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
http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/

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!

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.

Oli 

 

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.

http://www.radionz.co.nz/audio/remote-player?id=2501778

Stones to iPhones – INNZ Spring Workshop

I attended the INNZ Spring Workshop in Timaru to be inspired. To see things from other points of view, to network with like minded individuals, working in fields unlike mine. While working within the zoo industry is great, stepping out of that context and looking to bring in ideas from other types of organisations is an exciting challenge; a challenge of great benefit to me as an interpreter.

Oli and guides at the Eagle Cave.

I'm on the left as our guides Karl and Sue invite us to explore the Cave of the Eagle.

This year we were hosted by Te Ana: Ngai Tahu Rock Art Centre. A highlight of day one was going out to the rock art sites to look at drawings done hundreds of years ago. There is so much mystery around them. Who drew them and why? Were they the work of an accomplished artist? Were they a means of communication between travelling iwi? Or were they an ancient form of graffiti, maybe done to entertain the mokopuna? Our guides were friendly and informative, but still allowed provocative thought – they were fantastic.

Inside Te Ana Ngai Tahu Rock Art Centre

INNZ workshoppers have a go at creating their own 'rock art'

We heard from the Te Ana development team about the process of designing the centre. The work that was done by the development team was a reminder to engage the right people in the process. The centre is about giving Ngai Tahu the means to tell their stories. As interpreters we focus a lot on the final product, the message that is being portrayed to our audience, but sometimes how we get there is just as important.

On day two of the workshop, a World Café session was hosted. It was a great opportunity to get together and discuss current issues in our industry. Three table discussions were set up. Kate Woodall from Te Papa hosted the topic ‘Why digital?’ – very relevant to our industry, as some of the biggest buzz going on at the moment is around digital experiences. (Stay posted to this blog for other World cafe dicussion topics).

As an interpreter looking for inspiration QR codes, iApps, augmented reality, and RFIDs to name a few, offer new possibilities. But the question around the table was, who really wants digital experiences? Do our audiences expect them? Or is it an expectation from within the industry?

As the discussion went on it became clear that we should be asking ourselves “how can digital enhance the experience for visitors? Is it always the right tool for the job?”

One of Kate’s messages was – if you are going to do it, do it right and for the right reasons. Digital experiences are a tool that can add another layer to an experience. One of the people around our table suggested that maybe an indicator for success in this area is that visitors don’t know they are having a digital experience. I like the idea of that seamlessness.

Valley of the Eagle.

A landscape of inspiration - the Valley of the Eagle

There is so much good work being done in New Zealand. Every time I go to an INNZ workshop or conference I see something or experience something that reinvigorates and inspires me. The Interpretation Network of New Zealand is only as strong as it members, and if the recent workshop is anything to go by, it’s going from strength to strength.