Sunday 18 November 2012

Letters to a Young Interpreter

[An address delivered to the Interpretation Australia (IA) National Conference in Melbourne, November 2012. It was in part fulfilment of the 2011 Georgie Waterman Award I received in Perth last November. 

According to IA, "heritage interpretation is a means of communicating ideas and feelings which help people understand more about themselves and their environment."] 

[An interpreter at work, Ubirr Rock, Northern Territory]
Just over a century ago, a 19 year old Austrian military cadet wrote a letter to renowned German language poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. The young man wanted advice on how he could become a great poet. The correspondence continued for nearly six years, and Rilke’s advice was later published as the volume “Letters to a Young Poet”.
In Rilke’s first letter to young Franz Kappus, he said this.

"There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple 'I must', then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse."

What if we altered the above situation, and the particular advice, and applied it to interpreters; to those who interpret our natural and cultural heritage? If we were asked to mentor a young interpreter, to offer advice on how someone at the start of their interpretive career should proceed, what is it that we would say? Given what you have learned, both obvious and profound, what might you say to help a novice interpreter who’s itching to set foot on the long and winding road to interpretive success?

That is the premise of my address. You, me, we all have found – or will find – ourselves in the position of advising someone who wants to be an interpreter. For us it’s more likely to come in the form of an email exchange, a snatched conversation, or a meeting over coffee, but the concept is the same. What would you put in your letters – or emails – to a young interpreter?

One of the crucial first thoughts I had was that our young interpreter should learn from others. I would suggest that they be a sponge; that they listen to, watch and learn from others who have been on the road longer. In the end I decided to apply that piece of advice to this address, i.e. to seek the wisdom of some of our interpretation elders.

[Interpreting military history, Rottnest Island, WA] 

So I approached the past winners of the Georgie Waterman Award, five interpreters whose long contribution to interpretive excellence has been recognised by Interpretation Australia. I asked each for one paragraph, around 100 words, containing one single, crucial lesson, reflection or piece of advice they would want to pass on to our young interpreter. I will share their wise and generous responses with you now.

Pamela Harmon-Price (Qld)

Pamela Harmon-Price’s advice can be distilled into four words: “Stick to the fundamentals.” She elaborates. “Don’t get caught up in the bells and whistles. Always try to marry the message and medium to your audience and you are more likely to make a difference to people’s experiences and the special places we value and want to protect.”
Pamela’s finely honed interpretive brevity comes into play again with one closing piece of advice. “And the personal touch always works magic.”

John Pastorelli (NSW)

John Pastorelli believes that interpretation “is the key to facilitating those experiences that become the stories we hold dear, the stories we keep within us long after the physical journey has ended.” It can aspire to become “the music in our hearts”, borrowing from William Wordsworth’s poem “The Solitary Reaper”, in which the poet observes a young woman working in a field.

Whate'er the theme, the Maiden sang 
As if her song could have no ending; 
I saw her singing at her work,             
And o'er the sickle bending;—           
I listen'd, motionless and still;            
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,             
Long after it was heard no more.    
John suggests the young interpreter should learn to recognise “that deeper sense of connection, meaning and story within each of us. It happens all around us - it is the chat around a coffee table, the tears in the backrow of the cinema, the smiles and laughs over a beer at the pub, the solitude of a wilderness landscape. Interpretation reveals and makes personal the richness and meaning of life. Interpretation is home.”

Robin MacGillivray (NT)

Robin suggests that we “aim for heartfelt, authentic interpretation that presents a  variety of perspectives, including Indigenous voices, because Indigenous perspectives are vital - especially in Australia. Interpretation without them is incomplete.”

She suggests the young interpreter might achieve this by “researching the topic through those who know and care (interviews, writings, stories, art and music), and passing on the joys the topic gives.”

Robin warns that this will be complex, advising that we “build in the time and money . . . that is required to do the job well. Research the pitfalls and dance around them. The process and the product will be long lasting and beyond expectations. The experience for the audience will be surprising and memorial.”

Gil Field (WA)

For Gil Field there is one thing so central that he says it could well become his interpretive epitaph. “See things from your audience’s perspectives as much as seeing the things you want to communicate.”

To do this he suggests the young interpreter should do the following. “Ask what my audience wants (their perspective) as much as what they need (your perspective, your intent). Then ask what it will take for them to take the actions I want them to take? What is their mind set? What will persuade them to see it my way and to act accordingly? You need empathy with your audiences. You then need to talk in the language they will understand – their language, their mind set, their perspective. It is not that hard as we are all humans with more similarities than differences – particularly when we are visitors to parks. We are more complex when we are members of a local community.

So be the manager’s voice AND the audience’s ears.”

[Interpreting colonial heritage, Woolmers Estate, Tasmania] 

Cath Renwick (NSW)

For Cath one fundamental is to “involve people who know about lots of different things: communication; various sciences; heritage; design; free-choice learning - to simply ask for input/advice. It is amazing how often people are glad to consider one's question or challenge, and respond.”

Next comes the synthesis. “If you can, take in what's offered (even when it is a LOAD of red corrections on your finely edited copy!!) then work out what needs to be presented to engage, provoke thought, conversations, googling.”

“The bottom line is that ‘less is more’ when it comes to interpretive devices and ‘more is more’ when it comes to good research, community engagement, and evocative and accessible design.”

Of course, all interpretive projects should provide orientation, promote exploration and make meaning, but we should also strive to encourage participation and scaffold conversations to build meaningful partnerships.

While it’s difficult to distill all of that wisdom into a few words, there are some key words that our elders mention. These include some that we would hope and expect to find: audience, research, story, fundamentals and engagement … But I also notice some other words that we might consider left-field. Did you hear them: heart, music, dance, magic, joy, empathy? To me it is no surprise that our elders seek to involve art alongside science, heart as well as head. Isn’t this what Tilden meant when he called interpretation an art?

Please let me acknowledge and thank the “elders” for their generous insights. Also let me thank our one and only Georgie Waterman Encouragement Award winner, Jen Fry, my friend and colleague in Tasmania. It was her suggestion that led to me contact the elders.
But I turn now to my own few paragraphs of advice. I have cunningly allowed myself the advantage of having more that one paragraph. Still, I will try to be brief.

      * Gain first-hand experience of your subject. Get out there and look, touch, listen, feel and even smell, whether it’s a place, an artefact or an experience. You are doing this not so you can tell your audience everything you have learned, but because it will help you to appreciate, even to love, what you interpret. And when that subtly leaks out, your interpretation will be the better. 

* Read widely, starting with actually reading Tilden. Don’t let yourself succumb to what CS Lewis called “chronological snobbery”, where everything new is per se better than that which is old. Yes Freeman Tilden wrote “Interpreting Our Heritage” in 1957, and was dead before computers were part of our lives. But wisdom is wisdom. The longer I am an interpreter, the more I come to appreciate just how insightful Tilden was.

[Reading interpretive panels, Kakadu National Park, NT] 

* Feed your creative side. Take deliberate time out to do it. Whatever it is, whether painting, writing, cooking, playing an instrument, climbing a cliff or picking a line down a whitewater river, just do it. Even if you do it poorly, it presents you with other challenges that will nourish you and that part of your brain that interpretation can also tap into.

* Leave your ego at the door. You are a conduit, not the focus. This is easier said than done, because we do all have egos. We’re interpreters after all! And there is a place for your personality – a very important place. It adds a unique flavour and authenticity. But it is the spice, not the meal itself.

* Be generous, collaborate, willingly share what you know and the sources of your knowledge, with other interpreters. This is another aspect of the ego issue. If interpretation is about audiences gaining appreciation, and ultimately caring for that which is interpreted, then it doesn’t matter who played what role in getting it out there.

* Don’t rely on technology alone. By all means embrace what technology has to offer: I personally have found things like apps, blogs, podcasts and vodcasts powerful and helpful. But in and of themselves these are just media. To revert to an old 20th century acronym, it can be a case of GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). As Pamela and Cath have both reminded us, we need to get the fundamentals right first. Good content might then be enhanced by innovative technology.

[Wordless interpretation, Otago Museum, Dunedin, NZ] 

* And finally consider interpretation as a long game. Some of you may only be in the interpretive profession for a short time. But if you become a good interpreter, it is something that will stay with you for life, whatever your profession. Some time in the next few years, I will probably retire from my interpretive role with Tasmania Parks & Wildlife Service. But - and you may pity my friends and family - I fully expect that I will be interpreting until I draw my last breath.

And if it’s a long game, then we will need patience. Which brings me back to Rilke. Reading between the lines, it seems that the young poet’s letters to Rilke may have been displaying impatience. In Letter 3 Rilke responds with this advice. (Again I will change “poet” to “interpreter”.)

“Being an [interpreter] means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”


Andrew Pitt said...

Blessed are the interpreters, as they will ensure there is still an earth to inherit.
Was amused to read an article on the ABC Tas website recently regarding the idea of a cable car for Mt Wellington. A proponent was quoted as saying something like 'there's no point having the environment without a cafe and some interpretation'. That attitude of the interpretation being the end-point, instead of the actuality of a place, is ever more common.
I very much agree with Cath Renwick that 'less is more'. None is ideal. But as our society becomes more and more disconnected from nature, it seems that interpretation is ever more necessary.

Nature Scribe said...

Thanks for commenting Andrew. As you might guess I'm not a fan of the "cafe and some interpretation" approach. Some of my best wild experiences have only been mediated by the place, and maybe some prior study. But judicious interpretation can often be helpful.

Andrew Pitt said...

I agree. I'm not sure how interpretation is defined, but when we experience or interact in any way with a place, its inevitably interpreted by the sum of our knowledge and experience, regardless of whether that might be a cildhood experience, reading Thoreau 15 years ago, or interpretive panels right there and then.
What are your thoughts on the role of interpretation in wilderness areas? Does the presence of signage, panels etc impinge on wilderness values?

Nature Scribe said...

Nice question Andrew - in wilderness areas, I prefer interpretation to be either absent or minimal (eg in huts or at established user sites). If anything is needed it can be done off-site (eg brochures, websites, videos, apps). To the person who is open to it, wilderness is eloquent!