Interpretation for Archeologists   4. Tools For Interpreters   Distance Learning

The Interpretive Process Model

The Interpretive Process Model provides a course of action for developing interpretive opportunities. It helps to find ways to present resources to the public and communicate the kinds of ideas and perceptions that encourage people to care about them. Visitors are prevented from feeling protective of archeological resources by the space they perceive between themselves and this seemingly unknowable, inaccessible specialization. The Interpretive Process Model helps archeologists to see these spaces and start visitors on their way to filling them with ideas, opinions, and feelings.

1. Select a tangible place, object, person, or event that you want the audience to care about.

(photo) Flint stones.

Alibates Flint is a tangible resource. (Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument)

Tangible resources include objects, places, or people that relate to larger messages about events at a place. A program might focus, for example, on a single artifact but intend for the audience to also wonder about the people who used it, where it was found, and its historical context. Similarly, an interpreter might use a specific artifact to represent the material culture of a particular time and the people who created and used it.

While an interpretive product or service may include several tangible resources, usually one tangible resource acts as an icon or symbol. The icon provides a starting point and reference for an exploration of associated tangible resources and multiple resource meanings. It anchors a presentation so interpreters can reveal a constellation of ideas, values, relationships, contexts, systems, and processes. An interpretive tour usually focuses on a different object or feature at each stop to explore a unique meaning or meanings. Sometimes an essay or talk uses two or more icons to describe multiple perspectives regarding the same topic. The more icons an interpretive product uses, however, the more complicated the development and delivery will be. Be aware that as a consequence it may be harder for the audience to follow and stay engaged.

For Your Information

The case studies in this section will walk you through the Interpretive Process. The Case Study box will tell you about each step of the process for the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument. The Use What You You Know box will guide you through developing answers for Mesa Verde National Park. Try it Yourself in the third box for each section by applying that step of the process to your own work.

Be sure to write out your answers – you will use them as you continue through this course.

Case Study

Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument
Alibates Flint, distinctive for its varied coloration, occurs in dolomite outcrops atop Permain Aged Redbeds in the Canadian River breaks near Amarillo and Fritch, Texas. This special kind of flint is the tangible resource.

Use What You Know

A corn cob from Mesa Verde National Park illustrates the concepts introduced in this section. It will start you on the way of learning to apply the process.

Try it Yourself

Choose an icon/tangible resource from your park to apply the concepts in this section. Describe its physical characteristics.

2. Identify intangible meanings.

Tangible/intangible meanings are the basic building blocks of interpretation. Each tangible resource has an incredible variety of intangible meanings. The more Knowledge of the Resource (KR) and Knowledge of the Audience (KA) an interpreter has, the more meanings can be linked to the tangible resource to expand the significance held by its physical attributes alone. Without the stories that go with it, a corn cob at Mesa Verde is only a corn cob. Concepts such as beauty, ceremony, life, and social activity bring meaning to the resource. Meanings can be obvious and popular or obscure and controversial. Interpretation in this way links a tangible resource to broader intangible meanings to make its importance apparent, accessible, and relevant to more people.

Audiences wish to connect on a personal level to the subject and/or resource. Connecting experiences occur when the tangible resource is linked to some larger intangible meaning in a way that the audience can relate to and that provokes understanding and/or appreciation. Sometimes this occurs through their intellectual understanding of context, insight, discovery, and revelation. Other times emotions open the way—enjoyment, sensation, spirit, renewal, empathy, wonder, challenge. Intangible meanings speak to different people in different ways. Only when the tangible/intangible link is personally relevant does an individual connect to the resource.

Case Study

Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument
Early inhabitants who used the Alibates flint left shallow pits as evidence of quarry activity. Park managers develop intangible meanings from this evidence into theme statements relating to beauty, aesthetic value, convenience, and place in a culture.

Use What You Know

The intangible meaning of the corn cob at Mesa Verde relates to the system of agriculture used by the Ancestral Pueblo people.

What other intangible meanings can you think of for the corn cob?

Try it Yourself

Brainstorm at least a dozen intangible meanings that can be associated with the tangible resource you chose. These meanings, connected with the tangible resource, are its tangible and intangible links.

What can you interpret with this tangible resource? What processes, ideas, relationships, concepts, and values might it meaningfully represent?

3. Identify universal concepts.

Universal concepts are intangible meanings that are relevant to almost everybody. They are powerful vehicles that reach many people in significant ways. Like all intangible meanings, universal concepts can be linked to a tangible resource. Facts alone can make visitors feel disconnected from the past – “So what?” Just as facts alone may leave a visitor cold, universal concepts can be presented in too abstract and abrupt a way. For example, visitors care little about the facts and events at Bloody Lane on Antietam National Battlefield without universal concepts such as death or fear. But if the concepts are discussed without photographs, artifacts, and testimonies they are harder to feel as having really happened. Another way to approach the interpretation is to describe the events in terms of the ways that officers and soldiers maneuvered, stumbled, and fought. The significance of tangible resources, such as equipment or other evidence of technological contributions in warfare, to the results of the encounter makes more powerful impressions of both the tactics and the horror of war. Universal concepts, joined with other tangible/intangible links can provoke a desire to understand and appreciate intangible meanings that might otherwise seem inaccessible.

Case Study

Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument
Universal concepts at the Alibates flint quarries include survival, nourishment, use of resources, aesthetic beauty, and quality of life.

Use What You Know

Some of the intangible meanings or universal concepts of the Mesa Verde corn cob include family, community, time, and religion.

What other universal concepts can you think of to bring meaning to the corn cob?

Try it Yourself

List the intangible meanings and universal concepts associated with the tangible resource you chose.

Are any of your intangible meanings also universal concepts—a concept that everyone can relate to, but no two people will see exactly the same way?

4. Identify the audience.

All audiences who want to visit or read about a site seek something of value for themselves. They all expect something special. Each visitor has a personal sense of what the place means. Many know a great deal about the resource, some know what family or friends have told them, and others simply assume the resource contains something worthwhile.

The meanings audiences ascribe to the resource have a great deal to do with the success or failure of interpretation. Expert audiences require different approaches than general audiences as do children, seniors, or international visitors. Of course, an interpretive product can meet any combination of those audiences as well as many more.

Some sites have formal visitor surveys and demographic information available. All interpreters, during the casual conversation that often offers itself before a program begins, can benefit from asking visitors what the resource means to them. Find out what the audience seeks by asking questions such as, “What brought you here today?” “What did you expect to find?” “What do you hope to gain here?” “What do you hope your children will take away with them?” “What do you think about when you look at this place?” “If you had my job, what would you tell people?” A visitor who says archeological sites are places for spiritual renewal, solitude, and self-understanding requires a significantly different program than one that feels that sites are places for collecting arrowheads. An interpreter who thinks about and records these conversations can use them to identify tangible resources that address these audience meanings and create interpretive products that use those meanings to provoke new connections to the meanings of the resource.

Case Study

Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument
The meaningful interpretation of flint gave rise to the National Monument and is implicit in the development of its web site. Who might visit the park?

Use What You Know

Brainstorm ways to integrate the tangible resource of the concepts surrounding the Mesa Verde corn cob into an interpretive product. Visit the Mesa Verde National Park web page. What audiences visit the park? Brainstorm the kinds of meanings they might seek.

Try it Yourself

Now consider your tangible resource. Who is your intended audience? What does your tangible resource mean to different segments of your audience? Do you have enough Knowledge of the Audience (KA)?

5. Write a theme statement—include a universal concept.

Interpretive themes are tools for developing an idea or ideas in order to inspire connections. An interpretive theme is not a message as much as it is a relevant point that encourages new thoughts and feelings. Other qualities of themes include:

  • Being single sentences that express meaning
  • Linking a tangible resource to its intangible meanings
  • Organizing interpretive products
  • Linking a tangible resource to a universal concept

In the past, interpreters and supervisors were advised that the success or failure of an interpretive product could be easily measured by the audience’s ability to state the theme. This led to products where the theme was constantly repeated with the hope that the audience would be able to parrot the message. A theme is not a refrain, a sound byte, or a “take home message.” Products organized in this manner generally fail to develop an idea cohesively over the course of the delivery.

Today, we think differently. A well-presented program based on a solid interpretive theme will likely provoke connections the interpreter did not anticipate and may never become aware of. No one in the audience may be able to repeat exactly the interpreter’s theme but the focus should be clear and most people’s versions will be related and recognizable. Thematic statements increase visitors’ ability to understand the significance of tangible and intangible resources in their own lives. They create threads of meaning between the resources, or a path visiting each one.

Crafting an interpretive theme takes care, time, and editing. It often takes several drafts of both the theme and the product for the interpreter to become clear about what to say and how to say it. We’ll delve more deeply into thematic interpretation in the next section.

Case Study

Alibates Flint Quarry National Monument
Selected primary interpretive themes:

  • The broad distribution and long and diverse history of use of Alibates flint (dating almost to the earliest evidence of people in North America), and the story of the Plains Village Culture associated with the area foster appreciation of the surprising richness and sophistication of early cultures.
  • The story of quarrying and using Alibates flint offers unique opportunities to explore the inherent human need to make and use tools to improve the quality of life.
  • The history of people using Alibates flint exemplifies the powerful human drive to combine practical functionality with aesthetic beauty in everything we do – even in crafting common, utilitarian objects.

Use What You Know

The tangible meaning, intangible meaning, and universal concepts surrounding the Mesa Verde corn cob are linked in this theme statement:

The corn represents a community of people with skills, appreciation of beauty, and spiritual beliefs.

Try linking some of your answers together to form theme statements for the corn cob.

Try it Yourself

Based on your links and KA, write a theme statement that links your tangible resource to one or more intangible meanings. Remember that the most compelling interpretive products have themes that tie a tangible resource to a universal concept.

6. Use interpretive methods to develop links into opportunities for connections to meanings. Illustrate the theme statement.

A well-written theme statement allows an interpreter to choose tangible or intangible links that illustrate or express the theme. But by themselves, links don’t provide opportunities for emotional and intellectual connections to the meanings of the resource. Links must be developed into opportunities for connections to meanings in order to present the resource in a compelling and evocative way.

There are many ways to develop a link into an opportunity for an emotional or intellectual connection to the meanings of the resource. Stories, explanations, quotes, activities, demonstrations, examples, evidence, illustrations, questions, and discussions are just some of the methods interpreters use. Success depends on the link, the theme, the interpreter’s KR and KA, style, and the purpose of the interpretive product.

Sam H. Ham, a noted authority on interpretation, suggests an interpretive product develop no more than five main points. This is probably good advice. Five developed links won’t overtax the audience but will provide the interpreter with plenty of material to provide opportunities for emotional and intellectual connections to the meanings of the resource.

Some of the links should be intentionally developed to provide opportunities for emotional connections and some for intellectual connections. An interpreter needs to plan specific opportunities that are intended to inspire or provoke feelings like awe, wonder, sympathy, curiosity, amazement, regret, grief, and anger. Other specific opportunities should provoke insight, understanding of context, discovery, and reveal relationships.

Case Study

Alibates Flint Quarry National Monument

Alibates Flint Quarry National Monument provided an opportunity to form a connection by participating in the release of a brochure "National Parks of Texas" about the wide range of vacation options available in national parks and historic sites state-wide.

The idea for the brochure grew from the realization that many Texans and out of state travelers alike are unaware of the full range of possibilities for fun and learning within the National Park Service sites of Texas.

The free brochure includes descriptions of each park's distinctive attractions. Travel possibilities include investigating 10,000 years of archeology at Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument. The monument can only be viewed by ranger-led guided tours. Groups of twenty-five or less are recommended. The tour involves a leisurely walk up a moderately steep trail that is covered in loose gravel in places. During the two-hour tour, visitors learn about the flora, fauna, and cultural history of the area.

The brochure provides preliminary interpretive material to the public. It draws on the tangible and intangible meanings of the site to draw visitors to learn more through on-site programs.

Use What You Know

Let’s say that a group of senior citizens will attend a special program about agriculture at Mesa Verde. Take the universal concepts and form a theme statement that you think responds to the needs of the audience.

Try it Yourself

Choose and develop tangible/intangible links that illustrate the idea or ideas expressed in your theme statement into opportunities for connecting the audience to the meanings of the resource. Develop those links with information and interpretive methods such as stories, descriptive language, activities, and illustrations. Remember that to be broadly relevant, an interpretive product must provide opportunities for both emotional and intellectual connections to the meanings of the resource.

7. Use a theme statement to organize opportunities for connections and cohesively develop an idea or ideas.

The best way to reveal meaning is through the exploration of an idea. To be relevant and provocative an interpretive product must cohesively develop an idea or ideas over the course of its delivery. A meaningful idea captures, organizes, and sustains the attention of the audience. A meaningful idea provides opportunities for audiences to make their own connections to the meanings of the resource. Without the cohesive development of a relevant idea or ideas, products are merely collections of related information or haphazard arrays of tangible/intangible links—they are not interpretive.

Opportunities for emotional and intellectual connections to the meanings of the resource provide the architecture for a cohesively developed idea or ideas best when sequenced with effective transitions and arranged to support a well-crafted interpretive theme statement. The next section will guide you through identifying and using thematic interpretation.

Case Study

Alibates Flint Quarry National Monument
Selected statements of significance:

  • Alibates flint is a beautiful distinctive, workable, multi-colored stone with excellent edge-holding properties. These characteristics prompted various North American peoples to quarry, shape, and use this stone to construct tools that were critical to survival: projectile points, knives, scrapers, axes, drills, awls, and many others.
  • Alibates Ruin (inside monument boundaries) and the nearby Antelope Creek Site comprise the type-site for the Antelope Creek Phase of the Plains Village Culture (circa A.D. 1150-1500), one of a number of cultures to benefit from the quarries. These sites include architectural remains, petroglyphs, and more than 1.5 million collected objects. This collection comprises about 800,000 of these objects.

Also look at this article, which discusses the history of archeology at the Quarries: Antelope Creek Phase.

Use What You Know

The meanings and thematic statement for the Mesa Verde corn cob can be shaped into interpretive programs for the park. Build on the thematic statement by linking it with a next step:

The corn represents a community of people with skills, appreciation of beauty, and spiritual beliefs. The program illustrates this with a description of agriculture, other skills, and religious practices.

Try it Yourself

What kinds of interpretive opportunities can you organize around the themes and concepts you have identified with your resource?