One of the most commonly quoted characteristics of interpretation is “enjoyable.” Sam Ham was one of the first to mention this term as a trait of what he calls the “interpretive approach to communication.” This makes sense to me – after all, if people are in a leisure setting and have chosen to be there, they can just as easily choose not to be there if they are not enjoying the experience. But I believe there is a subtlety that some interpreters may miss if they focus on the usual connotation of the word “enjoyable.” Webster defines it as “giving delight or pleasure” and I’m not sure that’s entirely what Sam Ham and others mean when they use the term related to interpretation.
Certainly, there are topics and places to be interpreted that are not delightful or pleasurable . . . stories of war, genocide, destruction of homes and property by fires or floods caused by human carelessness or natural events are just a few examples of important stories that can or should be interpreted at an appropriate place and time for the appropriate audience. But one would be hard pressed to call immersion in such stories “enjoyable.”
Recently, I’ve spent time in two such places – the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the Kigali Memorial Centre in Rwanda. These museums have horrific, but important, stories to share. They both do it masterfully. And while I can’t say I enjoyed the experience at either location, I was completely engaged at both places. The stories and the compelling ways in which they were told, using a variety of media that was often simultaneously subtle and dramatically direct, were gripping. I’ve been haunted by both ever since, stimulated to learn more about the circumstances and the people involved. This is interpretation at its finest, engaging the audience in ways that keep the message (in this case, remarkably similar in both places) in the forefront of the minds and hearts of those who go through the interpretive experience.
There’s nothing wrong with using the term “enjoyable,” as long as interpreters and interpretive planners understand that the term encompasses more emotions than pleasure and delight. “Enjoyable” speaks to getting the right side of the brain involved in the experience to provide the necessary context for information to land and stimulate further thought or action. At least, that’s the way I’ve always thought of the term, but I’m aware that for some more literal-minded folks, the use of the term “enjoyable” locks them into feeling they must leave their audiences smiling rather than feeling whatever the audience chooses to feel. I’ve heard planners suggest that there must be a big “wow” factor that involves either an awesome building or some sort of expensive, high-tech media to light people up. Interpreters sometimes turn even the most serious of subjects into a series of slick comments and double-entendres designed to lighten the mood. While these may be the best approaches in some cases, they should not be relied on to substitute for finding more engaging ways to share the substance of great stories.
For that reason, “engaging” is the term we use in our HEART planning model for communities, businesses, and interpretive sites to emphasize the importance of developing appropriate communication strategies that accomplish stated objectives. To learn more about the HEART model and how it can be used to engage people in the stories of your community, business or interpretive site, we hope you’ll enjoy our recently published book, “Put the HEART Back into your Community: Unifying Diverse Interests around a Central Theme.”
– Lisa Brochu