CFWE's Program Assistant Jennie Geurts
CFWE’s Program Assistant Jennie Geurts

Have you ever walked away from a program – perhaps a campfire talk, or a tour of a water diversion, or even a PowerPoint presentation – feeling inspired, identifying new connections that you had not previously realized, eager to learn more, determined to try new things?

If you have, you have fulfilled every interpreter’s dream. Those reactions are what interpreters hope to inspire in audiences. But how do we achieve this? Although a magic formula remains frustratingly elusive, interpreters have honed some best practices and principles over the years, which may be helpful in your program development. This interpretive series will outline a few of these practices.

Before I came to CFWE, I worked as an interpretive ranger for the National Park Service. I learned interpretive principles recommended by the Interpretive Development Program, and I was certified for guided interpretive programs. I later applied the principles I’d learned to my graduate work, writing interpretive labels for museums. The interpretive practices I learned were certainly not limited to the NPS, and can be applied to any number of interpretive activities, from classroom presentations to outdoor education to tours of specific sites.

Interpretive practices can easily be applied to water topics. Many educators and interpreters already use these principles, whether knowingly or unknowingly.

Interpreters seek to facilitate a connection between the audience and a resource, revealing different meanings associated with the resource. For CFWE, the resource is, of course, water. Individuals will identify different meanings in water, but as interpreters we strive to provide access to these meanings, and to raise awareness of other connections.

The field of interpretation owes an immense debt to Freeman Tilden and his 1957 book Interpreting Our Heritage. Tilden outlined six principles of interpretation, and I have always found the fourth principle to be the most important for an interpreter to remember:

“The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.”

As interpreters, we often ache to share as much information as possible. We come to presentations with a vast body of background knowledge that we wish to impart. We have passion for our cause and a desire to share this fervor and inspire it in others. This might lead us to rail against our time limits – how is an hour adequate time? How can we possibly provide enough information? We have so much more to tell!

If you have ever faced this problem, take comfort from Tilden’s fourth principle. No matter what the topic, no matter what the allotted time, we cannot cover everything – and this should not be the goal. Rather, we should seek to provoke our audience members, to inspire them to learn more about the subject on their own. Interpretation, done well, can illuminate unsuspected connections, provide new insights, and help listeners think of subjects in new ways.

Similarly, this series will not be comprehensive. Interpretation is too rich a field to hope to condense into a few blog posts. But I hope that this series will inspire you to learn more about interpretation best practices, and to seek out new resources that might help you improve your programs.

Watch for more topics in this series, under the heading Make Water Provocative.

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4 thoughts on “Make Water Provocative: A Series on Interpretation

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