Making people think. Nature interpretation as meaning-making

Human beings have always used stories to make sense of the world around them. From mythology to memoirs, the strong narrative helps us structure our experiences and discover our truths. During the 2016 Hidden Heritage Conference, Tristan Boyle told the audience that “We are all liars.” His point was that there are very few hard and fast facts and many stories, truths and ways to spin a story. In other words, knowledge is constructed to suit needs, serve purposes and because of a discourse that makes us think about things a certain way. Sam H. Ham, when speaking at the Nordic Seminar on Heritage and Nature Interpretation agreed, saying: “Meaning making is the endgame of interpretation.” (Ham, 2013)

According to Sam H. Ham there are three possible goals or reasons for doing interpretation. Ham calls them endgames, and describes three: Didactics (or teaching), entertainment, and provocation. Teaching transmits facts and cognitive knowledge, entertainment captures people’s attention and provocation encourages people to create their own meaning. Research shows that only the latter form really has the potential to change minds, because people care about the things they give thought. (Ham, 2013) This means that nature interpretation which causes people to consider issues and form their own opinions are important, and that if we wish to encourage people to care and protect our natural heritage, we should facilitate meetings between people and nature in which we use themes to engage people’s imagination, problem-solving skills and curiosity to allow them to arrive at their own conclusions. (Ham, 2013) (Tilden, 1977) This is not a process that can be controlled or predicted. Instead the interpreter must be genuinely open to the experiences and conclusions of the listener. (Hovelynck, 2001)

In order to facilitate meetings between people and nature that would allow them to experience things in a way that encourages them to think about things that are important to them, Sam H. Ham suggests using themes, because “People remember themes… they forget facts” (Ham, 1992). Creating rich themes which are capable of invoking thought and provoking listeners requires much preparation and experience in order to select and present themes and contexts that have the potential to connect with themes inside the minds of participants and listeners. (Ham, 2013) (Tilden, 1977) This means that even though nature interpreters do not have the answers, they do need to have a thorough understanding of both their field and their audiences in order to be able to help create a situation in which complex and substantial questions can be asked.

Some questions relating to the natural environment could be topics such as the amount of micro-plastic in our oceans, whether or not animals should be kept in a zoo, whether to accept loss of ancient woodland because a road needs to be built, the conflict between allowing the public access to vulnerable natural resources for their enjoyment and recreation versus the need to protect those same areas or the decisions that need to be made on a tiny scale when managing an area where a complex ecosystem means species are fighting for survival at each other’s expense. These questions do not have hard and fast answers. Instead the answers will depend on our understanding, our values and indeed, how much thought we have given to the issue and whether we have found the question relevant to us compared to all the other things we need to think about.

An example of a small piece of interpretation which aims to engage people in thinking about dilemmas and values is the Open University game “Adventure in the Amazon” where the player is asked to make decisions in a create-your-own-adventure situation and the implications of those decisions are then revealed. (Barardi, 2014) Some of the outcomes might be surprising and can reveal areas where certain decisions would have unintended effects, causing the player to possibly rethink their initial idea or at least make it apparent to them that decisions are not simple and that most situations will present a trade-off.

During the course of my education, I have worked on several projects which aimed to interpret nature to visitors and locals. During all of them, I was faced with dilemmas and choices that did not have an easy answer. During an interpretation project in a raised bog area of Northern Denmark, a citizen had some alternative views of the history of the area which he firmly believed in. These views were not popular with the archaeologists but because the man was an important part of the project, we had to be sensitive to his opinions. In the project group, some were annoyed and some were more understanding of this citizen. I spoke to my project manager and suggested that we use my status as a student as a way of making sure this person was heard without having to implement his views into the interpretation panels. Instead, we agreed that I would interview him and make sure his views were recorded. This is an example of an attempt to give different views some space even if there was a need to present a coherent narrative to the general public. If we accept that what we see as heritage, as well as the things we assign value to, are social constructs, then we have to at least be aware of the people who hold other opinions. Because we can never be sure we have got it right ourselves. Later data may cause us to change our minds, whether we are interpreters, conservationists or historians.

Other projects have had similar challenges, from how much to involve communities in Geoparks and how the need for walking trails conflicts with sensitive ecosystems in the Brecon Beacons National Park. While the Sandford Principle (National Parks UK, n.d.) gives some direction in the latter case, it is still a matter of judgement on the part of the park management, and in close relation to that, a case of explaining and often defending decisions to the affected population. In these cases, thematic interpretation may also be helpful in providing the public with a genuine insight into the multiple aspects to be considered when making decisions.

As mainly communicators and marketers, Natural and Cultural Heritage Managers will need to work closely with other professionals to access their knowledge of different fields and to produce the interpretation material required. In my projects and internships, I have worked with people from numerous fields such as tourism, geology, graphic design, computing, political science as well as specialised nature interpreters and volunteers with a specialised knowledge on a particular area. Sometimes, I have had the privilege of learning from these people, not least the interpreters, who have wanted to share their knowledge and passion for an area with me. At other times, the process has been more formal, and I have been given overviews and written material to research in order to suggest a strategy or write a grant proposal. In my view, to face and written interpretation aimed at the general population; as well as fundraising applications and documents to stakeholders are all nature interpretation, and both stand a greater chance of resonating with the recipient if the information is ordered and connects with something within this person and makes them think and engage with the issues and themes communicated. This has been the case for me whether I interpreted wildlife around a trail, strategies for the development of a Geopark or promoted natural heritage to a group of potential financial donors. Each project has its individual timeline and resources and the role of a Natural and Cultural Heritage Manager in my experience will often be to close gaps and liaise between different professions, for instance a geologist and a graphic designer, or a programmer and a community group. This requires insight into both fields and an ability to quickly absorb large amounts of information.

Personally, I prefer projects and roles where I have time to delve into a topic a bit more because it allows me to build enough knowledge, both cognitive and experiential, that I can answer questions from stakeholders, audiences and colleagues with a reasonable amount of confidence, even if those answer often consist of a set of facilitating questions or possible themes. It also allows me to increase my own understanding of the different factors at play and the agendas and dreams of others affected by the project. I enjoy working with communities as well as professionals, and trying to make sure everyone has their voice heard and considered. I consider it important that protected groups are included as far as possible and that we as professionals are sensitive to the hopes and aspirations of volunteers and the public and include them in decision making and meaning making as much as possible, not least because in most cases, it is their stories and their heritage we interpret.

Depending on the project, sometimes professional ethics may conflict in part with the constraints of the situation, whether these are financial or rooted in different worldviews and expectations. I believe in multiple truths and in encouraging diversity and rich, at times conflicting narratives and opinions. While I am aware of the importance of quantitative data to ensure support and return on investment, I enjoy working with qualitative methods from a social constructionist starting point, ensuring that a project remains sensitive to those who must live with the effects. This is why I mostly work on projects that strive to be sustainable and inclusive of stakeholders, often assisting to formulate strategies and policies.

Beck and Cable write in Interpretation for the 21st Century: “An interpreter is invested in a life-long quest of learning and experience, and in sharing that accumulated wisdom.” (Beck & Cable, 2002, p. 10) and they later encourage interpreters to stay on top of a massive amount of information relating to the field by being very selective about the type of material they read, while making sure they balance reading with experiencing things themselves. (Beck & Cable, 2002, pp. 26-27) I believe that Natural and Cultural Heritage Managers might be interpretation projects’ equivalent of the serial entrepreneur, helping to get a project started and defined, get interpretive material created, before moving on to another project to learn new things and pass them on to others. This requires exactly what Beck and Cable highlight: A passion for learning and sharing.

To me, heritage interpretation is important because it helps us create meaning and gives us roots to the past and routes to the future. While we can tell many different stories and have many different truths, I am convinced if we had no stories at all, we would lose much of that which makes us human, for better or worse.

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