They sometimes even cried when I used the Marjory Stoneman Douglas quote. But more than that, these reactions gave me a glimpse of the emotional and intellectual connections they made to place. My professional community agreed: I achieved competency standards in all 10 benchmark competencies. Three of my programs were used as anchor training examples.
I know our interpretive techniques and strategies worked for our past visitors to our parks. I know this in part because our parks are preserved, our visitation robust. What I don’t know is if they work for our future. Interpretation of the 20th century enriched lives – I provided joy, contemplation, learning, and deep reflection. But I never really learned much from my audiences. I didn’t solicit feedback or collaborate with them in a way that helped me grow as a person or agent of this agency. I only flirted with our full potential.
I also know that current preservation and visitation aren’t the only measures of success. Even while our visitation increases, our visitors represent our country’s demographics even less than 20 years ago, a trend on track to only worsen. Additionally, the critical role of parks as a warning and a balm to our society is more imperative than ever. Survival of the National Park Service, and possibly even civil society, may hinge on fulfilling that role.*
- We interpret Civil War sites so we never have another civil war
- We interpret slavery so we can acknowledge the wound we still bear
- We interpret civil rights to ensure the arc bends toward justice
- We interpret internment so we never again cage our citizens
- We interpret acts of terror to find the courage to be heroes in the moment of need
- We interpret immigration so we can claim our roots and challenge our identity
- We preserve breathtaking landscapes so we never have another Niagara Falls
- We interpret the peaks and canyons to be humbled in the shadow of their grandeur
- We preserve wilderness to push against our instinct to tame and consume
- We preserve wildlife to define our humanity by more than our own needs
- We offer transformative recreational experiences so we can heal our besieged bodies, buoy our flagging spirits, and believe in our endless potential.
We are more than the sum of our parts. We hold the collective conscience and hope of the country. We have national parks so we can live…and learn to be the best versions of ourselves — as a nation, as a people, as a person. That’s what I believe. And I know we can’t do it alone.
In our first century, I’m not sure I asked the right questions. But in this century, I feel derelict if I don’t – don’t ask, don’t learn, don’t doubt, don’t grow. So I ask you, what is the full potential of parks to you? How do you measure success?
*For more on where these ideas come from, read the National Parks Second Century Commission report on Connecting People to Parks.