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 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.