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IDP Blog 2: Unlocking Content – Part I – Who Holds the Key?

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 alternately 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: Unlocking Content – Part I – Who holds the key?

Someone I respect recently shared a rumor with me. They heard that the shift to audience centered interpretation means all content is now coming from audiences and none from the interpreter. I find this rumor both hilarious and distressing. Hilarious that anyone could believe that we at Mather Training Center would promote such an idea, distressing that they do. So let me clear this up, and hopefully help us unlock new relevant content together.

Interpretation grounded in our tangible places has never been more important. Research by David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig (2000) published in “The Presence of the Past” shows that Americans trust parks, museums, and grandma above all other sources. We have the real stuff upon which we can draw conclusions, make assumptions, and compare notes. In this moment of extreme polarization over “fake news,” access to the authentic takes on new urgency.

But as we may have experienced, either in parks, our communities or even our families, producing more facts rarely convinces the unconvinced. So we end up more polarized, more entrenched. And this doesn’t just pertain to the ignorant. In fact, the recent article by Kirsten Weir in Monitor on Psychology compiles research on “Why We Believe Alternative Facts.” She states that “the more scientifically literate people were, the more polarized they were: conservatives were more dismissive of climate change evidence, and liberals were more concerned by the evidence.” She recommended emphasizing media literacy – learning to be more discerning about where our content comes from. That’s where our real stuff comes into play.

But Weir also reported that teaching can only go so far, that communicators must do a better job at identifying the roots of motivated reasoning – exploring the “fears, ideologies, worldviews, vested interests, and identity needs” that motivate us to accept or reject evidence. And this is where our audience comes into play. We explore motivated reasoning with our audiences so that we may understand and challenge assumptions – in them and in ourselves.*

In the Interpretive Development Program, we’ve been using the “Four Truths” model from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission to aid in this exploration. This model intentionally unpacks three layers of “truth” to get to the fourth layer – reconciliatory or healing truth:

Factual or Forensic Truth – This first layer feels very familiar to us as interpreters of natural and cultural resources. Evidence-based research – documented, verifiable, and provable – is the bedrock of our work as interpreters. But without the next two layers, these facts have no meaning for our visitors.

Personal or Narrative Truth – Personal “truth” refers to an individual’s lived experience with a place, an idea, or event. While most of us don’t have first hand-experience with being enslaved or becoming an inventor, we do have experience with the underlying concepts of injustice and inequality or being creative and innovative. When asked the right question, audiences provide rich content about their lives that helps us understand the next layer.

Social or Collective Truth – This layer refers to our collective understanding of events and ideas. When enough personal experiences align, a social truth emerges to make sense of the event or idea. We find comfort in this validation of our experience, but unchallenged social truths can create silos of thought and action. We may selectively seek out facts that confirm our social truth, rejecting those that don’t fit. Which leads us to our last layer, reconciliatory truth.

Reconciliatory or Healing Truth – This layer more accurately describes a process than an absolute. The reconciliatory process exposes conflicting personal or social truths that contribute to our motivated reasoning – our motivation for or against believing certain evidence, listening respectfully to each other, or working together collaboratively.

Intentionally unpacking these layers of “truth” in our authentic places allows us to listen and learn from each other in profound ways – at least that is my hope. And this is why our definition of content should broaden, not contract, at this critical juncture. Our audiences are far from blank slates, ready to receive what we have to say. They are the key that unlocks the power of our places.

* For more on how other organizations are incorporating agency, community, and visitor created content stay tuned for Unlocking Content – Part II.

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