Interpretation for Archeologists   3. What Do Interpreters Do?   Distance Learning

How Do Interpreters Interact with the Public?

Most interpreters are inclined to the work. They combine their knowledge, enthusiasm, and people skills to tell stories. Some interpreters are fundamentally gifted and intuitively transform what seems to be mundane information into meaningful and engaging presentations. As valuable as natural ability is, interpretive products and services are more powerful with the disciplined application of the tools of the profession.

Personal Services

Personal interpretive services are those in which staff interact with visitors. Personal interpretive services are the basis of each park's interpretive program, since they are often the most effective means of stimulating visitor understanding and appreciation of park values, providing information and orientation, and helping to ensure resource protection and visitor safety. Personal interpretive services are powerful forms of interpretation because of their flexibility and person-to-person interaction. A long tradition of personal interpretive services exists in the national park system, as represented by visitor centers with staffed orientation/ information desks, staffed exhibits, staffed museums, and staffed audiovisual programs; guided walks, talks, and tours; fixed-point interpretation; Junior Ranger programs; and campfire programs.

(photo) Goldpanning.

Goldpanning is an example of a personal service. (Whiskeytown NRA)

A growing percentage of visitors come to national parks with clearly defined learning objectives. Whether a fifth grade class, an Elderhostel program, or a scout group, they desire a ranger-led program on- or off-site to fit into a structured plan for learning. In essence, these visitors have a curriculum. All interpreters must be able to serve the needs of these audiences by integrating their interpretive services with the learner's curriculum. A curriculum-based interpretive program connects the educational objectives of the group with the park's resources through a variety of personal services, nonpersonal services and media, outreach and heritage education services, and interpretation for special populations. The management and interpretive plans and documents for each park establish a balance of interpretive services based upon criteria such as level of visitor use, the nature of the park resources, park management goals, and related factors. Various interpretive methods, including personal services, publications, exhibits, and audiovisual presentations, may be used to provide visitors with relevant information before their visits and to ensure quality experiences once they are in parks.

Visitor enjoyment and understanding of park resources may be enhanced by living history programs, living farms, period demonstrations, interpretive demonstrations, programs utilizing the creative and performing arts, arts and crafts, explanations and demonstrations of recreational and leisure-time skills, and other innovative activities when appropriate.

Involvement Techniques

Interpretative techniques facilitate the links between material culture and intangible resources and meanings. All parks have tangible resources such as physical features, artifacts, and buildings, as well as intangible resources including past events, culture, systems, ideas, and values. All effective interpretation links tangible resources to intangible resources in order to reveal meanings. Some intangible resources can be used in a tangible way. Archeology provides many means by which an interpreter can link intangible resources like past people, their social practices, and their ideas to tangible resources-the material culture they left behind.

Remember, however, that the vehicle for the message goes a long way to impressing the interpretation on your audience!

Passive involvement techniques promote attentiveness, thinking, feeling/emotional involvement, and passive sensory involvement (watching and hearing).

Word pictures, storytelling, relating concepts to visitor experiences, variation of voice and volume, role playing/dramatic interpretation, rhetorical or thought-provoking questions, demonstration, quotations/historical accounts, body language (expressions, gestures, props, costumes, visual aids), challenges/incentives, thematic connections, forecasting, and even silence.

Active involvement promotes physical action and movement, looking (as opposed to watching), active listening (as opposed to hearing), and other sensory involvement (tasting, smelling, touching):

Demonstrations with visitor participation, questions requiring a verbal answer, problem-solving, games, scavenger hunts, props that visitors may handle, assignments (i.e. listing, looking/finding, counting, writing, making, drawing), sensory suggestions (i.e. smelling, tasting, touching, active listening), team activities/assignments, brainstorming.

Many of these methods can deliver the all-important links of tangibles and intangibles into interpretive opportunities:

Stories, explanations, examples, presentation of evidence, quotes, metaphors, analogies, activities, sequences of questions, discussions, descriptions, demonstrations, comparisons, illustrations.

Archeologists as interpreters may work in many different settings, including the classic excavation and monitoring one. When they work on site, archeological staff function as a living display about resource management and the value of resources. This is a great opportunity, but also a challenge, because they have to get technical work done as well as communicate with the visitors. Sometimes the visitors might not realize they are park staff.

Fun Fact

(photo) The ca. 1851 Worthington Farmhouse at Monocacy National Battlefield, Frederick, Maryland.

Visitation statistics suggest a huge potential for visitors to learn about the field in national parks with archeology prominently represented. The 2002 Park Visitation Report recorded 406,385 park visits to Mesa Verde National Park, 742,016 to Lowell National Historical Park and 15,592 to Monocacy National Battlefield. The total visitation for the National Park System that year was 421,279,444. Comparison of these figures indicates that national parks offer an outstanding opportunity for the public to become better educated about archeological work.

The ca. 1851 Worthington Farmhouse at Monocacy National Battlefield, Frederick, Maryland (NPS)

MJB/EJL