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Fulfilling the NPS Mission 101
Informal Visitor Contacts 102
Interpretive Talk 103
Conducted Activity 210
Interpretive Demonstration 220
Interpretive Writing 230
Curriculum-based Program 270
Planning Park Interpretation 310
Interpretive Media Development 311
Leaning Interpreters 330
Interpretive Research
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Resource for Module 101

Module 101 --Fulfilling the NPS Mission
Component: What Interpretation Is
Sample Lesson Plan

David L. Larsen
January, 1997

Introduction: 5 Minutes - Lecture

- Tell the group what is to be presented is offered as a tool. This model does not measure interpretation, nor is it a "how to." Tools such as "Themes, Goals, Objectives," are separate and very important. This model attempts to describe effective interpretive products. Learners are welcome to use or not use this tool as they see fit.

- Ask participants to "forget" their own descriptions of interpretation for the duration of the session and "try this one on for size."

Role of Interpretation: 20 Minutes - Directed Discussion

1. - Ask "Why do we have parks at all?" Should receive a variety of responses such as - "To preserve our heritage," "Because they have national significance," "Because they are special." Instructor should validate these responses, but challenge participants to go for the even more fundamental reason - that all parks have meanings.

- Reveal flipchart - "Resource: Possesses Meanings and has Relevance."

- Point out plural in meanings. Ask, "Does any given park mean the same thing to all people?" The group will say no.

- Are those meanings attached to or inherent in the place? Do those meanings transcend the place? What does the place have to do with the meanings? Abraham Lincoln said it best in the Gettysburg Address:"But in a larger sense we can not dedicate--we can not consecrate--we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here."

- One could say, according to Lincoln, Gettysburg could be paved and the sacrifice, tragedy, heroism, and valor of the men who served there--the meanings of the place--would not change a bit. Ask "Why then save the place?"

- Resources are icons, portals, platforms, wormholes, tangible places that help people connect to larger meanings. One might read all about a battlefield or all about an ecosystem but will have a singularly different experience when visiting the resource.

2. - Ask, "Why do people come to parks?" Again, will receive a variety of responses that represent a continuum of motivations from those seeking entertainment to those on a pilgrimage. It should be relatively simple to validate each and steer to the common definition that the visitor is seeking something of value for themselves.

- Reveal flipchart - "Visitor: Seeking something of Value for Themselves--Entertainment to the Sublime."

3. - Ask, "What is the job of interpretation?" Participants will most likely respond, "To connect the two."

- Reveal flipchart - "Interpretation: Facilitates a Connection between the Interests of the Visitor and the Meanings of the Resource."

- Ask, "Do you really believe that?"

- The statement means three things:

- The visitor is sovereign. To be effective, the interpreter must meet the visitor on their own terms.
- Meanings are more important than information. Interpreters use information to reveal meanings, but it is not the goal of interpretation to fill the visitor's mind with information, facts, or detail. Interpretation is successful if, no matter the depth of information provided, the visitor finds significant meaning in the resource.
- Interpreters must be able to subordinate their own passion and understandings of the resource so that visitors can form their own passion and understanding.

- This statement describes the role of interpretation in preservation.

- When a connection between the interests of the visitor and the meanings of the resource is made, care for the resource is cultivated. Visitors must come to care about a resource before they choose to support its preservation. The implication is that if an interpreter preaches preservation without first facilitating a connection between the resource and the visitor, most likely the effort will fail.

(Note: As learners discuss interpretation or programs that rely primarily on information or their own point of view, it is helpful to remind them that the role of interpretation is to connect the visitor to the resource--and that this occurs on the terms of the visitor. The instructor may want to post the three flipchart pages as a reminder.)

Preserving Tangible and Intangible Resources: 10 minutes - Brainstorm, Directed Discussion, Lecture

1. - Ask, "What do we preserve?"

- Place contributions on one of two flipcharts. Tangibles should go on one and intangibles on the other. Encourage the list to be quite varied including specific things from a given resource all the way to general ideas and values. Some items may fit best on both charts. For example, "wilderness" might represent a specific place but also represents an idea. The point is, don't get hung up on semantics--its an easy trap to fall into. Let people make definitions that are comfortable for them.

2. - Ask, "What's the difference between these two charts?" Of course the answer will be tangibles and intangibles.

- Tell them that all of interpretation is right there. All of interpretation is taking a tangible resource and connecting it to its broader meanings or intangible resources.

- When we take a tangible thing, we have an opening or portal for meaning. If we connect that thing to an intangible resource, we begin to illuminate the relevance of the thing.

3. - Draw a horizontal line (x axis) on the flipchart and label it "Tangible: Information, Narrative, Chronology"

- Ask, "How many interpretive programs stay on this line?" Can use the example of living history, full of vibrant tangibles, but often gets bogged down in the description of buttons and stitch counts. Can also use the metaphor of blueprints - full of important information, but will move the soul of very few people.

4. - Draw a vertical line (y axis) to the horizontal line and label it "Intangible: Meanings"

- How many interpretive programs stay on this line, full of abstractions and/or emotions that don't connect to the tangible resource? Can use the example abstract art--again, speaks to a minority of people.

- Good interpretation requires these to be linked -- can't effectively have one without the other. The tangible/information provides the hook and the foundation while the intangible/meanings provide the relevance and source for care.

5. - Ask, "Can you think of any examples of tangible/intangible links?" Monuments are excellent examples, so are obvious geologic features. Just cull out or point out a few to gauge comprehension and begin to deepen the concept.

Model: 5 Minutes

- Present a short interpretive model that clearly illustrates tangible/intangible linkages. The model could be a talk, but might be a piece of interpretive media. Short and clear is best when introducing the concept.

Graph: 10 Minutes - Directed Discussion, Lecture

1. - Have participants identify the tangible used in the model. It is easy to get confused and focus on tangibles that are used as interpretive tools or techniques rather than as the platform or icon of the product. Have participants identify the intangibles they experienced in the product.

2. - Show pre-drawn chart for interpretive model. Make sure it is simple and clear. Describe how the chart assumes the interpretive product is reaching for a cumulative effect on the audience. The horizontal axis should be marked "Tangible: Information, Chronology, Narrative" as well as "Time." The vertical axis should be marked "Intangible: Meanings" as well as "Relevance to the Audience." Emphasize the chart describes interpretive product--it does not measure product, nor does it take the place of the tools and techniques required to develop product. This graph is useful for developing interpretive products only in that it helps describe the vision of the interpreter. The interpretive product and graph should grow and change as the product is developed.

3. - Ask audience to describe theme. Some might come close, but certainly will have a variety of answers. Ask if the imprecision of answers mean the theme has failed. Most likely, the participants will answer "no." Why then have themes? Themes are tools, like many other tools, needed to develop products. Successful products do not obviously reveal the tools that make them successful.

4. - Describe how the audience each could have a graph that plots their reaction to the interpretive product. Emphasize that differences in charts are not important, as long as audience members were connected to the meanings of the resource.

5. - Emphasize that other graphs or graphics might also describe successful interpretation. A wheel whose hub is labeled Tangible; whose tire is labeled Intangible; and whose spokes are labeled Information and Techniques; might also work.

6. - Make the following points:

- Don't get hung up on the words. They don't have to be defined precisely. They are meant to be useful tools, not rules. Some synonyms: things/big ideas, real/conceptual, symbols/meanings, stuff/glue.

- Technically tangible describes something that is three dimensional. However, one dictionary definition of tangible states, "Capable of being exactly comprehended." There are many stories, objects, people from the past, pieces of information, which are able to be comprehended without having the tangible or physical presence actually there. These intangibles can be used in tangible ways.

- Tangible and intangible are two groupings for the specific resources at a given site. Good interpretation will require the learner to identify those resources.

Practice: 5 Minutes - Brainstorm

- Have group brainstorm the "meanings" of an ordinary object like a beer bottle. Encourage as many different meanings and points of view as possible.

Universal Concepts: 10 Minutes - Directed Discussion, Lecture

1. - Ask, "Are all tangible/intangible linkages equally effective? Do all linkages have the same power for the same people?" They will likely answer "no." Ask why and try to direct the discussion to the differences between links that lead to further information, and those that lead to something more broadly meaningful.

- An example might be helpful. A pottery shard can represent the entire system of archeology or the entire culture of a people--or both--depending on how the interpreter uses it.

- Some intangibles are more relevant to more people than others.

2. - Introduce Universal Concepts. Universal Concepts are intangibles that relate to almost everyone in some way. Family is an excellent example. Family means different things to almost everyone, but family still is a relevant concept to almost everyone. An example of a universal concept from the previous model product would be most effective here.

3. - Have participants list additional universal concepts. Discuss them and place them on the flipchart as they are suggested. Make sure some challenging ones like God are included.

- Again, make point that the actual categorization of universals should not be argued over at this point. Each interpreter is free to have their own list of universal concepts--some will simply be more effective than others. At this point, arguing over categorization will distract from understanding that some concepts are more relevant to more people than others.

4. Describe Tilden's principle regarding the need for relevance. Describe "little r" relevance where the interpreter refers to some commonly understood object or place in order to communicate more effectively. Encourage this as an interpretive technique. Then describe "Big R" relevance as being the universal concepts described above. This level of relevance is what Tilden refers to and is laden with meaning.

5. Suggest participants make lists of tangibles, intangibles, and universal concepts at their own resource. These lists can be used during research and site exploration to cultivate ideas for interpretive products. When the interpreter finds meaning in the resource, they must simply identify the tangibles, intangibles, and universal concepts associated with that discovery. A couple of examples illustrating this might be helpful.

Objects Exercise - 20-30 Minutes - Small Groups

- Divide into small groups and give each an object. Have them discuss and identify the tangible/intangible linkages and possible universal concepts for that object.

- Have the groups report back and open discussion for additional ideas and linkages.


- Verbally make the assignment and pass out the following.

Tangible/Intangible Linkages: Assignment

- Choose a tangible object that somehow represents you resource. It might be easiest to focus on a specific object like a seed or a tree rather than a forest.

- Write down what that object is.

- Identify six linkages that object has to the intangible resources at your site. At least two of them should be universal concepts. Your assignment can be typed or handwritten and should be lengthy enough to communicate the linkages. Some linkages will be very obvious and will be understood with a word or two. Others may take greater description. The whole assignment should not take more than two pages--probably much less. PLEASE DO NOT WRITE DOWN A TALK OR PROGRAM.

Conclusion - 2 Minutes - Lecture

- Develop a conclusion that focusses back on the role of interpretation, meanings, or preservation.

Last website update:April 8, 1999

Editor: STMA Training Manager Interpretation

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