Interpretation for Archeologists   4. Tools For Interpreters   Distance Learning

Interpreting Critical Issues

Critical issues involve particularly sticky or challenging aspects of managing tangible and intangible resources. While the critical issue itself is intangible, it involves tangible resources. Interpretation of critical issues is a powerful tool for engaging audiences in caring about archeological resources, because it communicates the issues that affect or will impact archeological resources and the landscapes around them. It can also be a moment to impart the essential need for the public's help in archeological resource stewardship.

Components of an interpretive product about a critical issues include:

  • A place or resource that illustrates the issue
  • Connection between the issue and resource management
  • Discussion of actions, including management options
  • Multiple perspectives about how to handle the issue
  • Exploration of consequences of action or inaction
  • Discussion of stewardship
  • Opportunities for the public to take action.

In the section on thematic interpretation, you learned the difference between a subject (ex.: Chinese porcelain teapot) and a theme (ex.: Chinese porcelain teapots were a centerpiece in wealthy colonists' tea settings.). Keep thematic interpretation in mind as you craft your interpretation of a critical issue.

Try It Yourself

Choose a critical issue for practice in this section.

What is the critical issue?
Critical resource issues are intangible resources that touch on tangible resources and park values. Unique character, loss, inequality, beauty, and rarity are examples of intangible resources that critical resource interpretation can explore. For example, interpretation of an archeological site might convey the unique snapshot in time that it preserves. Critical issues can also be complex challenges, such as climate change or looting. Choose a critical issue that is relevant and that visitors can immediately grasp its significance while in the park.

Why do you want the audience to know about the issue?
Establish the purpose behind interpreting a critical issue. Identify the motivations behind the interpretive product, especially in terms of how it might support the NPS mission, the park's mission, and the park's interpretive goals. Note, too, that critical issues can bring people together towards a common cause. They can also be controversial. Before you embark upon interpreting a critical issue, consider what might be gained or lost.

What is the most important issue or message that needs to be conveyed?
Critical issues are complex and can be difficult to interpret because of the overwhelming amount to say. Identify the single most important takeaway. What is the soundbite that you want audiences not to miss? Identify the interpretive techniques that help you to impress the takeaway upon your audience.

What is the most appropriate audience that needs to be reached with the message?
Decide how broadly or narrowly to target an audience with particular interpretive devices and topics. Broad-scale issues, such as the relevance of archeology to modern life, may require getting the message out to large, diverse audiences. Specific issues, such as the damage inflicted on archeological resources by local weekend recreationalists, may be most effective through a localized scope.

What is the desired effect of interpreting the issue?
Describe the intellectual and emotional effects you want audiences to gain from learning about the critical issue. Consider how various audiences might respond differently to the critical issue. Think about ways to reinforce the message beyond the immediate interpretive product, in other venues within the park and its website.

Where can you take the audience, and what can you show them, that will impress the critical issue upon them?
Identify settings for interpreting the critical issue, or media that will show the critical issue. Consider resources that illustrate before and after, consequences, or impacts and effects.

For Your Information

Interpreting Critical Issues (NPS Common Learning Portal)
Explore dialogic approaches to communicating critical issues, such as diversity or climate change.

Case Study

Looting at Petersburg National Battlefield is a critical issue. In its public statement, the park outlined the problem, the resources affected and the significance of the issue.

MJB/EJL