At some heritage sites interpretation is entertainment, doing little more than passing time for visitors or delivering information that will not be remembered. Helping people connect emotionally and intellectually with complex stories is a challenge. Experiences must be planned with specific objectives in mind.
Much of what we do in planning natural and cultural heritage sites and programs is really about balance. When planning messages (theme and sub-themes) for a site, we think about hitting the “sweet spot” with our approaches to communication and experience design. We view that spot as the overlap of what interests our audience, what objectives must be met for our agency/employer, and what honors and protects the resource.
There was a time when most interpretive planning and programming was solely resource-based. We told our visitors what we thought they should know using only the techniques we knew well with little regard for their backgrounds, interests or preferences in learning styles. The resulting signs, exhibits and programs delivered information accordingly. But just delivering information is not the same thing as interpretation, as Freeman Tilden pointed out in his principles. More information about the resource doesn’t always help people deepen their understanding and therefore, rarely achieves the objectives of management.
When only management objectives are considered, there may be a tendency toward what has been called “interpreganda,” presenting only the perspective of the agency responsible for the resource. While there is nothing wrong with putting the mission of the organization in front of visitors, doing so without considering how to meet the audience where they are in their belief systems may result in unfortunate conflicts rather than connections.
In the 1980s we began to be more market-oriented, using social science surveys to understand the needs and desires of our guests. Multiple perspectives, especially regarding sensitive stories, began to emerge in a greater variety of media choices designed to reach a greater variety of visitors. The danger, of course, in being solely focused on the visitor’s interests and desires is that sometimes interpretation becomes so entertaining that the resource suffers. The desire to get “just a little closer” to wildlife or interact with historic structures in a way that damages the integrity of the building can put the diagram out of balance yet again.
If the interpretive plan elements support management of the site, appeal to our visitors and serve the best interests of the resource, we have a great start at defining where the sweet spot lies, where balance creates a great experience that benefits all three bubbles of the diagram. A batter focuses attention to swing at a ball, hoping to hit the sweet spot that will mean a home run. A planner has to think in several directions at the same time to hit a home run, finding the sweet spot, the balance, among the many variables required for successful interpretation.