You may have a special place –a place you can return to and connect to good memories, or have peace and quiet, a place to think and restore surrounded by your favorite comforting things. For some this may be in your room surrounded by memories and books, for others this may be a library, and for others it may be outdoors along a trail, river or on a mountaintop. Your special place is chosen by you and has meaning to you. Parks, historic sites, nature centers, and similar places also have select and specific places within them that hold special meanings and significance, but we seldom think of our sites that way, and seldom take the time to seek out the location with the most significant meanings attached to them. A funnel can help.
My interpretation planning process begins with a funnel. That is, I begin with a discussion of the general resources and the many potential interpretive topics within a site. Through questions and activities we narrow those to a few of the most important. From those, reflecting on mission, significance, audience, and site resources, we move deeper into the funnel to narrow the field further and identify the highest and best topics of interpretation. I ask – If you could tell your visitor only one thing, what would that be? Or, if a visitor says he has just fifteen minutes to spend at your site, what single place tells the most important story of your site?
This generates a lot of discussion. We easily interpret many things – a little here, a bit there; rabbits on Friday and snakes on Saturday. But it’s often a challenge to identify one topic and one place that speaks to your site’s most important story. Far too seldom do talk the time and ask the questions to seek out our most important story. Often, this procedure leads to a totally unexpected place.
I remember leading interpretation planning at Historic Washington State Park some years ago. The state park is filled with historic houses and stories abound at every turn. Which is the most important, if we could save only one structure what would it be? If we had to stand in the location where this history ‘shouts the loudest’ where would that be? There were many responses and a very satisfying discussion: This famous person? …That significant event? …This iconic structure?
The funnel-down discussion helped us focus and made us think differently. Eventually we agreed that none of our ‘regular places‘ was THAT place. Rather, we would guide the visitor to the middle of the old gravel and dirt road that leads into town from across the tracks and through the woods to the north, a place that was not a flashy stop on the town tour. Through the funnel-down process we recognized that The Southwest Trail is what brought people to Washington; every structure, every event, and every story there is connected to that old dirt and gravel road.
Identification of this place introduced a new resource, new interpretation, and new value to Historic Washington. It reshaped our approach to interpretation.
More recently, I led this first phase of interpretation planning for Wilmington State Parks in Delaware. A goal of the planning process is to identify strong themes for the site. We identified three, including:
The Brandywine River flows through the site, so this message could be used in several locations. But that’s not good enough. We needed to identify a single location where this theme echoed with clarity and strength. Where in the park does this theme come to life? We decided that there is such a powerful place:
Standing at the south end of The Swinging Bridge over Brandywine River, the visitor can see the clear, flowing river and the sluice that diverted river water to the several mills. Above and upriver are several bridges built at different times and in different styles.
These distinct features are tangible evidence of changes in industry and technology in Wilmington. Understanding the history is meaningful to this site, but also significant to understanding the growth of this Nation. Across the eastern states, then in all areas where rivers were available, this pattern of river/industry development occurred. As people begin to understand the industrial development pattern based on the river here, they can understand one of the important growth patterns of the nation.
This concept of message (theme) combined with a meaningful location focuses site interpretation. It replaces what is often a somewhat random and general topic selection with a thematic message that focuses on a significant resource or event of that site and engages the visitor in that unique site experience. As a result, the visitor takes home your story and remembers your site as significant and meaningful.
That’s a good thing.
I saw it on Facebook – and I liked it. I had heard it before, and I’ve heard managers say the first line with heartfelt belief, and I can understand why.
What if we spend the time and money to train our staff … and they leave?
The statement is a logical outgrowth of fiscal responsibility and that’s a real concern. There is a cost to training. What if we make this investment in our staff, including volunteers, and they up and leave? OUCH! In many interpretive sites we have full-time staff, part-time staff, and volunteers. Certainly the part-time staff and volunteers might move around – a lot. They join us for a few months then find a better paying position or leave for a variety of other reasons. That’s the way it works, unless there’s an intervention!
The Facebook quote I read recently continues:
Manager: What if we spend the time and money to train our staff – and they leave?
Training officer: What if we don’t train our staff – and they STAY?
Surprisingly, just days after reading this on Facebook, a training manager told me he couldn’t hire me to do a training workshop for his educators and volunteer docents because his boss said: We have a large staff and a lot of turnover. What if we spend the money to train our staff – and they leave?
Given the scope of most corporation or agency budgets, good training doesn’t cost that much, yet reaps significant benefits. By spending relatively little time and money to train staff well, employees are much more likely to stay, and be much better employees, to boot. They will be the ones we want to stay.
Good training goes beyond teaching practices and procedures. It’s an intervention that changes normal patterns. Good training builds trust and loyalty as it teaches your philosophy. It creates community among the staff and establishes your agency culture within each employee – full-time, part-time or volunteer. Training leads to each employee finding a common set of goals and their own purposeful relationship to your mission and operation. All this leads to building a team, staff retention, customer satisfaction, and it increases the total success of your organization.
Training is not only for those persons doing a particular task for your organization, but should include the chain of command that directs and evaluates the work. In the field of interpretation, interpretation training is not only for interpreters. If we train interpreters, educators, docents, and first-contact staff in the best practices of interpretation and customer service, their managers should also be trained to understand those best practices and to manage to achieve them. This makes the entire organization stronger and better equipped to set goals, provide direction, perform to the fullest, and evaluate success.
I have seen this happen using the National Association for Interpretation’s Certificated Interpretive Guide training program. After using it as a foundation for interpretation training for several years, we approached management about using the same training for managers. The concept was that if manager are to manage interpretation they need to understand what we teach our interpreters. There was some consternation about managers having to take interpretation training, but I pointed out that this would not be interpretation training for interpreters, but would focus on techniques for managing the interpretation function of the park, complete with goal setting, teamwork, monitoring, and evaluation. The argument worked, and over a three-year period all state park superintendents completed the CIG program, with a lot of emphasis on how to use the CIG concepts to manage park interpretation. This put managers and their park interpreters on the same page. Along the way we built a team, strengthened agency culture, and generated understanding and support for interpretation. It was all good.
The question: What if we spend the time and money to train our staff and they leave? is a glass half empty. Let’s fill it up. If we train our staff well they will stay, and we will all be better for it!
I’m pleased that my friend Lari Jo Johnston agreed to write this piece for my blog. You’ll enjoy it.
The Best Christmas Gift Ever
In January 2008, I was fed up with my life. I wanted a change and gave myself an ultimatum. Within the coming year I was going to find a job that brought me joy. I gave myself 12 months. I don’t set goals – I set deadlines. I made a list of all of the things that would make me happy. For the next 11 months, I actively pursued opportunities within that list.
One early spring day I took a day off from work and went on a field trip with my daughter’s 2nd grade class to the Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program’s (CBBEP) Nueces Delta Preserve. I could not get over the potential of the preserve, but I certainly did not see myself interpreting nature there. The following fall, a 5th grade teacher at my daughter’s school handed me a business card and said I should apply for the education position. I looked down and to my surprise; it was the position at the CBBEP Nueces Delta Preserve. I filled out the application, and waited.
The elementary school was taking a field trip to the Delta Preserve in late November and asked if I would go because the teacher was new and was nervous. Knowing the facility was without an educator, I did what any good teacher would do, I recalled the area, created activities based on state standards, and made a field journal for the students. It was a complete success. The teacher was impressed and the CBBEP field biologist hosting the trip told me I should email the director and tell him how successful our trip was. Well actually, he told me to tear their program apart, but I could not do that. I waited 48 hours, then carefully worded my email to the Director.
Within a week, I received a call from the Director. He wanted me to come in for an interview. After two interviews, I was not sure what to think. He said he would give me a call when they made a decision. At 4:30pm on December 24th I received that call. He offered me the job. It was the best Christmas gift ever.
On January 5th 2009 I walked into a highly secure building owned by the Port of Corpus Christi for my first day of work as an environmental educator for the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program. I was not sure what to expect. I found out that the education program reached 25 teachers and 200 students a year. What was I supposed to do the rest of the time? So I got to work. In that first year, we saw 2,000 students and 150 teachers. Every year I have seen growth in the program. This year we saw nearly 12,000 students and 300 teachers. I often get asked how I continue to grow the program. Well, I started out with what I knew. Education was the key. I wanted connection and interpretation to be strong, so that is what I continually work toward. We now have a staff of 2 and part-time staff of 3 and we work together to interpret the land while considering state standards and tests scores.
What makes the Nueces Delta Preserve special? Passion. Each and every one of my staff and volunteers is passionate about the delta, the connection we make with students and teachers, and the curriculum we create here. The job has been the best Christmas present ever because it is a gift that keeps on giving. I get to influence the lives of thousands of children and teachers each year, not to mention that they influence me as well. So, as we go into this holiday season remember that you too have the best Christmas gift ever. You get to influence peoples’ lives in a very special way. Go forth and spread the interpretive good news!
Today, Lari Jo is Director of Environmental Education at the Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries’ Nueces Delta Preserve near Corpus Christi, Texas. As part of her continuing advancements at the preserve, she asked me to lead Certified Interpretive Guide training for her staff. This week she was notified that she, her staff, and volunteers have successfully completed the requirements and are certified. Congratulations!
I just returned from meeting new friends and together, exploring new territory. It was a challenging but memorable experience and I have some new gadgets, a bucketload of pictures and wonderful memories to show for it. I’m very glad I did it even though the night I returned to a hotel after backpacking in the high elevations for four days I told my wife that if I ever mention doing something like that again to just slap me. Now, a few weeks have passed and I feel ready to head into the Wilderness again. I’ve already bought a new pair of boots—good boots with good soles! But that’s another story.
We had five participants and four leaders on this expedition—a pretty good teacher student ratio, and things went well. The altitude sickness I was fearing did not make an appearance, after hiking miles each day from 8,000-feet to over 12,000-feet I had no muscle soreness, each morning I felt refreshed and ready to go again, my new tent was just right (and I would soon learn that it could withstand hours of heavy rain with no problem). Things went well in the high country of Colorado.
There were nine of us on this trek to photograph wildflowers, lakes, and rocky peaks, but one person seemed to be missing. And not just from the hiking and camping part, but from the very beginning, from the first communication. That was Abraham. You know him – Abraham Maslow.
There were several issues where Maslow’s assistance could have made the trip more enjoyable and us more relaxed and better prepared. Maslow, a psychologist from the middle of last century, defines seven ‘levels’ of psychological accomplishment and explains that a person must pass through each level, or feel comfortable with each one, before he can move to the next higher level. The highest are understanding, aesthetic and self-actualization (Where you really want to be on a mountaintop experience!). The lower levels are the basic needs of safety/security and belonging. Maslow says that if you are continually concerned with your safety and well-being you will think of little else – your first instinct is to survive and to know what is going to happen to you.
We weren’t concerned about absolute survival, though the risk of not surviving is always present in Wilderness. But we did have to be prepared by carrying our own food and shelter, clothes for comfort, warmth, rain, and of course perhaps the most important element for getting in, out, and about – boots. Plus, participants were from all over the country – from California to Ohio, several had never been to Colorado or in this type of high country. Solid information about where, when and how was critical for our preparedness and psychological comfort – Maslow’s first level. Early communication was sketchy and trip details were kept a mystery for a month, but as departure time drew near they came through with locations and elevations so we could look up weather (the area was getting a lot of rain, and that was a worry), and then we received an equipment list, and a few days prior to the event, they answered questions.
They did a good job of selecting a meeting place that was easy to find. We were able to buy last minute items and organize for the drive to the edge of the Wilderness. Once there, with packs on our backs, we gathered to glance at a map and discuss where we were going, then, in a slight rain, we followed the leader off into the wild. We walked up and up, and up … and up. Level ground doesn’t exist here and every step is paid for with a deep breath less than half full of the oxygen I’m used to at 350 MSL. Over about four hours we climbed from 7,000 feet to 8,500 feet to our campsite at Geneva Lake. In our group some people were fast hikers and some slower. There was no organized stopping place, no stop for conversation, food or water. This surprised me as I have been trained that in physical activity you want to stay ahead of your metabolism and not use up your store of energy. One rule is: “drink every 20-minutes, eat every 40.” Stopping and gathering the group every hour, reminding folks to eat a granola bar and take a drink, and using the time to check on everyone would have strengthened the appearance of good organization and we would have all felt better, stronger, and cared for. Once you grasp that drink/eat concept it’s not hard to apply in many situations. The ‘drink 20, eat 40’ concept is a good one for day hiking or other activity anywhere. It keeps you hydrated and your energy level up.
This was a photo safari so we stopped often to photograph (and breathe!). The leaders were very good at letting us move at our own pace and they split up to be sure we each has a leader with us – nice, subtle leadership. Well done.
At the campsite at the end of each day we needed individual time to organize, refill and purify water, and do several other things as the daylight faded. It’s here that the second level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs left us. We were left to our own devices to fix dinner and ramble about. Our tents were close enough. It’s not like we were hundreds of yards apart (more like five feet), yet we needed some structure to pull us together psychologically.
A campfire would do the trick. We’d gather around, share some food, tell some stories, ask about tomorrow, and generally laugh, talk and bond around a good old traditional campfire. But we couldn’t have a campfire. Instead, we each prepared our water, lit our stove, and prepared our meal more or less alone near our tent. The centerpiece of a camping experience, the social focal point of a campfire, was missing and not replaced, and there is the flaw.
There has been a lot written about the need for a campfire in the backcountry—and the consensus is that it’s not needed. A backpacker doesn’t need to leave the charred remains of nightly campfires along his path through the backcountry. A stove is cleaner and more efficient for cooking. But in a group, the campfire is not for cooking, rather, it creates a social gathering place where for 10,000 years stories have been told and societies, tribes, and campers have bonded. Without a campfire how do you create that focal point where stories are told and ‘belonging’ is strengthened?
Perhaps simply ask everyone to bring their stoves to a central place and cook and eat together. Perhaps select the central gathering place first, then set the tents so that the gathering place is recognized and established. Perhaps designate someone to have a stove going each morning to boil water and let everyone know to take their water there to boil, and have coffee and oatmeal, tea and Pop-Tarts, together to start the day and get the latest info on the day’s trek. Perhaps have an evening meeting time where we drink hot chocolate and share stories, discuss events of the day, and go over maps and routes for the next day. All this is merely leadership bringing the group together, being inclusive, and asking leading questions to motivate discussion.
Those evening and morning times as a group are critical for review, bonding and planning—cross pollinating Maslow’s defined need for belonging and acceptance as a full member of the group.
Now, no one was an outcast. We were a good group, concerned, helpful, sensitive to others, observant, conversive…but there was a slight feeling of not knowing much about each other and an awkwardness of having to ask, which could have been overcome with some evening ‘belonging time’ around dinner together.
In spite of these small flaws, we each had a memorable experience: we explored new territory as we climbed high trails to crystal clear lakes, fields of wildflowers, and dramatic views. No one was left behind, everyone was encouraged, no one got sick or injured, and thousands of pictures were taken. Even with Maslow missing around a campfire, that’s got to be success.
I was honored when Christen Miller, newly promoted to visitor experience manager for Virginia State Parks, and Geoff Hall, Chief Interpreter at Hungry Mother State Park,
invited me to be the keynote speaker and lead several training sessions for their annual spring interpretation training.
I enjoyed five days at beautiful Hungry Mother State Park in west Virginia (not West Virginia). Christen and Geoff kept me busy, but I found time to hike to Molly’s Knob, walk some of the Lake Trail, and do a little fishing. Hungry Mother State Park is beautiful and very well maintained, especially the trail tread and signage. And now I had personal experiences in the park to use in my presentations.
I made several presentations to about 100 enthusiastic and talented interpreters, and some brand new folks who were trying to figure this interpretation thing out because whatever it is, that’s what they will be doing all summer. One of the comments made by one of the full-time interpreters was that I make interpretation simple.
I was pleased with that comment. I try to take away the mystery and replace it with a logical approach that focuses on purposeful interpretation. I’ve been studying interpretation and have been training people in the art of interpretation for a long time. That began with an awareness of the many skills required to be a successful interpreter, and I made an effort to train people in each of those. Over time, I realized that the volume of skills, taken together, was immense. Like Santa Claus’ pack – full of things to pull out one at a time, each an exciting discovery, but the bag never empties and soon you have so many toys and tasks you can’t play with them all. It’s fun and exciting, but can be complex, confusing, and overwhelming. All these skills combined with the available interpretive opportunities and topics at any one site creates a sense of continuous ‘overwhelmedness’ that can make interpretation appear to be complex, even difficult. I realized that we needed to brush away all that ‘stuff’ and focus on purpose, mission, and outstanding, dominant, meaningful, critical topics found at the site.
My presentations in Virginia focused on focus: giving meaning to your site through identifying your highest and best messages by knowing your distinctive competence and essential experiences. Once this concept is understand and these are identified, so much of the seeming complexity of interpretation fades away. Plus, once these are identified they apply to programs, publications, exhibits, napkins, placemats, menus, merchandise, logos, and more. Your site then has something special and specific, and you can create an image, a feeling, an identity for your site. If you are into marketing you might use the word: brand.
This can’t be merely a cute slogan or logo made up by an ad agency to catch attention. To be successful, meaningful, and relevant it must be based in the site’s resource so that it’s a real thing.
When a visitor arrives they can go there, see it, touch it, experience it – Freeman Tilden might call this being “face to face with The Thing Itself” – the deep meaning of your site, based in your most significant resource(s).
Because it’s based in your specific resource, this is not something that will go away in 6 months when the ad campaign changes. Rather, it is deep and long lasting, as long as your site exists. It’s the reason your site exists. You will tell the story in publications, exhibit and programs, and when your visitor discovers ‘the essential place’ they may have an awakening moment, an instant when everything fits together. You might even hear them gasp: ‘Ohhh – now I understand.‘