Being a front-line interpreter for over 20 years, I recognise the importance of personal interactions in our visitors’ experiences. A live interpreter can provide a more powerful experience than any sign, exhibit, or app possibly can. Unfortunately, as budgets grow ever tighter and technological possibilities more flashy, managers rely increasingly on non-personal interpretation.
A few weeks ago, my daughter and I took a day off work and school to go to Orana Park to learn more about big cats for a school project. Upon entering, we asked if there might be an opportunity to talk with one of the staff about the cats. The woman at reception immediately arranged for us to meet their education manager, Toby, at the lion enclosure in
half an hour. Unfortunately, Toby got tied up with a school group and missed our meeting. We gave up waiting and headed to the café for a bit of a warm up. Ten minutes later, Toby searched us out and sat down with us. We had a lovely discussion with him, learning all about the park’s cats, and answering all the questions my daughter needed to answer for her project. Toby was personable, knowledgeable, and passionate about the animals and the work the park is doing to conserve them. He provided us with the information we wanted, while also clearly expressing the messages that support the park’s mission. His search for us after missing our appointment showed a real interest in our experience as visitors.
I have been to Orana Park many times, and have been reasonably impressed with their signage. But until this trip, I’d never felt any sort of emotional connection with the park. With his infectious enthusiasm, Toby made the emotional connections that made my visit memorable, and left me and my daughter wondering how we can support the park in its mission. She is now baking and selling cookies (decorated to look like cat faces) in order to raise money to adopt a cheetah at the park.
How many opportunities to really connect with visitors do organisations miss because they rely entirely on non-personal interpretation? Or because their interpretive staff are poorly trained? How much more support (political, community, monetary) would heritage sites gain by having living, breathing, passionate interpreters spreading their messages, rather than static signage? I don’t have an answer to this, but as interpretive sites lean more and more on technology to deliver interpretation, we need to remember the incredible power of a person to communicate.
How does your interpretive site use personal interpretation to communicate your message?