Every now and then, I hear or see discussions of storytelling as being roughly equivalent to natural and cultural heritage interpretation. Certainly some interpreters use stories to help others understand places, people and
events. Conversely, some storytellers use an interpretive approach to enrich their work. But I don’t think that storytelling and interpretation are exactly the same thing.
Interpretation is defined by National Association for Interpretation (NAI) in the United States as:
A mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and meanings inherent in the resource.
Association for Heritage Interpretation (AHI) in the United Kingdom has the following to say about the work of interpreters:
We bring places, objects and ideas to life. We create thought-provoking and memorable experiences for visitors, and connect people with our natural and cultural heritage. We reveal hidden stories and meanings, so deepening people’s understanding and expanding horizons.
Both statements emphasize making connections and revealing meanings by the use of varied media. The AHI description mentions stories not to define interpretation, but as part of a process to design memorable experiences.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives these definitions for storyteller:
a : a relater of anecdotes
b : a reciter of tales (as in a children’s library)
d : a writer of stories
Telling stories has a rich history of double meanings. Some people tell stories for a purpose, some to entertain and some to mislead. Interpretation has broad meanings outside of the heritage interpretation field and some of those seem to be less than honest, such as dream interpretation or reading palms.
Wikipedia suggests that:
Storytelling is the conveying of events in words, images, and sounds, often by improvisation or embellishment. Stories or narratives have been shared in every culture as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation, and to instill moral values.
I don’t want to take anything away from storytelling. As a novelist, I enjoy spinning a story out of thin air, and as an interpreter, I enjoy helping people understand the depth behind a person, place, or thing by sharing relevant stories through a variety of media. Perhaps it’s the use of the word “story” that confuses the issue. In interpretation, we certainly talk about using “stories,” but perhaps we should be using the word “meanings” instead to avoid confusion with the process of storytelling.
In heritage interpretation we reveal meanings with a purpose, to help people understand people, places and events. We encourage an attitude shift. We want them to connect with and care more about the resource, place or event. Ideally they then become advocates, donate money or behave in more thoughtful ways. Motivation matters very much in storytelling also. Storytelling encompasses a broad variety of motivations, including deception, entertainment and self-improvement. Interpretive storytellers likely have similar motivations to other heritage interpreters, but use storytelling as their preferred medium.
We will keep using storytelling as a useful approach to interpreting people, places and events, but recognize it is only one of a variety of communication options that help people understand the world around them. We always hope that a deeper understanding leads to a desire to better care for natural and cultural heritage or provide more support for scientific research and exploration.