How To Connect Hearts And Minds To Places, Objects, And Other Resources
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—Tanaka Shozo


Journal Questions:

What do you hope your audiences will care about? Be specific.

What do you hope your audiences will care about?

"The ideas of plantation life. The value and curse of tradition. The concept of slavery."

"Respect for evolutionary process over space and time. The refuge concept."

"That the Spanish developed this country as much as the British."

"Aquatic habitat, mussels, pollution, wolves, trees, endangered species, biodiversity, watershed development, fish, birds."

"I'd like to think they will care about the prairie as a diverse ecosystem rather than a place with boring scenery."

"The ideas and influences that created our democratic republic."

"Natural and cultural features and landscapes. The people before us who carried torches which we should pass on. Torches such as: work ethics, love of country, freedom, and tolerance."

"The little people in history just as much as the big ones."

"The canyon, rocks, river, wildlife, plants, structures, ecosystem, biodiversity, wilderness, geologic/deep time, beauty, human harmony with nature."

"The end of the Civil War as a new beginning."

"Totems, natural environment and systems, stories, lessons, meanings, how we treat each other, how we value diversity of nature, faith, opinion, culture."

"I want them to care about places where deep connections with the world and its various people are possible."

"Preserving the Delta's natural process to preserve culture and heritage."

—Barry Lopez

Watch Part 4 of the video, Care about...Care for.

What Interpretation Does

Interpretation helps audiences think and feel differently. It does not provide answers, it poses questions. It does not teach, it offers opportunities. Interpretation does not educate, it provokes increasingly sophisticated appreciation, understanding, and a more generous perspective toward the multiple meanings of a given place. Interpretation does not tell people how it is, it reveals personal significance. Interpretation strives to establish a relationship of care.

Tanaka Shozo, an eminent Nineteenth Century Japanese statesman and conservationist stated it well. "The care of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart." In one sense, Shozo uses the word care in terms of care for. This is the work of conservation professionals like interpreters, resource managers, law enforcement personal, and others, who care for the resource in tangible ways.

But Shozo suggests that care is not exclusive to the tangible resource, rather it is "of the human heart." In this way, Shozo uses the word in terms of care about. How can anyone come to support care for the tangible resource unless they first come to care about the resource?

He describes interpretation's desired outcome. Interpreters facilitate connections between the interests of the visitor and the meanings of the resource by providing opportunities for personal emotional and intellectual connections.

When it works, the result is an elevated level of care about the resource. Audience members, according to the circumstances of their lives, may or may not actively participate in the care for the resource. Their caring may take a long time and may manifest in another location. But interpreters make stewardship possible. Interpretation assists the first step: caring about.

An Enduring Failure
David L. Larsen, National Park Service

Tanaka Shozo is virtually unknown in the western world. There's only one biography about him in English. [1] Yet even if the roughest outline of his life is accurate, Shozo's devotion and behavior amaze. From a country seemingly far away and a time long ago, Tanaka Shozo's issues and actions are, for many today. surprisingly relevant, and his words remarkably pertinent.

He was a politician and an idealist. Born a peasant in 1841, he served in various local positions until Japan adopted a written constitution. In 1891, Shozo was elected to the national parliament. Kenneth Strong, his biographer, suggests that at this point in his life, Shozo believed deeply in three things, "... the efficacy of representative justice, the importance of a formal constitution to underwrite those institutions, and the benevolence of the Emperor." [2]

Tanaka Shozo

Shozo wanted the government to protect the people of the Shimotsuke Plain and the River Waterase. In the early 1880s, the Ashio copper mining industry began a massive operation in the Nasu Mountains. The ecological effect was devastating. The mines denuded the mountain's forests and dumped ore waste into ravines and streams that fed the river. Heavy rains picked up poison and seasonally flooded the Shimotsuke Plain.

The river turned bright blue. Fish, rice, potato plants, and trees died. Red swellings appeared on peoples' feet and many contracted eye diseases and went blind. By 1896, approximately fifty-thousand acres and half a million people were affected by the pollution and the resulting famine.

Using his political position to protest, he gave speeches, wrote articles, gathered petitions, offered legislation, and led demonstrations. At first the mining company ignored Shozo and his constituents. Later, they denied the pollution. Mine executives and many in government used their power to discredit Shozo as a crank and branded others who objected as unpatriotic — a serious charge in days of war with China and later Russia. The Ashio copper mines were critical to military success and were a source of great export and financial gain in peacetime. The power of the mines was too great, and the government was complicit For twenty years Shozo fought the combination and failed. [3]

But he never gave up. Often alone and ridiculed Shozo was obstinate. He refused to let the government forget that the people and the land were suffering. He once appealed to the legislature. "If you cannot cut off the poison at its source; if you cannot cleanse the waters of our river; if you cannot restore fertility to our land; if you cannot protect our lives; then murder us, your loyal subjects." Shozo saw a connection between the land, the people, and the government. To him, if one did not function, all suffered. He often said, "To kill the people is to kill the nation." [4]

Shozo eventually lost faith in politics. In October 1901, he resigned his office.

On December 10, Shozo watched the Emperor's carriage travel to the palace. Dressed in a black kimono and wearing no shoes, Shozo rushed the vehicle holding a paper high in his hand. He shouted, "Petition to the Emperor! Petition to the Emperor!" Shozo expected to be killed, but also hoped his cause would be addressed. A mounted officer saw him coming and blocked the way. Shozo, the officer, and the horse fell to the pavement Shozo was declared a madman by authorities, but freed the next morning. The country fixated on the audacity of his action, rather than on his cause. At the moment of Shozo's most complete devotion and sacrifice, once again he failed. [5]

But Shozo continued to work for change. He decided that being with the people and serving them was more valuable than the exercise of power. "While I played politics," he wrote, "the people died." [6]

Specifically, Shozo associated himself with the people of Yanaka. The government wanted Yanaka to become a reservoir for polluted water that would otherwise flood the entire plain. The people were to be evicted with little compensation or respect for their traditions and the graves of their ancestors. Shozo lived with, shared the poverty of, and advocated for the people of Yanaka — even as the government destroyed their homes. [7]

Shozo also devoted himself to "chisan chisui," or the "care of mountain and rivers." He took lengthy and solitary excursions to study and record the river's flow and describe its relationship to the mountains, forests, and seasons. He understood the environment as a system rather than a series of places.

Shozo claimed the land could not be restored and therefore the people could not be helped unless the river was seen in the context of its relationships. Hoping to educate and effect change, he organized public meetings and classes in which he extolled "The care of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart." [8]

Shozo died on September 4, 1913, and 30,000 people attended his funeral. There was something about the man and his message that inspired — the connection of earth and people, the human obligation to nature, the moral obligation of government to the people and nature — and Shozo's devotion to these principles that provoked and endured. In 1953, a shrine honoring his life was built in the wasteland that had once been Yanaka.

When thinking of Shozo, some might be reminded of John Muir, a contemporary who fought similar battles in the United States. Others might think of the sacrifice of Mahatma Gandhi or the devotion and tenacity of David Brower. Perhaps we don't know enough of Shozo to measure him, but it is striking how many of Shozo's issues, statements, beliefs, and actions resonate today

Questions of power, human relationship with the environment, tactics to effect change, and the responsibility of government challenge all of us. A voice for stewardship almost lost in the tumultuous rise of industrial Japan and still undiscovered in the West, Tanaka Shozo's struggle and sacrifice provoke deeper reflection on how people relate to each other and the natural world.


2IBID. 17-43; 41.

3IBID. 65-98.

4IBID. 114; 119.

5IBID. 128-140.

6IBID. 137.

7IBID. 150-180.

8IBID. 81-197; 183.

Journal Questions:

How did you come to care about the resource you care for now? Be specific.

How did you come to care about the resource you care for now?

"I first came to care for the fort as part of my job. Then, as I learned the stories, I came to care about it. When I realized the people who lived in the past were like us now, I came to see the fort as a representation of those people."

"I got up really early to hike. I wanted to feel and see the canyon in silence, and I did until someone started yodeling over the rim. Then I understood about all the silence stuff I'd been hearing about."

"Through personal contact and immersion with the place. A multiplicity of ah-ha moments — like hearing a bald eagle's wing whoosh in the misty dawn stillness of a river morning as it took flight from twenty feet away."

"More than being told it was special, I needed to discover it on my own."

"Learning about places helped me care. As a child, my family took me to great places. They gave me wonderful experiences in natural and cultural places that made me feel bigger than just me. I liked that feeling. I have made it a life-long passion to learn and see more. The more I know, the more I care."

"During a personal experience in the backcountry. Out of the cabin window the sun set with glowing colors and streaked the sky. I felt a part of where I was rather than a stranger in a strange land."

"During an archeologist's lecture, the landscape became a living thing, not just a bunch of isolated things or sites. It wasn't just the information he gave, but the passion too. It was a born-again moment for me. I saw my resource differently and started caring for, it re-energized me!"

"I cared for the resources first. Through immersion and understanding I came to care about them. Resource meanings revealed make them more special. My resource is in a living city full of ethnic neighborhoods. Walking the streets — seeing the people, talking with them, eating in their restaurants, worshiping in their churches, shopping in their shops, this made them real to me. I also researched to learn about their personal histories — why they are here or were here — triumphs, problems. I learned who built the buildings and why — it is a living place that speaks to me when I am there — architecture, music, smells — it's alive."

— Alan Gussow, A Sense Of Place

Too Many Interpretations

Interpretation is a young profession in the process of defining its purpose, standards, and language. One of interpretation's problems is that there are too many interpretations of interpretation.

Most interpreters have the best of intentions, but for many personal style, preference, habit, and day-to-day work realities can too easily eclipse the purpose of interpretation.

On the following page are common interpretive caricatures. Each captures elements of how some resource professionals approach the work. Successful interpretation relies on aspects of all of them. Individual interpretive programs, depending on audience and circumstances will appropriately favor one caricature's characteristics over the others. Yet each following description goes too far and distorts interpretation. All of the caricatures have a purpose other than that of helping audiences make personal connections. They ignore, block, distract from, or manipulate resource meanings.

  • Presents multiple points of fact
  • Honestly presents the facts and nothing but the facts
  • Provides great detail to the facts
  • Believes the audience is only interested in information
  • Encourages factual dialogue
  • Allows the audience to maintain their own perspective, as long as it's factual

Information by itself has little significance to the majority of visitors who don't understand a subject's broader meanings and context. If audiences were simply seeking knowledge, most would have little reason to experience the site at all. Interpredata usually fails to help the audience make personal connections to the resource. All successful interpretation is built on accurate and comprehensive information, but like science, history, and anthropology, it uses information to say something meaningful.

  • Stereotypes multiple points of view for effect
  • Arranges facts around a punch line
  • Oversimplifies
  • Comes from a perspective that believes the audience isn't truly interested in the meaning of the resource
  • Allows dialogue only when it's shallow and contributes to the entertainment value of the show
  • Doesn't care what the audience thinks, just how it reacts to the material

This perspective is satisfied with a pleasant visitor experience and values interpretation primarily because it's entertaining. Certainly good interpretation engages attention and connects to audience interests, but interpretainment warps the concept. Interpretainment ignores the authentic and places the resource in the same arena with amusement parks. The result is a memorable personality or media presentation that eclipses and fails to connect the audience to the resource itself.

  • Ignores multiple points of view
  • Dishonestly skews facts towards a foregone conclusion
  • Oversimplifies facts
  • Believes the audience is ignorant
  • Communicates in one direction by discouraging dialogue
  • Attempts to force the audience to see only one perspective

Audiences usually know when they are being told how to think, and don't like it. Interpreganda is most effective for visitors that already share the stated point of view. Interpreters need to say something significant about their places, but proselytizing can do damage. An often well intentioned and passionate insistence on a single perspective is manipulative, didactic, and fails to provide broader relevance, and — the audience is not connected to the resource.

  • Presents multiple points of view, but includes a correct answer
  • Uses facts that support learning objectives
  • Believes retention of information is most important
  • Comes from the perspective the audience needs to learn
  • Encourages dialogue, but guides conversation toward what the audience should know
  • Assumes that once the audience knows enough, they will agree

While education and interpretation are related and often overlap, there are significant differences between the two. Educational goals are usually directed at the acquisition of knowledge and skill. Interpretation should support those goals. Partnerships connect resources with schools, elder-hostels, scout, and religious groups. These institutions have long-term influence over learning and potentially powerful and beneficial effects on the resource. However, interpretation isn't measured by a test of knowledge at the program's end. Interpretation facilitates an opportunity for the audience to make their own connection to meaning.*

*Bob Roney created the terms, Interpredata, Interpretainment Interpreganda, and their descriptions.


Do you see patterns in these descriptions? Draft a set of bullets describing effective interpretation that facilitates a connection between the meanings of the resource and the interests of the visitors.


Here is one way that successful interpretation might be described.

  • Presents multiple points of view

  • Honestly presents information that leads the audience to personal revelation

  • Isn't afraid of complexity

  • Treats the audience as intelligent

  • Encourages dialogue

  • Allows audiences to express and maintain their own perspectives

The profession of interpretation has an important and individual responsibility. Interpretation is influenced by science, history, anthropology, environmental education, museum studies, and other fields. But it has its own role.

Interpretation provokes the discovery of personal meaning, connection, and care about the resource. Interpretation also facilitates democracy. It allows for and stimulates a conversation of multiple meanings and points of view. Interpretation encourages audiences to find themselves in the resource as well as engage, comprehend, and appreciate the perspectives of others.

park visitors

Journal Questions:

When you interpret, are you trying to get people to learn? Are you trying to entertain? Are you trying to get people to think the way you do? What is your purpose?

When you interpret, what is your purpose?

"I want people to learn, and yes, I try to entertain. My purpose is to open peoples' eyes to a part of American history that is not covered in books, instead of deciding on themes, goals, and objectives (interpreter driven), I look for meanings to which the visitor can connect (visitor-driven interpretation)."

"Sometimes, I do want to make people less racist, more open and liberal. But it is hard to allow people to have their own thoughts, especially when I find them extremely offensive."

"If I don't have a gold to relay information or a message, what am I doing? Yes, my goal is to tell them something about the place, but I want them to form a connection during that presentation — the two cannot be separated."

"I try to get visitors to value the resource by suggesting significance, rather than by providing opportunities for connection. I've been mistakenly telling them meaning, instead of allowing them to find meaning."

"I probably lean towards encouraging learning because I see understanding coming from learning, and caring coming from understanding. I need to work on developing opportunities for visitors to make their own connections in their own ways."

"I want people to move beyond their prejudices and get a different perspective."

"I think at times I may try to entertain, teach, and get people to think like me. But most of all I wish to let visitors see the multiple layers of history and culture in the resource."

"It can no longer be about me delivering a talk. If a tree falls in the forest, and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? No, eardrums are required. If an interpreter gives a program and it doesn't impact the hearts of the audience, it hasn't made a sound."

"Like the empty spaces in an atom's outer ring, I want to provide intellectual, emotional, and potentially spiritual nodes to which the audience can connect."


Choose an interpretive program or product and honestly analyze its goals or intended outcomes. Is the primary emphasis helping audiences care about the place or is it more important they retain certain information?

park interpreter

—Pablo Casals

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Last Updated: 29-May-2008

Meaningful Interpretation
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