Selecting the Best Interpretation from the Myriad of Choices We Have

Today, our guest blogger is Jay Miller, Chief of Interpretation at Arkansas State Parks.  He has been a longtime friend of ours and I’m thrilled he agreed to write something for us.

Here in Arkansas State Parks we have turned a lot of attention to defining the highest and best focus for interpretation in each park. We quickly realize that we have limited staff, limited time, and our visitors spend a short time with us. So our question is: How do we use our time and their’s most effectively so that visitors have the best park experience and create memories that are about the values and meanings of the specific park they have chosen to visit?

We could easily entertain and inform them about a variety of topics from snakes to battles that took place miles away to the international space station. But our visitors have chosen to use their valuable vacation time to visit our park, this specific place. Shouldn’t we focus our energies on the place they have chosen to visit and prove to them that their decision to visit this place was a good one?

We use a simple statement: Interpret the park! But each park is a complex of history and nature (and once you tug on one thing you find it connected to everything else in the universe!). Even when interpreting the park the choices are endless. How do we keep from presenting random and scattered interpretation? How can we select the highest and best interpretation from the myriad of choices we have?

We see three signposts pointing the way, and each one is about the resource of the site:

1 – Distinctive competence is the resource your site has that no one else has. Our interpretation planning process dives deep into this – the purpose, values and meanings of the park resources – the reasons and resources for which the site exists. We drill into this until we identify one or two very specific resources that stand out above the others and stand out among the entire park system.

2 – I coined a term a few years ago: essential experience. If your distinctive competence is your site’s highest and best resource, its stories are your highest and best interpretive messages. It follows then, that the highest and best place to tell that story in when the visitor is standing within that resource – where the resource does its own ‘telling.’ The essential experience occurs when your visitor is in the right place in the resource, realizes your message and has an ‘Ah-ha!!’ moment.  Your visitor, your most important message, and the essential place have come together and meaning-making occurs.

You usually need to prepare the visitor for this resource experience. We do this through programs, publications, and exhibits so that when the visitor arrives at ‘that place’ the realization seems to magically, internally occur, often accompanied by actual shouts, wows, and statements like – “I never thought of it that way,” “There it is,” “Now I understand.”

3 – Themes make the message memorable. You know the saying: People forget facts; they remember themes. More than that, when a well-crafted theme is developed as an overall theme for a site it becomes a road map for appropriate, best-practice, meaningful interpretation. I’ll give just one example. At Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area we developed this theme: The Wild and Scenic Cossatot River is a corridor of life forged by the geologic chaos of the Ouachita Mountains.

The river is the essential experience (duh!). But the story is more than the river – it’s the place where the river exists and which gives this river its unique character. This theme statement is a gateway to defining a Wild and Scenic River and explaining that important legislation. It encourages interpreting the corridor and watershed of the river, life along the river, and the turbulent geology there. Many stories are permitted within this single theme, yet the theme provides focus. By using the theme in exhibits, publications, and programs, the visitor does not find random, cute, fluff interpretation, but encounters the park’s distinctive competence and essential experience.

Thoughtful planning and well-crafted themes draw everything to the most important resource and messages at your site. And, visitors say, ‘Wow! I’m glad I spent my time here.’

Jay Miller is the Chief of Interpretation for Arkansas State Parks.  Jay began his career with the department in 1976.  In 2006, he was named NAI’s National Interpretation Manager of the Year then and in 2008, he received the Region 6 Lifetime Achievement Award.