The Interpreter's Handbook
Methods, Skills, & Techniques

Other Interpretive Methods and Facilities

Other Interpretive Methods

There are at least two types of interpretive activities that merit special consideration. One is the matter of using demonstrations to put across an idea; the other is designing and carrying out interpretation in underwater situations.


Demonstrations as part of an interpretation are not used nearly enough. This is regrettable, as it is one of the most effective methods available to give the visitor a clear understanding of what is being interpreted. Various reasons why this is so shows up when a going program is reviewed. Usually the reason is simple; no one happened to think of any activity where a demonstration was the obvious answer. There is also the interpreter who is unsure of himself, or simply reluctant to "put on a show" before a group of people. Many an interpreter can give an acceptable performance, if all he has to do is give an oral presentation, but the thought of showing as well as telling is disturbing to him.

This does not mean, of course, that a demonstration is essential to a good interpretive program. Rather, a demonstration offers a good tool for the interpreter to use. It should be obvious that it does not fit every situation, and must be used selectively. It must be tastefully presented, as anything with a "side show" atmosphere will strike the visitor as being cheap. However, there is danger in it being too attractive for it must not detract from the main values of the park, area, or structure being interpreted. It must be pertinent to the main story, not simply an entertaining entity by itself. It should be kept relatively simple, if possible, although involved ones can be effective when well done.

Demonstration of a pioneer-type farm, Great Smokey Mountain National Park.

As a device it has many values:

It offers the visitor an opportunity to see one or more phases of the story as well as hear about it.

It encourages questions.

It holds visitor attention. Seldom does one find the visitor indifferent to a good demonstration.

It can show the involved story when an oral description would be very inadequate.

It shows clearly how something is done.

It shows clearly how something works.

It offers the interpreter an opportunity to involve one or more visitors in the program by using him as part of the demonstration. Thus, the visitor becomes part of the tour and not simply a spectator. Some care must be exercised here, however, as the visitor must be a willing aid in the demonstration, and not a reluctant participant.

It offers the interpreter an opportunity to get children on the tour involved, thus furnishing them an experience they will long remember. Children are natural born play actors, and take to demonstrations in which they are a part. For example, at one of the military parks, the historian in charge of the tour wanted to explain how a Civil War cannon was fired. He explained the operation by selecting youngsters from the tour group and designating them as the gun crew. He had each child play the part of some member of the crew and explained what each was to do. Then, he had his crew "load" the cannon, and when all was ready, the imaginary lanyard was pulled and the cannon "fired," with the youngsters even furnishing the noise! There is a precaution that must always be followed in a situation such as this; the entire operation must be safe for all concerned.

There are many places where a demonstration ordinarily can be used to advantage. Historical and archeological areas offer the finest opportunities. In Jamestown, Virginia, a fine demonstration shows the visitors how glass is blown. In many areas the events or life of an historical period are portrayed by persons in costume. This type of demonstration is often referred to as "living history." In an archeological area, visitors were shown the use of the atlatl, the throwing stick of early Indian hunters. In another area, use of the pecking stone by Indians was demonstrated. Sometimes visitors are shown how arrowheads were made, and in Yosemite an Indian woman showed how to make acorn bread. These are only a few imaginative uses of the demonstration where history, archeology and Indian culture were important subjects to be interpreted.

Left-Demonstration of crafts. "Living History," City of Refuge National Monument, Hawaii. Right-Small animal life can be used effectively in trailside demonstrations—a salamander, Kings Canyon National Park.

Naturalists have an equally wide open field for use of demonstrations. Again, it is a matter of good imaginative subjects. Show how an ant lion works, put a horned lizard to "sleep," pour water on "resurrection moss," call birds to the group by making provocative sounds, strike rocks together to demonstrate the sulphur-like smell—these are a few of the many things that can be shown in the natural history world. The world of smell, feel and taste, seldom used in interpretation, offers a wide open field for good demonstrations.

Sometimes we find demonstrations that involve use of live specimens, and here we should inject a note of caution. Be very sure that what you are holding for the visitor to see is not dangerous. Snakes, for example, even harmless ones, usually affect many of your visitors adversely, and an enjoyable tour can be spoiled for them by any demonstration involving this type of animal life. The same can be said about spiders and several other small forms.

A good example of what not to do once happened in one of our National Parks. A group of visitors was hiking up a canyon with a naturalist leading the party. Right in the middle of the trail he discovered a rattlesnake. Now this man knew snakes and he felt this would be a good time to demonstrate a few things about poisonous snakes. Accordingly, he pinned the snake's head down and grasped it behind the head. Raising it up he showed the group. Some backed away in a big hurry, others came closer for a good look. Then something happened that wasn't in the script. The snake managed to get its head loose just enough to sink its fangs into the guide's hand. That, of course, brought horrified screams from some members of the party, and excited everyone. Help was some distance away. At this point the naturalist salvaged what appeared to be a disaster for him. He had everyone sit down. Then he calmly took out a pocket knife, made an incision in the bite, applied pressure to make the wound bleed, and used a handkerchief as a tourniquet. All the time he kept up a running description of why he was doing all these things, and how the poison was acting on his hand! His calmness settled everyone down. Then he selected one of the party to go for help, and sat down with the rest of the party to wait. Periodically he loosened the tourniquet and explained what was happening with the bite. The arrival of a doctor with anti-venin brought the entire incident to a happy conclusion. There was no doubt the entire demonstration had been effective, but most unnecessary and undesirable! It did, of course, underscore need to always select a safe demonstration.

Take a good look around where you are carrying on your interpretive program, and you will likely find some excellent opportunities to show as well as tell. Certainly the visitors will enjoy demonstrations if in good taste.

Underwater auditorium—the fixed structure, Weeki Waschi Springs.


One of the most encouraging trends in interpretation to emerge in recent years has come with growing interest in the underwater world. This is not to say that it has been ignored, because various commercial and non-commercial endeavors have made the public increasingly aware of this great field of interest.

Underwater activities have reached a high level of public acceptance, especially in Florida and Texas.

There has also been a great increase in such activities as scuba diving, snorkeling and the always popular swimming. However, activities designed primarily to interpret the marine environment to the visitor are a more recent development. This is reflected by growing interest in underwater interpretation by both Federal and State agencies. Underwater national parks are now being established; State parks have also been established featuring a marine environment.

For many years aquatic interpretation in the parks, both State and National, centered primarily upon such things as exhibits of native fishes and the like. Special animal forms were interpreted to the public, such as the blind fishes at Mammoth Cave National Park, the tiny pupfish at Death Valley National Monument and the California gray whale at Cabrillo National Monument. There were aquariums and fish ponds, even fish exhibits in lakes. Numerous interpretive publications, primarily on fishes, were also produced. In the meantime private enterprises, such as Silver Springs, Wicki Waschi and Homosassa Springs—all in Florida—were trying out underwater structures and techniques that could be made into highly effective interpretive devices.

Now there is developing broad recognition that there are as many unique and interesting underwater seascapes and animal forms as are found in dry land parks and forests. With this recognition comes the question of how to most effectively interpret such marine areas.

Certainly there is no one "best" way to do it. Just as on dry land, there are numerous methods and techniques from which to choose, and more are being developed as creative imagination examines possibilities. Effectiveness of methods and devices used today will be challenged, and perhaps rendered less important during the next few years. Certainly one of the greatest problems to overcome is that of actually showing the visitor what is beneath the surface of the water. With that in mind, let us review some methods and devices now in use:

1. The use of special boats.

Used in the past, and still popular in many areas, is the glass-bottom boat. This facility has several attractive features:

It is mobile and can easily be moved from one viewing point to another. This enables the viewing party to see a fairly wide area with minimal effort.

The people on board can hear what the interpreter is saying, so short talks at key points of underwater interest are easily accomplished. The visitor may also ask questions and hear answers with no difficulty.

The boat lends a sense of safety and security to the visitor who tends to be timid and a bit afraid of the unfamiliar environment.

Several people can be given interpretation simultaneously.

It can usually operate in relatively shallow water.

There are also limitations on the use of this device:

Its primary use is for "looking down."

The viewing area is rather limited, as most boats of this nature are restricted in size.

Such a boat is less effective in deeper water.

Its usefulness is pretty much restricted to reasonably quiet water. Waves, even small ones, diminish the boat's effectiveness.

Very little can be seen laterally from the boat.

Another type is the porthole boat. This allows the visitor to see from beneath the water surface. The visitor simply goes down into the hull of the boat, and through rows of glass-covered portholes views the underwater scene as the boat moves along. Such a boat is usually powered with an electric motor that can be turned 365 degrees for steering and maneuvering purposes. Some advantages are:

The visitor sits comfortably in his seat while viewing underwater features.

The impression of actually being part of the underwater scene becomes very real.

The boat's power source is so quiet it offers no distraction to the visitor.

It is possible to look a considerable distance laterally from the boat.

Some disadvantages are:

This is necessarily a "quiet water" boat.

To obtain interpretation, it is necessary to have an interpreter or some type of device in the same compartment as the viewers, for the boat pilot cannot see what they are seeing, hence has little value as an interpreter. Even with an interpreter along, he finds it exceedingly difficult to serve all the people using the various portholes.

2. Other devices.

In Virgin Islands National Park, a self-guiding trail was developed for the scuba-equipped swimmer, the face mask and snorkel user, and those who wish to use the paddle board. This trail is laid out on the ocean floor in relatively shallow water. At key points of interest, an interpretive sign is securely anchored. It can be seen and read from beneath the water by swimmers using scuba equipment, or read from the surface through use of fins, face mask and snorkel, or using face mask and snorkel in combination with a paddle board.

In some areas, a rather small underwater viewing room has been constructed of concrete and equipped with a large plate glass window. Through this window the visitor can see whatever moves, or is located directly in front. This facility is effective for small numbers of visitors, but cannot handle many at a time. It does offer viewers an opportunity to do photography.

Underwater auditoriums have also come into use in some parts of the country. They require quiet water for installation. Two types of moveable and non-moveable ones are very effective:

The moveable type has large plate glass windows on one side of the structure, with seats facing the windows. The entire building can be moved, and tied securely in place at the desired location. Through an action somewhat similar to that of a submarine, sufficient water is let into compartments in the structure to gradually settle it deep enough to submerge the viewing windows. It is then held at this level, allowing visitors to walk onto the structure and down into the submerged auditorium, where wide views of the underwater world may be viewed at leisure. An interpreter explains the scene.

The non-moveable structure is solidly constructed on the shore of the water environment, but with its lower portion (the auditorium) extending several feet beneath the water surface. Large plate glass windows allow people in the auditorium to watch what takes place in front of them on the underwater "stage." An interpreter sits at a vantage point in the auditorium and explains the scene. This has proved a highly effective device. There are many underwater areas where such a facility might be used for interpretation of the natural scene.

Japan has developed underwater towers sitting off shore, along the ocean. The visitor is brought to the tower from shore by surface or cable craft. Inside he can visit viewing windows at more than one level.

That many other devices and methods could prove effective in underwater interpretation is a certainty. With fertile imagination we can expect vast strides in this field.

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Last Updated: 01-May-2008
Copyrighted by Southwestern Parks and Monuments Association
Western National Parks Association