The Ethics of Interpretation – Choosing to make a difference

There are 33 elephants a day poached in Tanzania, a chilling indication of the threat to the survival of elephants.
There are 33 elephants a day poached in Tanzania, a chilling indication of the threat to the survival of elephants.

A friend and colleague in Panama recently posted a question that caused me to think more deeply about a conservation issue. It seems a private zoo owner had attempted to move about ten percent of the remaining animals of a rare and endangered species from their natural habitat in Panama to his zoo collection in Dallas, Texas. Local people refused to allow the exportation of the animals, thereby thwarting his plans. Will that be the end of the story? Maybe, but maybe not. Until my friend advised me of the situation, I had no idea this was happening.

Another friend just posted an article from the Sudan that explained that President Obama has been asked repeatedly to take action to help the people in the Nuba Mountains who have been under attack for years, forced to live in caves or attempt to leave the region and go somewhere safe, if they can find such a place in this ravaged area of Africa. Although some people understand what’s happening, most in the United States would not be able to find Sudan on a map, much less know about the daily peril in which these people find themselves. Until someone made me aware of it, I had no idea this was happening.

I’ve had the pleasure of traveling on and leading photographic safaris several times in East Africa, yet few of my guides there have chosen to share the horrific truth about poaching and the very real danger of losing Africa’s elephants within the next decade. This is a story not just about elephants but about what happens to the east African economy if the wildlife disappears and what the money from poaching activities goes to support and how it affects every American. What better place to garner support for anti-poaching efforts than when you’re faced with a herd of elephants going about their business yards from your Land Rover, so close you can hear them breathe?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the daily decisions interpreters and guides make in their work. It’s easy to identify places, people, animals, and objects for others. It’s trickier to relate them to a bigger picture, to put them in context, whether historical or current, to help people gain both awareness and understanding of the complexity of the issues that surround us every day and the implications they have on our daily lives.

When I train interpreters and guides, I try to help them understand the importance of what they do. Unfortunately, some people interpret that statement as meaning that they should feel self-important, or that their passion for their job should be enough. I hope everyone is lucky enough to find a job that makes him or her feel good about what they do. But I also hope that those who choose to interpret our global heritage resources realize the enormous responsibility that comes with that profession.

I agree completely with the social science research that suggests that people must first become aware of something and then question and think deeply about that subject before they can formulate attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors related to it. I do not think it is ever an interpreter or an agency’s responsibility to tell someone what to think, only that they should think about it and come to their own conclusions. I also think it is imperative that interpreters provide some suggestions of positive actions that can be taken if someone concludes that action should be taken and they want to know specifically what they can do, because that’s where the chain of change often breaks down. People who know about and understand the situation, whether it about sloths or the Sudan, may want to help but they don’t know what to do.

To me, that’s the ethics behind interpretation. It’s important to present accurate information in relevant ways and to be passionate about the job. But if we stop short by only identifying things instead of providing context, even if that context makes us uncomfortable or challenges our own beliefs, we have failed. Freeman Tilden said as much with his fifth principle: Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.

Don’t miss the chance to tell a bigger story by assuming your audience wants only a light, frivolous treatment of the subject because they’re on vacation. They may not want to read the entire book on the wall or have it shared with them by their guide, but they certainly can handle more than a name they likely won’t remember tomorrow. Your message (theme) may linger, causing them to think more deeply even after they leave your place of business.


We live in a complicated world, perhaps made more so by the availability of too much information from too many sources. It can be difficult to even make sense of what remains after separating fact from fiction. Interpreters can help by making people aware of what’s happening and explaining things in relevant ways to build understanding. Delivering a message doesn’t have to tell people what to think, but hopefully, it will get them thinking and wondering what actions they can take. By crafting that message carefully, interpreters can choose to make a difference every day on the job.

– Lisa Brochu

Published by heartfeltassociates

Lisa Brochu and Tim Merriman are married and serve as Principals of Heartfelt Associates. They write fiction and non-fiction, raise miniature horses and consult with parks, zoos, museums, historic sites, nature centers and aquariums on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences.They live on the Big Island of Hawaii on a small Kona coffee farm overlooking Kealakekua Bay.

4 thoughts on “The Ethics of Interpretation – Choosing to make a difference

  1. this is also my story. im an minority in my country and i interpret the whole theme that could change majority people ways of thinking of us. something equality needed to build..

  2. Lisa- you make a very good point. I managed a tour company in Banff, Canada, and felt it was a guide’s duty to make people think, prompt questions, and present challenges that our decision makers regularly face. For Banff the theme was often development/expanded tourism or preservation. To see bears or not to see bears, was the most pressing question guides regularly faced. When we did see one, the traffic jam with people jumping out of their cars to get a better view simply made it easy to explain how stressed bears were. Our guests stayed in the vehicle, often quietly, and commonly were the ones who urged the guide to continue on the way sooner than planned…

  3. Things are never as simple as they seem. Interesting and informative article. I’m gratified to learn more about what interpreters do and how really important is their task. It seems a very necessary part of the puzzle–when earnestly and truthfully putting the pieces in place–that seeks to inform peoples of this ever-shrinking and all-connected world in which we live.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Lucille. At our worst we are guiding people in the outdoors or a museum, sharing interesting facts. That’s not a bad thing but it misses the bigger opportunity. At our best we help people understand and connect with complex stories and places. Training is key in helping front-line interpreters understand what an important role they have if they use it thoughtfully. Tim Merriman

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