I was at the National Park Service training facilities in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, when Mike Watson (then superintendent) said to me, “Interpretation is management.” I had heard our profession described as a management tool for decades, but if it’s only a tool, it’s one of those used too infrequently. I tend to agree with Mike – it’s not just a tool, it’s the way to manage most effectively.
How can you elevate interpretation in your park, zoo, museum, nature center, historic site or aquarium to being considered the fundamental approach to management? Here’s a few suggestions to get you started.
1) Is the interpretive chief or interpreter invited to management meetings? It’s hard to contribute if you’re not at the table. You must know what challenges the site or organization faces. If not invited, ask to be invited. Or buy a box of donuts and show up. They rarely chase off the person with donuts. Show up and pay attention and volunteer ideas about how your programs and activities might help with management challenges.
2) Read the annual management plan and any other documents that identify management issues. Strategize how you might use interpretive programming, signs and facilities to solve specific problems. Could you show how helping people better understand the resource will also help prevent vandalism, unwanted fires, or drownings?
3) Write an annual interpretive business plan or operations plan that includes a logic model with measurable objectives and then stick with it. Show alignment of the objectives and results with management goals.
4) Include your manager on your interpretive planning team to ensure that your interpretive objectives match his or hers. Everyone has to be on the same team.
5) Report monthly, quarterly or annually on your progress toward objectives in your plan. Measure success in terms that management will understand and care about.
6) Refer to interpretation as management when talking about why you do it. If you believe that what you are doing is “icing on the cake,” not the cake, you may find the icing scraped off during periods of budget decline.
Too often organizations are so compartmentalized that management, interpretation and marketing are in separate offices and rarely meet together. But ideally, all of these departments work together to help achieve the overall goals and objectives of the site. Your programming becomes more valued when you show the same interest in overall goals and objectives as the manager.
Interpretation can do more than the traditional approaches of creating awareness and building understanding. Showing the power of interpretation to assist with or even solve management problems simply enhances its value. Sam Ham’s new book, Interpretation: Making a Difference on Purpose documents how it may be used effectively.
– Tim Merriman