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 II – Expanding Our Quest
I remember being scared. Every time I started a job at a new park, I’d get a fluttery stomach and jittery nerves. I wanted to know everything. Or at least enough to not look the fool. So I would lose myself in the content – all the primary and secondary sources I could get my hands on. I remember memorizing the crimes and birthplaces of Alcatraz inmates, the names and movements of long-gone tribes of central Texas. I even learned the scientific names of all the blooming plants in the Everglades, just in case someone asked. No one ever did.
Looking back, I realize my “need to know” was more about me, and less about the visitor. They didn’t want the brain dump from my head, they wanted to explore and discover – to use their leisure time to “expand their understanding of themselves and their world” (Falk, 2009). And sometimes, maybe even many times, I was successful. But some of my success was more accidental than intentional. That’s what the shift to Audience Centered Interpretation is to me: taking some of our accidental successes and make them more deliberate, purposeful, and impactful. And that’s pretty much what we’ve always tried to do in the Interpretive Development Program.
On a recent trip with some key staff from Harpers Ferry Center I had an epiphany about new intentional categories for content. We traveled to Santa Cruz and Oakland to visit two museums considered leaders in addressing 21st Century audience needs: the MAH and the Oakland Museum of California. These two museums showed me how intentionally harvesting and including key content from the agency, the community, and the visitor can significantly enhance the relevance, enjoyment, and impact of the park or museum experience. This is a new construct to me, so bear with my working definitions:
Agency-created content: To me, this is the meat and potatoes of museums and parks. Visitors crave contact with the authentic, and we fill a critical niche as a primary and authoritative source for history and science. As interpreters for our agency, we harness the extraordinary depth of research our natural and cultural staff compile about our places. We selectively and skillfully share this deep forensic knowledge in ways accessible to a wide-range of visitors. This has been our focus for years and is still vitally important.
Visitor-created content: This, so-far, has been the meat and potatoes of audience-centered interpretation. The premise is to provide opportunities for visitors to share their individual lived experiences that relate to park themes through facilitating dialogue during personal services or through “talk-back” features in exhibits like sticky notes, journaling, or voting. The purpose is twofold: to provide an activity to allow visitors to hone skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration (IMLS, 2009); and to provide content that enhances the learning of future visitors and the agency. We’ve been focusing on this for the past five years and are starting to know how to do it well.
Community-created content: This one is still a little fuzzy to me. Visitors have a deep desire to see themselves, their culture, and their story represented (Henry and McLean, 2010). I know we already include community voices in some very impactful ways through personal quotes and co-created exhibits, but I believe we can be even more intentional about identifying and including targeted groups. We can further identify key communities by geography (proximity to the park), identity (such as war veterans, cattle ranchers, or the formerly incarcerated), or affinity (like rock climbers, folk musicians, or bird watchers). Collecting and curating their park-related experiences allows us and our visitors to relate to these places and each other in new ways. (Simon, 2016)
In this field trip to the west coast, I realized how much emphasis we’ve placed on mastering the facilitation of visitor-created content. This is partly because facilitated dialogue was one of the few audience-centered practices others were already teaching, and partly because I believe visitor-created content can be a gateway drug to other audience-centered practices. We get addicted to the connections and learning it provides for audiences and ourselves.
But I also realized that by focusing so heavily on visitor-created content these past five years, we’ve unintentionally conveyed that agency-created content isn’t important. And that was never my intent. I guess I thought we already had that in the bag and we could move to expand our world, our practice, and our content. But I recognize we need to continuously and intentionally tend all three sources. I know I’ve got my work cut out for me, but I also know I’m not alone in this exciting, expanding quest for content. And I’m no longer scared – because I now know providing answers is not just up to me.
Falk, John H. Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast, 2009. Print.
Henry, Barbara, and Kathleen McLean, eds. How Visitors Changed Our Museum. N.p.: n.p., 2010. Oakland Museum of California, Sept. 2010. Web.
“Museum, Libraries, and 21st Century Skills.” (2009): 23-26. Institute for Museums and Library Services. Web.
Simon, Nina. The Art of Relevance. Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0, 2016. Print.