Interpretation on Holiday

It’s not easy being an interpreter on holiday. The usual suspects on the list of tourist must-sees are generally littered with all kinds of interpretation. From museums to zoos, heritage sites to malls and casinos; it’s hard not to notice the signs, models, QR codes, spelling mistakes, bad typefaces … the list goes on. Sure, there are also artefacts, animals, chain stores, and poker tables there too, but they are the things that an interpreter’s travelling companions tend to notice. It gets a bit hard when they’re pointing out the warthog in front of you and your only reply is “yeah, but they haven’t italicised Phacochoerus africanus”

So, while on holiday last week, I left the travelling companions behind and made for Melbourne Zoo. It was a case of long-time listener, first-time caller for me; working at Auckland Zoo I’d heard plenty about Melbourne Zoo, but had never visited. One of the main reasons I wanted to visit Melbourne Zoo was to check out their onsite conservation messaging. Another example of just how hard it is to be an interpreter on holiday!

Most modern zoos (well, the good ones anyway) focus their interpretive messaging on conservation. What really differs are the tools they use to engage visitors with these messages, and to inspire them to take action. While some zoos will focus on the programmes they support, financially and with staff time, others will focus on the educating visitors on the issue, while others will highlight the actions that can be taken to alleviate or remedy the problem.

Melbourne Zoo has long been recognised as a leader in conservation messaging through the campaigns they’ve built around simple actions. From Wipe for Wildlife (switching to Australian-animal-friendly recycled toilet paper) to They’re Calling On You (donating old cellphones to help save gorillas), Melbourne Zoo’s campaigns focus on everyday visitor actions. These campaigns extend offsite, through smartphone apps, websites and PR, so it’s easy for they’re easy to understand without visiting the zoo itself. However, the onsite messaging has the role of complementing the species on display, the species whose role it is to inspire visitors to care, to take action.

What struck me was the simplicity of the messaging. There was no complicated explanation around the enormity of the issue. There was no detailed rundown of conservation status or population decline. There was simply the action that you, the visitor, could take to make a difference, today. These conservation campaigns covered a range of species, which spanned the globe and still maintained a strong Australian-focus.  To me, it appeared to be a simple, effective example of turning ‘heavy’ problems into ‘light’ actions.

Presenting complex issues and driving change are challenges that interpreters face no matter what arena they work in. Melbourne Zoo’s conservation campaigns are just one example of how interpreters are taking on that challenge.

So, how are you telling these stories?

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