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.‘
How far can you see?
Without an initiation point for exhibits planning, the first thing an exhibit firm gets from the client is something like the question children often ask: How far can I see? There are several ways to respond. A 6-foot person at sea level looking out to sea can see a horizon 3-miles distant. Climb to the top of a 100-foot tower and that same person can see over 13-miles. However, that same person can see the sun, some 93-million miles off, and the star Antares, 619.7-light years away. How far can you see?
It depends upon where you are standing and what you want to see.
In exhibit design (and program development) those two questions should be answered before an exhibit firm is on the job. I call this “exhibit pre-planning.” It’s not the exhibit plan, but is the background information that makes an exhibit plan focused and meaningful. By having these questions in order before an exhibit firm arrives you will save days and dollars.
Question #1: Where are you standing?
Phrased differently, my old favorite asks: Who are we, and what are we doing here?
Have some organizational discussions about the organization, what its role is, what the goals are, and why you need exhibits to accomplish that. This is the starting point for ‘seeing’ who you are, and that leads to why you need what you need.
These discussions could search out your original charter, mission and purpose documents to provide a foundation for exhibits that are truly meaningful to your organization, not fluff someone thought was cute. And, you might discuss your distinctive competence – what makes you so special, what you do differently that makes you unique, and is it important that the public know this about you. Knowing who you are helps answer the nest question.
Question #2: What do we want to see?
Really, in this case: What do you want the visitor to see? This can be addressed in the K, E, B format:
- K: Knowledge, What do you want the visitor to know/learn from these exhibits?
- E: Emotions, What do you want the visitor to feel as a result of these exhibits?
- B: Behavior, What do you want the visitor to do as a result of these exhibits?
A flaw here is that knowledge is always listed first, and that often leads to exhibits that attempt to teach rather than interpret. Behavioral research tells us that emotions dictate action and create memory much more often than does additional knowledge. In fact, exhibits designed to increase knowledge often turn people off and visitors just glance and walk on by. When visitors they walk away they learn, feel, and do nothing. The exhibit may look nice, but it’s a failure. Therefore, the format should read: E, K, B emphasizing the all-important emotional connection that exhibits and other media should make.
Question #3: Do You See What I See?
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
- George Bernard Shaw
A constant problem is getting other people to see the same thing you see. Thus, the third step is to write a strong theme, or two, maybe three (maybe, only if you must), that state your newfound exhibit objectives, well, not objectives lie a bureaucratic statement. Rather, your exhibit MEANING. Theme statements help everyone “see” what you “see.” They help everyone focus on a similar meaning. And don’t hide them. Well-written themes can become part of your exhibit –on the wall or in the headings where your visitors will see them right away. Your message will be there for them, they won’t have to guess your intent.
You can now answer the question: How far can I see?, because you know where you are standing and what you want to see. When you can answer these questions prior to bringing in the big exhibit firm, you will be on the road to success.
I have had excellent results with this process, and have had more than one exhibit firm state that having this completed before they arrived saved days of planning meetings and allowed them to understand what we wanted almost immediately.
Exhibit design is a fun thing. There is process, and there is no process, there are guidelines and there are no guidelines. Really, there is only what you want.
What you want exists at several levels – what you want to say, what you want the reader to understand, what you want the reader to do, how you want to portray yourself and your message, how interactive you want to be, and the impact of the exhibit on both the reader and your organization. The job of the exhibit designer is to understand what you want, then add his/her experience, knowledge, skills and abilities to give you what you want, and more.
I’ve seen exhibit design happen as ‘a flash in the pan,’ where the designer listens to the client, has a flash of an idea and off they go. This ‘semi-cooked’ approach usually ends in less than satisfactory exhibits and a lot of after completion questions about ‘why we did it this way,’ ‘why didn’t we think of this,’ and ‘how did that happen.’
I’ve seen exhibit design meetings where the client has visited several exhibits of various types and has lots of ideas of ‘things’ they want. The design meeting skips questions about goals and outcomes and purpose and becomes a list of these favorite ‘things.’ The inexperienced designer, to accommodate the client, assembles the ‘things’ around the gallery. With a lot of luck they fit together in some way, other times they are just random pods of those ‘things’ with little connection to each other or the mission and message of the site.
I prefer a slower approach where the designer does a lot of listening and asking of ‘directing’ questions that encourage the client to identify goals, audience, message, purpose and meaning, then, working together, everyone arrives at a direction, style and theme, that leads to specific and appropriate text, images and objects. These are all linked with a strong overarching theme and clear, supporting subthemes. Sam Ham tells us that organization is as much for the visitor as for the interpreter – your audience needs to understand the organization and this theme, subtheme, continuous fluid message approach formalizes that and gives the visitor a consistent message that is reinforced through several media, and is memorable.
The Visitor Studies Association ‘makes it’s living’ studying exhibits, specifically how people react to and learn from them – in short, what makes a successful exhibit. Their literature is a treasure trove of methodology for taking your exhibit from good, to better to best. Their findings can be incorporated into every exhibit, if you think about it. And that’s the key – thinking about it.
Now I may be wrong here, but after seeing the exhibit design process of many major firms, and some small ones, too, I believe that periodically throughout planning and design you just need to stop and think about it, and ask a few simple questions … like:
- Are we still on the right track, or have we started chasing shiny things that have taken us away of our original intent?
- Are we including items that attract attention?
- Are we chunking text and placing it close to images and objects so together it is easy to read and understand, and thus hold attention?
- Are we facilitating memory?
- Are we designing interpretive exhibits, or merely exhibits?
- What specifically are we incorporating to make these exhibits interpretive?
- Are we being too repetitive, especially in use of technology?
It’s sometimes difficult to get the designer to slow down and participate in this process, but it’s critical to success. It’s even more difficult to get the designer to make changes based on the results of this question/analysis process, but it’s critical. Therefore, the questions need to be included in the exhibit design flow chart/timeline from the beginning, so all know that one month into the process we are going to stop and review by asking these questions, then again in four months they will be asked again. By that time these should be pretty well woven into the design and answers will be so obvious they only need be suggested and the answer will be clear. Prior to the conclusion of the design phase they should be asked again, and when you enter the production phase they should be asked once more. This final time is critical, especially if you change firms from design to fabrication. The fabricators need to understand this and will not if they have not been part of the planning and design process.
Exhibit design is fun, yet challenging. And the results are visible and lasting. Skip the “flash in the pan’ approach and eliminate the ‘favorite things’. Take the time to ask questions, know your goals and your story, and develop themes and a style that give you, the designer, and later, your visitor true guidance that leads to learning and memory.