Friday, July 12, 2013

A Matter of Interpretation

Jim Jordan lead a workshop at the Visitors’ Center in Forest Park today (Friday July 12, 2013). He is a senior coordinator at the School of Professional and Continuing Studies at the University of Missouri at St. Louis (UMSL). Jim is a 20+ year veteran of the St. Louis Zoo and something of a Renaissance man (He lives in a solar powered home, is a home brewer of craft beer, a bee-keeper and generally an interesting human being.) Gina Ganahi the Associate Dean was also part of the four hour workshop attended by an interesting cross-section of docents, volunteers and others involved in presenting their respective institutions to the public. Laumeier Sculpture Park was well represented along with individuals from Henry Shaw House, Botanical Gardens and The St. Louis Art Museum. In all, about 30 people in attendance.  

Jim Jordan began his presentation with some thought from Freeman Tilden, who is widely regarded at the father of Interpretation. He said, “Interpretation is an informational and inspirational process which reveals a larger truth that lies behind any statement of fact. It is a way of adding personal meaning and relevance of your subject for your audience.” Jim added the following thoughts: “Interpreters interpret the language of meaning! Interpretation asks the questions Why do I want my audience to know this? and What do I want my audience to do with this? It satisfies the question of "so what?" and “ Interpretation is a communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and the inherent meanings in the resource.” That last quote coming from the National Association of Interpretation (NAI).

Jim helped the group understand the difference between Interpretation and Education suggesting that certainly part of it is the audience being Captive vs. Non-Captive. But also the nature of accountability. (An educator who is expected to teach will be held to a different level than a volunteer engaging visitors to an museum for example.) However, good educators and good Interpreters share many of the same attributes and methods.

We were introduced to the concept of the Interpretive Triangle = Audience + Resource + Objective.
Audience Motivations and Reasons why they visit an institution/site: A combination of cognitive, affective and often psychomotor (Physical) Domains. To further illustrate the interpretive triangle, Jim offered a little insight into the St. Louis Zoo.  

Saint Louis Zoo
– The zoo’s mission is summarized as “Animals Always” (It includes the ideas of conserving animals and their habitats through animal management, research, recreation and education). But the institution also needs to have a good idea why People come to the Zoo. Jim Jordan shared the topline results of the research among visitors to the Zoo. The  study on visitor motivation resulted in some interesting groupings:

Explorers” are curiosity-driven and seek to learn more about what they encounter;

Facilitators” focused primarily on enabling the experience and learning of others in their accompanying social group. Moms primary planner for family going to Zoo;

Professional/Hobbyists” feel a close tie between the institution’s content and their professional/hobbyist passions (may or may not involve seeking information from you);

Experience Seekers” primarily derive satisfaction from the visit (often in social group);

Spiritual Pilgrims” are primarily seeking a contemplative and/or restorative experience

This report only scratches the surface of the interpretation workshop covered in the four hours. In fact, the four hours passed too quickly to fully explore many of the topics but I think the volunteers in that room left with a renewed sense of value and commitment to their respective activities. Thank You Jim Jordan! 

*Freeman Tilden (August 22, 1883 – May 13, 1980) was one of the first people to set down the principles and theories of Heritage Interpretation in his 1957 book, Interpreting Our Heritage. His work with the United States National Park Service inspired generations of interpreters around the world and continues to be a definitive text for the discipline.

Note: Laumeier Sculpture Park was well represented in this workshop with docents Ann Bauer, Barb Flunker, Janet Peterson, Mary Drury, June Shaw, Wes Morgan in attendance.

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