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.

Didactic versus experiential nature interpretation

As professionals, how we interpret nature to different audiences will depend mainly on two factors, namely our view of the target audience; and what we wish to achieve as a result of engaging with this audience. Within the field of nature interpretation several different traditions exist and this essay will present two of the main ones: The didactic and the experiential approach. This essay argues that the choice of approach to nature interpretation is not a one-time decision for a professional. Rather, interpretation should be tailored to the audience and the context in which it occurs.

Traditional programmes have been designed to teach people about nature with the intention of leaving visitors with a specific type of knowledge about the natural world around them, whether that be knowledge of habitats, certain species or intricate ecosystems such as coral reefs. This approach is known as the didactic approach and is essentially a piece of planned communication with roots in the education system. Although often dialogue-based and stressing the need to treat visitors with respect, during didactic interpretation, the interpreter has certain outcomes in mind and wishes to teach facts. Some of the visitors’ experiences or opinions could be deemed ‘wrong’ and get in the way of the message. (Hovelynck, 2001) At the core of the didactic approach is the idea that knowledge and cognition are central aspects and the desired learning goals planned by the interpreter or teacher are the reasons interpretation takes place at all. The experience of the visitor could be said to be a means to an end which is defined by the interpreter.

Laswell’s communication model from 1948 is often condensed into the sentence: “Who says what to whom in which channel with what effect?” (Lasswell, 1948) and allows for investigation of different elements of a piece of communication. If we analyse the communicative situation above using Laswell’s model, the answer to Lasswell’s question would appear like this:

Who Says what To whom In which channel With what effect?
The interpreter Offers evaluations, opinions and focus Someone who needs/wants to learn more about nature. Via planned verbal speeches or written displays With the aim of disseminating knowledge.

Opposed to the didactic tradition is the experiential approach, which emphasises learning-by-doing. Here the interpreter acts as a facilitator allowing and encouraging a wide range of different experiences to take place. The experiential approach is in line with the fundamental idea that knowledge is constructed and occurs in relationships between people and their environment. In contrast with the didactic approach, the experiential approach holds that the cognitive, emotional and physical aspects of experiences cannot be separated, nor can learning be divided into skills, knowledge, attitudes, context and so forth. Instead, they form a holistic whole with all aspects intrinsically linked. (Hovelynck, 2001) (Beck & Cable, 2002, pp. 47-56)

The power to define goals and objectives is not in the hands of the interpreter, nor is the interpreter the sender of the message. Participants will all have different experiences which they interpret and make sense of in different ways. Facilitating learning in this context will most closely resemble coaching and guiding people in finding out what things mean to them and what they can take away from a situation, and not so much about facts and a pre-planned curriculum. Instead, the interactions offer opportunities to wonder and reflect, and for individuals and groups to create knowledge together. A combination of action and reflection known as praxis is an important part of any experiential learning approach. This is often also termed learning-by-doing.

An overview of this approach can be seen below, again using Lasswell’s model.

Who Says what To whom In which channel With what effect?
The context of environment and people Offers experiences, input and puzzles To someone who is curious and investigative Via immersion in the situation With the aim of holistic learning and experiencing.

In summary, the two approaches understand their audiences and role differently. In the didactic approach, the listener is sometimes receptive, sometimes not. His previous knowledge can either help or hinder his understanding of the message, but the listener is expected to be the recipient of a carefully crafted message with a reasonably well-defined purpose. According to the experiential approach, knowledge is created in a social context and the audience must engage with the world around them to experience and create meaning for themselves via their meeting with actual problems. These active participants may have very different experiences that can colour their experiences; they are believed to be independent and whole beings who need an environment that facilitates learning.

Often the aim of nature interpretation is to instil a sense of wonder or a desire to protect the natural heritage into listeners, as the hidden meaning of a place is revealed.  (Tilden, 1977) The interpreter is expected to think carefully about the message she wishes to convey, gather accurate information and select carefully a limited number of elements to include in order to avoid confusing her audience. The interpreter should look for a way to connect with visitor interests and prior experience in order to successfully deliver their programme. The underlying assumption in didactics is that the interpreter holds the knowledge and expertise, and that a single, predefined meaning exists or can be selected by the interpreter on behalf of the listeners. In experiential education, the meaning is hidden in the sense that it has not yet been created in the minds of the experiencing persons.

Johan Hovelynck, professor at Leuven University, argues in his article ‘Beyond Didactics’ that many so called experiential approaches are still too close to the didactic approach. He points out that a desired end goal is more or less obviously sought by the facilitator. He argues that a truly experiential approach would allow participants to define for themselves what they wish to learn and what they actually do experience. Predefining an experiences is not possible as it is not possible to observe it before it takes place. The pressure to do so shows how experiential education is still hostage to the didactic approach it tries to be an alternative to. (Hovelynck, 2001) Hovelynck’s view is that experiential learning is about meaning-making and which is in line with the multiverse idea held by for instance radical democratic movements. Hovelynck is clearly trying to get experiential education to return to its roots by pointing out the ways in which it is still failing to differentiate itself from the norms of the didactic approach, but to some degree, he fails to address the fact that in many cases, a certain type of information is needed in order to persuade politicians and obtain financial support. With an increasing pressure on teachers to articulate very clear goals, it can be difficult to fit true experiential learning into the context of schools. In all these cases, there is a strong focus on being able to verbalise specific outcomes, whether financially or in terms such as skills, knowledge and other separate aspects in a way which requires a more atomistic view of the situation than many supporters of experiential learning are able to identify with.

The requirement to be able to formulate outcomes in specific and quantitative terms is one that I have certainly met during my internship when working with grant writing and trying to influence the decision makers on a political level. Evaluating proposals is certainly easier when hard facts can be compared but as the saying goes: Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. In other words, by focusing solely on the quantifiable elements, we risk ignoring the significance of personal experience, conundrums and learning things thoroughly and truly by engaging with the real thing itself. It is a very real challenge when designing programmes and writing grant proposals to ensure that there is a suitable mix of hard data and a strong narrative to explain why things matter and should be prioritised but it is clear that projects without a strong programme theory will not be favoured, and occasionally, an initiative will simply not make it past the idea stage because it cannot be described in sufficiently clear terms with respect to goals, actions and outcomes even though there may be significant intangible benefits from it.

According to Sam H. Ham, a representative of the thematic interpretation approach, no research supports the idea that knowing the same things as an interpreter will make you care the same way he does. Only a person’s own thinking and experiences can make him care. Ham puts it this way when talking to an audience at the Nordic Seminar on Heritage and Nature Interpretation: “I can’t pound knowledge into your head, all I can do is facilitate a process wherein you do your own thinking and create your own subjective knowledge of the world. The only caring… any of us is capable of doing must come from the thoughts that we ourselves think between our own two ears.” (Ham, 2013)

I think, therefore, that it is a case of tailoring your message to the needs of the audience, which in case of input to a political process or grant proposals will mean that it is important to be able to at least state the probable outcomes of a project or programme with some confidence. In the case of direct interpretation to the general public with the aim of causing people to care about the environment or heritage, allowing them to form their own opinions and connections will be preferable. These two things do not need to conflict. In my opinion, interpretation is a continuum and the approach chosen will depend on the desired effect of the communication as well as the interests and needs of the audience.

Lovely Geopark Visit

WaterfallsFor the past couple of weeks, I have been in Wales, getting familiar with the Fforest Fawr Geopark within the Brecon Beacons and it’s people. The purpose of my trip was twofold: First of all, I needed to experience something new, have a break from it all and just unwind. And secondly, as I work with a Danish Geopark in the making, I wanted to experience how they had done it elsewhere, and perhaps pick up some tips and tricks.

I stayed with locals using Airbnb, travelled around with public transport, tasted local food, attempted to speak Welsh though my success was rather limited, alas. I visited and took notes at visitor centres, churches, museums and other places of interest – and took a lot of pictures of displays and solutions to interpretation challenges.

Furthermore, I had the chance to once again visit Forest of Dean and Wye Valley, go for a few nice long walks, learn more about the geology of my favourite place and well, get stung by some 8 foot high nettles behind a quarry somewhere.

It was a really nice trip, even though I missed my return flight and had to go via Hamburg and sit someplace silly in a railway station at 3am in the morning waiting for a connecting train. I will sort through some pictures and upload a few for you soon.