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.

Venturing down the digital trail

The interpreter in the form of a mountain biker.

I am a mountain biker.

Ok, lets keep it relevant… I am a mountain biker and an interpreter.

I started mountain biking in 2001, and it was love at first ride. I used to spend every spare daylight hour I had out on the trails around Wellington with my mates. I used to read all the magazines, watch all the movies and spend hours wandering through bike shops marvelling at the shiny new bikes. I found a huge amount of joy in discovering new trails and mastering the trails I knew well.

Now, I would never claim to have mastered mountain biking but by 2006 I was pretty competent, knew my way around a bike pretty well and could find my way down most trails as good as any. When this contentment happens, ‘the search’ starts. It’s the search for something new and exciting, a chance to add a new layer to my mountain biking experience.

A friend of mine floated the idea of night riding, which basically consists of strapping the brightest light you can find to your head and tearing through the forest in the middle of the night. I had my reservations about this new idea – lights were expensive, it was colder at night, it was risky as it would be harder to get help if someone was to get hurt.

All reservations considered and addressed, we ventured out into the night for a ride. It was amazing. We rode the same tracks we had ridden for years, but when put in a new light became a brand new experience. I got that extra boost of energy and excitement for riding again.

While the search as a mountain biker led me to night riding, the search as an interpreter has got me looking at digital experiences. I, like a lot of interpreters, have my reservations about digital experiences. They tend to be expensive. They can be too difficult for visitors to use. Maintenance of content can be frustrating and time-consuming. Then there were download size issues to consider, and how to encourage visitors to download the app onto their phones in the first place.

Recently, after considering and addressing all these reservations, we at Wellington Zoo rolled out the STQRY app.

A STQRY code placed at exhibits that visitors scan using the app on their smart phone. If you scan this code now with your phone using any QR code scanner it will prompt you to download the app.

The app, developed by a Wellington-based company, allows visitors access to text, images, maps, videos, links (and much more) through their smartphone. Visitors can either search an alphabetical list of animals and exhibits or they can scan QR codes at exhibits to access relevant information.

The approach we took to the development of content was that it should complement what visitors see at exhibits. In other words, it encourages them to interact with the physical space around them. It is designed to be another layer to the experience. It is not a replacement for other forms of interpretive media, just another opportunity where visitors can customise their own experience.

A preview of the STQRY interface.

Just like night riding boosted by buzz for mountain biking, developing this experience for our visitors has given me that extra boost of energy as an interpreter. It is an opportunity to shed a new light on our experience and engage visitors in a way we have not done before. That, for me as an interpreter, is exciting. What a ride!

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?

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?

Legend – guest post by Amy Hughes

We are all in for a treat this month. I would like to introduce guest blogger Amy Hughes, INNZ member and Group Manager of Visitor Engagement at Wellington Zoo.

I think it is only appropriate this blog is called ‘Legend’, because that is what Amy is around the Zoo (Haha! Ok, I am just greasing up to the boss now, I’ll stop). She has been working to engage visitors at Wellington Zoo for the last 3 1/2 years and here are just some of her thoughts. Enjoy.



I’ve been internalising a complicated situation in my head. My seven year old nephew told me last weekend that I ‘couldn’t eat his ghost chips,’ and this got me wondering how an ad intended to encourage people to stop driving drunk, aimed at teenage males, had entered our national consciousness. Sure it’s funny and has eminently quotable lines but what is it that sets it apart from other ads?

 We have been bombarded for years with images of graphic car crashes, the after effects of driving drunk and people dying, yet none of these ads have resonated in the same way Legend has and they certainly don’t have 2 million youtube hits. The NZTA have found an engaging way to deliver a message that we have all heard thousands of times before and managed to make people pay attention and start talking about it. Legend has generated media stories and discussions – and not just about the ad, but about the issue and whether an ad can make people change their behaviour. And, when you think that it is only 60 seconds long, it is even more impressive.

 At the Zoo we deal with big issues. Deforestation, animals’ habitat loss, declining animal populations –enough to make anyone depressed. The other day we were having a meeting and we started chatting about large companies, who owns who, how pretty much everything you buy is ultimately funding tobacco or nuclear companies, or contains palm oil and one of my colleagues put her head in hands and said ‘Stop, its too depressing, I can’t handle it.’ If someone who works here finds one conversation overwhelming, it doesn’t bode well for communicating with our visitors!

There is well documented research that shows if someone is happy, or in a positive frame of mind, they feel empowered and more open to receiving messages. If you were a visitor going to your place for the first time, how many no, don’t, never messages would you encounter? I don’t know about you, but having never completely quashed my teenage rebellious streak, as soon as someone tells me not to touch or climb something, its all I want to do. 

 I love the idea of the humour and positive messaging in Legend, and how we can apply that at the Zoo. And, if we can create conversations and discussions around actions, issues and behaviour change – even better.

“What was your favorite part?” – guest post by William Bevil

That’s the first thing you’ll be asked when you return from backpacking across Southeast Asia. It’s a fair question, but it’s also pretty hard to answer.

Khoo Kongsi Clan House (amazing!) photo William Bevil.

The truly amazing Khoo Kongsi clan house, built around 1900, was said to rival the Chinese Imperial palace in terms of its grandeur.

Was it standing in the shadows of the temples of Angkor? Was it spending a week volunteering at an elephant conservation center in Thailand? Cave exploring in Halong Bay? The adrenaline rush you got walking through a sea of speeding motorbikes in Hanoi? The food? The music? The people?

So, when INNZ asked if I would like to write an article about the trip, I was stumped at first.

My partner Stacey and I spent 4.5 months traveling in the region. Although we had done
heaps of research before the trip, I still wasn’t really prepared for the vibrancy of the
culture. It seemed like every other day we were exposed to things that were truly awe-

George Town sign. Photo William Bevil.

Look closely and you’ll see interpretive signs mixed into the eclectic street scenes, cleverly sharing stories about George Town’s colorful past.

I suffer from the occupational hazard of always working (or at least thinking about
interpretation) even when I’m supposed to be on holiday. So, it’s no surprise that as we moved across the landscapes of Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, I was constantly noticing the different ways—sometimes good, sometimes not so good—that cultural heritage interpretation was handled and presented.

One place that seems to be getting it right is George Town, on the island of Penang in
northwest Malaysia. Penang is a confluence point where cultures and religions from across Asia and the Pacific have for centuries met to exchange goods and ideas. It’s a place where at any given intersection you might find a Catholic Church, a Muslim Mosque, a Chinese Clan House and a Buddhist Temple – with an English Fort around the corner, thrown in for good measure! As a result of all this “cultural fusion” and layers of history, George Town is an incredibly fun place to visit and explore.

George Town Penang Guides; photo William Bevil

: Old‐fashioned perhaps but still effective, the paper walking tour brochure is alive and well in George Town and does a great job of leading visitors to hidden wonders

Getting around George Town is very easy, and the old town quarter is easily traversed
on foot, made easier by a series of brochure guides produced by Penang Heritage Trust
and the State Tourism & Culture Office. Each brochure is themed; food, architecture,
religious sites, and traditional crafts. Inside were maps and suggested routes, along
with history and details about each of the stops. They were great reminders that a well-
designed paper guide can still be highly effective.

Asam Laksa. Photo William Bevil.

Beautifully‐arranged bowls of Asam Laksa, one of many exquisitely‐flavored dishes we enjoyed on the streets of George Town.

Because we like to eat, our personal favorite was the brochure exploring the famous cuisines of Penang which led us all over town in search of food carts and streetside vendors.

The process of finding the vendors and wandering the streets was definitely part of the adventure, and we were rewarded with personal interactions and lasting memories along with the great food. We were experiencing the real thing, prepared by and for the locals as much as for the tourists. At one stall, we met Mr Mohammed Ali, who serves Burbur Kacang, a broth of sweet mung bean and coconut cream, at his stand which he inherited from his father in the 1950s. We sat in the shade of his canopy, watching people come and go and observing the natural rhythm of the place.

Wandering through the old streets and alleys of George Town, it’s easy way to get lost,
but I’d be willing to bet you won’t mind. Around the next corner will be something
unexpected and, likely, unforgettable. A simple tool such as printed brochures can lead
intrepid visitors to those authentic experiences they crave.

Don’t wait too long to see it—and taste it!—for yourself.

You are welcome to link to our SE Asia travel blog too, if you want, but don’t feel

William is one of our fab ex-INNZ executive members, who left us to return to his homeland. When he’s not travelling to exotic places he works at Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center in Colorado.