Start to think of yourself as narrator, stage manager, and prop assistant.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of interpretation in the rapidly-expanding world of experiential tourism.
What is experiential tourism? It’s the future. Actually, it’s the present—the world of tourism began moving to an experiential model at least fifteen years ago. Where once it was enough to see Florence, to see Old Quebec, to see Long Beach, we now need to engage with these places in ways that are tactile, emotional, local, authentic and transformative.
Eating pastry in Paris? Nice, but now we’re taking pastry-making classes from local chefs there. Riding a gondola in Venice? So ten years ago. Now we’re learning to steer our own gondolas under the tutelage of a local pro. Sampling Italian food in a restaurant? Lovely, but now we’re eating in Abruzzo country homes, hosted by local families (and brokered by the Italian government.) Learning about dinosaurs in the badlands? Okay, but you really must take part in a real dig with working palaeontologists.
And shuffling along on a guided tour listening to an interpreter talk about pastry in Paris? Um, no thanks. That’s the way people travelled thirty years ago.
Interpreters love to talk. And they really love to find themselves a captive audience and bend their ears back for 45 minutes or so. And I think this is why, 59 years after Freeman Tilden pointed out that our role is to reveal and inspire rather than to inform, we still haven’t stopped talking.
And the world of travel and tourism is slowly but surely reacting with a giant, collective yawn. They’ve had enough. To quote my friend Fred: it’s time for interpreters to STFU. We need a collective shift away from presentational interpretation.
What do I mean by “presentational?”
Are you on a stage, standing in front of a circle, behind a touch table, in front of a group at an artefact? That’s presentational interpretation. Are you talking more than half the time in your program? That’s another hallmark of the presentational model. Are you the star of your program? That’s definitely presentational interpretation.
And what is experiential interpretation? Experiential interpretation moves the interpreter from the front and centre to the sidelines. The activity becomes the star; the interpreter is still key to the experience, but she is no longer front and centre. She plays second fiddle to the experience: the things that the visitor is doing to connect with the place.
The activity is the star. The interpreter is secondary in the visitor’s eye (but still omnipresent in the background as the designer of a carefully-crafted suite of experiences.)
Steve van Matre calls this “interpreter as narrator, stage manager, and prop assistant.”
In my previous post, I talked about the making of memories. Recently, I’ve been going further with my reading, and came across a pretty compelling study. It suggests that lifelong memories are made when visitor experience accomplishes the following: 1. social impact— the experience deepens our friendships and other relationships; 2. intellectual development—the experience challenges and advances our understanding of the world; 3. self-discovery—the experience transforms the way we see ourselves in the world; and 4. physical challenge—the experience pushes us in the acquisition of new skills. 1
Look at those four criteria. Nobody’s going to get them from a touch table, I’m sorry to say. Nobody.
I’m whistling across the Bay of Fundy in a Zodiac; my guide is Tom Goodwin, a biologist with thirty years’ experience on these waters. At no point does he lecture us about whale conservation or pollution in the bay or climate change—here’s here to help us find the whales. But as we search, he points out what he sees, and contrasts it with what he used to see. When we find our whale, we whoop with delight and snap photos like crazy—and he points out its behaviour, and in a few words, tells us how whale behaviour is changing. It’s enough to make you think. For me, it was enough to inspire my own reading on the subject after I got home. Looking back, I had a wonderful time. I certainly never thought of it as a program or a lesson… but the lessons, in retrospect, were clear.
I’m the a parrot sanctuary in Costa Rica, and I’m surrounded by gorgeous, outrageously-coloured macaws. We snap photos as they pose and cavort and occasionally climb on us. We snack on local fresh fruit as the director quietly tells us the history of these birds: they were confiscated at the airport, stuffed in tubes inside suitcases. Later we walk to an area where we can watch successfully-reintroduced birds streak past through open skies. I knew about the illegal pet trade before; I’d never really felt its impact before now.
Experiential interpretation looks a lot like recreational tourism, and goes by the same names: River rafting. Cross-country skiing. Canoeing and kayaking. Horseback riding. Snorkelling and diving. Orienteering and geocaching. Backpacking. Whale watching. Wine tasting. Heritage cooking and gardening. Heritage quilting and knitting. Traditional hunting and fishing.
But it’s more than recreation; it has its own quiet agenda. It is a designed and choreographed experience with concrete interpretive outcomes: to inspire thought; to make meaning; to connect with essence of place; to facilitate epiphanies large and small; to quietly connect the ecological or historical dots, however subtle they may be; to teach a few, relevant and carefully-chosen facts, and then to stand back and watch those facts come to life.
That’s what makes it interpretation, and that’s why the world of experiential tourism needs us. The pure tourism model is content to let visitors simply have fun—and there’s nothing wrong with having fun while we travel. But experiential interpretation says yes to fun, and a lot more.
We can craft experiences that change lives. We can facilitate subtly choreographed activities that challenge, provoke, reveal, and inspire—using minimal words and maximal action. We can build lifelong memories; we can design experiences to connect people to all things real, local, authentic and sustainable.
It’s good tourism, it’s good conservation, and it’s good interpretation.
And it’s high time.
- Exploring the essence of memorable tourism experiences VWS Tung, JRB Ritchie, Annals of Tourism Research 38 (4), 1367-1386 ↩