About Robinne Weiss

Writer / Heritage Interpreter

Interpretive Magic

Interpretation has a purpose. Our interpretive programmes have a theme, or take home message. They are aligned to the mission and vision of our organisations. They have desired outcomes reflected in visitor knowledge, attitudes and behaviours.

But interpretation can also sometimes have magic.

Sometimes – rarely, but every once in a great while – it changes someone’s life.

I was reminded of this over the holidays when I went kayaking with my kids. My daughter struggles with anxiety and low self-esteem. Even the smallest challenge can set her off into tears and self-hate. So I admit I was nervous taking her out on her first serious day of sea kayaking. But the day dawned sunny and still. The sea was smooth as glass. We glided around rocks and islands, looking at starfish the size of dinner plates. We paddled across estuaries, with rays darting underneath the boat. We stopped for a snack on a hidden beach with a tiny waterfall.

As we turned to head home, the wind picked up and the sea became choppy. Crossing the estuaries, waves started cresting into our laps. Swells around the rocks threatened to drive us to shore. The focus of the trip changed from observing sea life to paddling. But the rocks and water had become familiar to my daughter. Wet was

Proud paddlers pose for a photo.

Proud paddlers pose for a photo.

ok, bobbing on the waves was ok. She was nervous, but kept paddling, doing her part to bring us home. When we finally pulled up onto the beach, her triumphant smile and confident stride told me that she was a different girl from the one who’d set out in the morning.

Now, this wasn’t officially an interpretation programme, but it reminds me that when we as interpreters take people out of their comfort zone, amazing things can happen. Things that may have nothing to do with our own goals for the programme. And taking people out of their comfort zone isn’t confined to adventure tourism. I push people’s limits every day by asking them to look at and hold live insects. Indeed, for some, just being in the same room with insects is a major challenge.

When I find myself interpreting to a person like this, I know I have a great opportunity. An opportunity to create magic. A child may start the programme in tears of fear, cringing and shrinking back whenever I open a cage. As I weave my stories of insects and their amazing adaptations and importance to us, as I bring live insects close to the children and give them opportunities to study them in detail, I take special care with the fearful child. I give her extra time, extra encouragement. The tears stop. The child creeps forward to peer at legs and antennae. If I’ve done my job, I eventually take her hand in mine and gently place an insect on it. When that happens, I see the child’s face light up and her back straighten. She has conquered a fear and is proud of it. She’s discovered a new-found strength and is flush with the excitement of it. Magic has happened.

I’ve had students come up to me after a programme and hug me, or turn around at the door and give me a thumbs-up and a grin. Will they remember my take-home message? Maybe, but I don’t care. The impact of my programme has gone far beyond my purpose, theme, mission and vision. I’ve just changed a life. It is a gift to me and to them.


Hard to tell…

Years ago as a relatively new interpreter, I worked at an outdoor education centre in Ohio that did living history programmes. The most popular programme was an Underground Railroad programme where school kids played the part of escaping slaves. As they travelled north toward Canada, they met a variety of characters, some nice and some not so nice to them. During our staff training, I was uncomfortable with the programme. We were expected to threaten the children with guns, lock them in a shed, and treat them roughly. I thought it was going too far—these were kids, after all! Living history or not, was it really necessary to rough them up for the sake of interpretation? I had a talk with the director, and though he was quite comfortable with the programme, he agreed to allow me to play characters that were not required to threaten the children with firearms.

African American slaves picking cotton in Alabama

What I didn’t count on was our audience. These little children arrived with no understanding of the history of slavery in America, and often with a wall of inherited prejudices against African Americans. Within a month, I was one of the most ruthless slave hunters on the programme, luring the children into my confidence, then turning on them as I pulled a pistol from my skirts.

For me, slavery was one of those “hard to tell” subjects—a subject that for me was too emotional, too inflammatory, too…well…shameful to tell in graphic detail. But for my audience it wasn’t a difficult subject at all. In fact, it wasn’t nearly difficult enough for them. I realised that my job was to turn my nation’s history of slavery into an emotional, inflammatory, and shameful subject for these children. To these kids, slavery was dates and names to be memorised—dry and unemotional. My job as an interpreter was to make it emotional for them; make it personal.

As interpreters, we need to tell the hard stories. They are often the most important ones to tell. And sometimes those stories will necessarily evoke negative emotions. We can’t shy away from that. There is power in those emotions. A power we can harness.

Next month interpreters will gather in Christchurch to spend a weekend sharing our triumphs and troubles as we search for powerful and positive ways to tell difficult stories. I encourage you to join us, whether you’re a war-scarred veteran of “hard to tell” stories, or a fresh recruit facing your first “hard to tell” story. You’ll find more information about the weekend, plus a registration form on the INNZ website.

The power of a person

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

Toby sharing his enthusiasm with children during Conservation Week 2011

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?

Interpreting cultures—insider or outsider?

Who has the “right” to interpret a culture?  Can a good interpreter sensitively interpret other cultures?

I am an American.  More specifically, I am Pennsylvania Dutch.  My German and Swiss ancestors arrived in the New World in the 1700s. My own cultural experiences growing up centred on typical

The Pennsylvania Dutch cultural landscape includes aspects that are considered unusual, even by other Americans. (photo: Eric Weiss Photography)

Pennsylvania Dutch food (homemade pickles, whoopie pies, schnitz un knepp, corn pie, soft pretzels) and crafts (quilts, rag rugs, baskets, corn husk dolls).  I assumed everyone in the world had bright hex signs on their red tobacco-drying barns.  Horse-drawn buggies filled with bonneted Amish women were a common sight, and my Mennonite friends with their hair coverings were just normal.

What a shock it was, then, as a teen to begin to discover that the entire world wasn’t the same.  Since those innocent childhood days, I’ve lived in numerous places in the US, Costa Rica, Panama, and now New Zealand.  I’ve learned that my “normal” Pennsylvania Dutch upbringing is actually quite foreign to many people…even other Americans. I’ve learned that human culture is extremely diverse, even within what we consider individual cultures.

As an interpreter, I am often in a position of interpreting cultural heritage. Sometimes I am interpreting my own heritage, but more often I am asked to interpret someone else’s heritage.  This puts me in a difficult and potentially uncomfortable situation. How can I, as an American, interpret Maori cultural values? Or even Pakeha culture?

In recent years, there has been a refreshing acknowledgement in interpretation that cultures should be interpreted by those within the culture. In the US, this means that more Native Americans are interpreting their own history, rather than their history being told by those of European descent. I strongly support this trend, particularly in the case of cultures that have been historically steamrolled by more dominating cultures.

But what qualifies someone as a member of a culture? How do you “classify” my friend who is 1/8thMaori and was raised as a Pakeha? Or the friend with a Brazilian mother, South African father, raised in New Zealand? With my Pennsylvania Dutch upbringing am I really “American” enough to interpret popular American culture? If we are too picky, we may find that there are few interpreters qualified to interpret any culture.  Indeed, more often than not, interpreters are asked to interpret a culture that is not necessarily their own.  What can an interpreter do in this case?

Staff at the Landis Valley Museum interpret traditional Pennsylvania Dutch culture

Here are some guidelines I work by. They help me navigate the challenging process of effectively and sensitively interpreting “foreign” cultures.

1. Listen and be guided by the culture.  Suspend your own cultural beliefs to be able to fully hear and understand the culture you are interpreting. Let members of that culture tell you what is important and what they’d like to share. Listen, also, to how the culture shares its stories. Consider not just content, but also delivery method.  A culturally appropriate delivery method can be powerful and provocative.

2. Learn what issues are contentious. Are there topics that are culturally sensitive? Things people don’t necessarily want to talk about? Regardless of how interesting some bit of cultural information is, it may not be appropriate to share with visitors.

3. Know your information source. Get your information from members of the culture you are interpreting. This may require extra work, as the culture you’re interpreting may not have extensive written records. You may need to do more interviewing and less library or internet research.

4. Find common ground.  Help visitors understand the culture you’re interpreting by finding similarities with the dominant culture(s) of your visitors. This may require learning more about your visitors’ cultures, too!

5. Get feedback. Once you’ve developed your interpretation, and before producing it, get feedback from members of the culture you are interpreting.  Get feedback from as many different people as you can—remember that cultures are sometimes as internally diverse as they are different from one another.

6. Be prepared to make mistakes. You will get it wrong sometimes. Listen to the feedback, and be prepared to start over from the beginning if that’s what it takes.

In the end, none of us is fully qualified to speak even for our own culture (for example, though I grew up seeing hex signs, I’ve no idea what most of them mean). Our challenge as interpreters is to gather many stories, and through our interpretation reveal “something of the beauty and wonder, the inspiration and spiritual meaning that lie behind what the visitor can with his senses perceive.” (Tilden, 1957).