We have just returned from an excellent Interpret Europe Conference in Sigtuna, Sweden, with about 165 colleagues from 40 nations. I am mulling over the ideas than ran through the presentations. “Be a facilitator,” certainly seemed to be one of the consistent messages. Excellent keynotes by Ted Cable, Mette Knudsen, Poul Seidler and James Carter were especially thought provoking.
I think of the many titles under which interpreters work – naturalist (expert), historian (expert), presenter (communicator), ranger (problem solver), guide (expert communicator), visitor information specialist (expert) and program specialist (communicator). In most cases we are doing the same kinds of work but the title makes us sound tilted one direction or another. Most organizations seem to value titles that set us up as content experts, information specialists and people with answers. And yet we know that good interpretation is much more than giving information.
Despite the titles, we might well be ahead to think of ourselves as “the question people,” not “the answer people.” Mette and Poul emphasized the value of an interpreter being not in front of or beside those with whom we work, but behind them. We facilitate experiences by helping others understand the world and stories through our questions. “What do you find here of value? What do you see? How would you like to explore this place? What should we do here?”
Sam Ham gave a great presentation at the Nordic-Baltic Seminar at the Swedish Centre for Nature Interpretation just before the Interpret Europe Conference. He described the transitions in the field from didactic approaches, being experts giving information, to being entertaining presenters with no other purpose than to keep people engaged, to being true interpreters, facilitating self-discovery of the visitors’ own thoughts and meanings about a place or story. Research suggests that effective interpretation gets people to think more deeply, having internal conversations and discussions with others about what we encounter. When interpreters simply tell visitors what they are seeing, the visitors may or may not really be thinking about the subject. Interpreters who ask a question that invites visitors to explore, think, process and remember engage their visitors’ minds. Few people are given the title “facilitator,” but facilitation is what helps others find answers for themselves that endure, enlighten and grow.
Dictionaries suggest that “to facilitate” is to “make easier,” but interpretation’s aim is not necessarily to make things easier, for the interpreter or the visitor. Perhaps interpreters even make experiences with nature and culture more challenging, to understand, to plunge into the depths of our minds with new ideas, unanswered questions and the desire to learn through exploration. Simply naming things and being experts is certainly easier than thinking about the use of powerful themes, asking questions that provoke people to think and planning experiences that create lasting engagement. But facilitation of heritage experiences is likely better for everyone when the interpreter chooses not to be just an expert. The challenge is to ask the right questions and place people in situations where they will start conversations with themselves and each other.
Lisa and I want to thank the keynoters named above and Patrick and Bettina Lehnes of Interpret Europe for facilitating a thoughtful conference with friends and colleagues from all over the world. The entire group challenged us to think more about heritage interpretation, always a good thing to do.
– Tim Merriman