About ten years ago the regional director of U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) asked to meet with National Association for Interpretation (NAI) executive staff to discuss the application of interpretive services to his organization. He explained that the Republican Contract for America removed USGS funding from the United States budget in 1994 because many in Congress and the American public did not understand that this agency of scientists were responsible for much more than making maps. Fortunately, the funding was restored. USGS monitors vital resources all over the U.S. The USGS regional director expressed concern that being skilled scientists was not enough. They needed to become more skilled at helping Congress and citizens understand their diverse scientific roles and findings.
Since the early 1900’s the national parks of the United States have had “interpreters” delivering programs, leading hikes and developing communication media about natural and cultural resources. Most of the early interpreters were scientists, historians and professors who shared their specific knowledge and research findings with the public in ways that visitors to the parks could readily understand. This approach to natural and cultural heritage interpretation has been adopted and adapted to uses throughout American parks, zoos, museums, nature centres, historic sites, arboretums, botanic gardens and tour companies.
In 1957, Freeman Tilden published Interpreting our Heritage. Tilden, a journalist and playwright, wrote an acclaimed book that established a set of principles for the little-known field of interpretation. The book was written at the request of the Director of National Park Service to explain this unique communication approach. Tilden’s six principles from the book have endured and are still taught in interpretation courses around the world. They are:
- Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something with the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.
- Information, as such, is not interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.
- Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable.
- The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.
- Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.
- Interpretation addressed to children (say, up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.
The National Association for Interpretation, a professional organization of 5000 members in over 30 countries, serves this broad network of people who interpret nature, science, history, archaeology, communities and industry. NAI’s defines interpretation as a mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and meanings inherent in the resource.
Interpreters help people of all backgrounds connect with nature, history, industry, culture and science in diverse settings that tend to be non-formal or recreational. And yet the subject matter could not be more serious. We interpret wars, climate change, forest management, wildlife management, and global social conditions. As Tilden suggested, simply providing information or data about these and other topics does not always get the job done. People must understand the meaning of the information and how it relates to them on an individual basis for the effort to expose them to new ideas to have any lasting value.
Social science and communication research suggests that people forget specific facts anywhere from a few seconds to a few hours after a presentation or visit to a museum or other interpretive facility. However, if the theme of the presentation or exhibit or other media is well delivered, people will remember the overall message (Ham, 1992). Supporting facts are certainly important to validate the information to be covered, but thematic messages are more likely to endure and help audiences understand complex ideas.
Research further suggests that messages, as opposed to simple statements of fact, can influence attitudes, beliefs and behaviors when the communication specifically targets the beliefs and attitudes that underlie that behavior. Much of the data supplied by scientists supports a desire on the part of an agency or community to influence behaviors such as reducing carbon emissions, recycling or reusing consumer waste products, disposing of toxic waste properly, reducing water consumption, etc. Many of our most critical and complex environmental or social problems are well studied by the scientific community, but poorly understood by the public at large.
The global climate change controversy points out how challenging it is to bring broad audiences of voters and citizens to a deeper understanding of what scientists know. Energy industry professionals include both scientists and public relations people who interpret the data in a manner supportive of the industry but not necessarily of the bigger stories of pollution and climate change. The public has trouble discerning the real impacts of burning coal or using petroleum products when given divergent explanations of energy use and impacts on the climate.
Complex stories do not need to be “dumbed down” for non-scientist audiences. Instead, they need to be interpreted in ways that relate to people’s everyday lives and what matters to them. Social science research suggests that good interpretation gets people to think more deeply about ideas and issues. People test their attitudes and beliefs internally and externally through conversations that are stimulated by better understanding of the information.
Giving people data alone may not help them gain that understanding if it cannot be made relevant to their current frame of reference. Translating data into diverse media that appeals to multiple learning styles can help in this effort. Complex diagrams and technical writing may not be the most readily understood forms of communication for most audiences. Nancy Baron’s book, Escape from the Ivory Tower, helps scientists discover practical ways to engage a variety of audiences. Another recommended resource is “Don’t Be SUCH a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style.” by Randy Olson.
Integrating interpretation into science communication strategies can be approached in several ways, for instance by:
- training scientists who have an interest in broader communication with interpretive approaches to communication;
- employing interpretive professionals in scientific organizations to translate the good work of scientists for diverse audiences to achieve specific results; or
- contracting with interpretive planning and design firms to create collateral interpretive materials for science programs.
These resources provide scientists with the tools needed to communicate their knowledge and research findings in the most appropriate and effective ways.
In another article we will share strategies being used by some American resource management agencies and research units to communicate with diverse audiences.
For further reading:
Baron, Nancy. Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter. 2010. Island Press: London.
Ham, Sam. Environmental Interpretation: A Practical Guide for People with Big Ideas and Small Budgets. 1992. Fulcrum Press: Golden, CO.
Olson, Gary, Don’t Be SUCH a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. 2009. Island Press: London.
Tilden, Freeman. Interpreting Our Heritage. 1957. Chapel Hill Books: Chapel Hill, NC.
This article was posted by Tim Merriman and co-author Lisa Brochu.
Featured image credit: Moyan Brenn via Flickr
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