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?


iPads and pre-schoolers – confessions of a perplexed parent

Child using iPad.

Ryan has fun at preschool using the iPad; photo courtesy Above and Beyond Education.

OK I admit it – my nearly-three-year-old daughter is more familiar with iPads than I am. It’s not hard – I think I have only just fully realised I am raising a “screen-ager”. Once they started appearing at her preschool, I should have realised that if I didn’t catch up soon, I was going to be left behind; and possibly speaking an entirely different language according to the latest scrabble dictionary!

The infamous Douglas Adams came up with a set of rules that describes our reactions to technology;

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things. 

So perhaps I should not be surprised that my daughter asked for a ‘pink ‘puter’ for her third birthday. Although I was still a little taken aback when I spotted one in a local café being used by a similarly-sized girl. She was colouring while mum drank coffee. Not a lidless felt-tip in sight.

Children using laptop; S Mankelow

Josie and William Webb of Christchurch both learned their ABCs thanks to programmes like 'Letterland'.

I must admit, iPads are particularly well-suited to the preschool market. They are small and compact – much like many pre-schoolers. They have no power cords to trip on, chew on or get caught on. You can carry them and plonk them down anywhere you (or the child) likes. They are instantly on – which cuts down on whinge-time. They are intuitive to use – kids touch everything and these things are made to be touched! No keys to bash and get stuck up with nutella.

And according to i-TUNES, over 20,000 educational Apps (May 2011). But of course, like with all media, not all Apps are created equal. It’s easy to get excited about the possibilities, without first checking if the experiences you are buying into are quality ones.

Luckily there are plenty of websites and blogs to help; this is just a few:– Founded by two teachers this site reviews educational apps, under the premise that they are the tools of the future, if used responsibly. – This site posts reviews of apps being used by Apple Distinguished Educators; searchable by name or grade level. – Moms with Apps is a collaborative group of family-friendly developers seeking to promote quality apps for kids and families. – This NZ blog focuses on issues relating to children and teachers using Information and Communication Technology in education.  – CORE Education is a NZ non-profit organisation devoted to education.

And of course, if iPads are useful in formal education, what is their potential role in informal learning situations such as museums and visitor centres? Our July newsletter highlights Tauranga Art Gallery’s first go at incorporating iPads into the Lynley Dodd exhibition.  On pedestals child-high; yeah they had a clear idea of their target audience.

New Plymouth Museum Puke Ariki launched an iPad-based visitor experience in August last year, claiming to be the first in New Zealand to deploy iPads for public use in a museum. Their story can be found at

And a partnership between DOC and University of Otago’s Centre of Design will see a trial of iPads use in the Arthur’s Pass Visitor Centre launched during Conservation Week this September. See the story in our newsletter or find out more on the DOC website

Imagine visitors wandering around your art gallery, centre, museum or park with an interactive App that encourages them to look at details and discover connections to their own lives. It’s getting closer every day.

Foodprinter; Latitude Research.

Latitude Research had children draw the future of technology as they saw it.

According to a study by Latitudeº Research, “Children’s Future Requests for Computers & the Internet,” kids ages 12 and under are predicting that the future of media and technology lies in better integrating digital experiences with real-world places and activities.

Sounds like a mandate for interpretation to me! It’s a brave new world out there – and according to my daughter, it should come in hot pink.