Interpretation, Good Writing, and Sensory Experience

Once upon a time…

…if you wanted to learn about a historic site or park—or the contents of a museum or aquarium—you had two choices. You needed to visit it, or you had to go to a library and get a book about it. If you were lucky, and if the site were famous enough, you might see a documentary about it on television, but that was rare.  Perhaps a guest speaker would appear in your community to talk about it, with captivating stories and a delightful carousel of slides. 

Those were pretty much your choices, back in the early 1990s and before. (Not so long ago, was it?) And then a wise person uttered a few prescient words:

“Information wants to be free.”

Fast forward to our time, and virtually any information imaginable can be had from the comfort of one’s own home or office. It may not always be information of the highest quality, but it is there, in all its forms and biases. 

Information won; it is free. The ramifications for the world of visitor experience are profound; we’re still fully figuring out what it means. 

Nobody needs to travel to get information anymore.

Anyone motivated to learn about your site can do so from home. Anybody with reading and basic critical thinking skills can have a complete and well-rounded appreciation of our treasured places with a minimum of effort. Information, imagery, even thoughtful interpretation and analysis are usually accessible to all, sometimes provided by our own organizations in the form of digital outreach, social media and virtual exhibitions. 

And as a result, information for its own sake now makes for an essentially worthless visitor experience. 

Why, then, do people choose to visit us at all? If everything can be learned with a cup of tea in hand on one’s own couch at home, what on earth is the point of driving halfway across the country to see a heritage site?

The answer, of course, is obvious: reading is not experiencing. Clicking on images online is not seeing. Descriptions are a poor substitute for feeling, smelling, touching, watching. We long for experience. We long for connection; we long for the personal, the tactile, the real. 

We long for collectivity of experience, too.

Online browsing is utterly solitary; a visit can be a social, collective event, shared with friends or family in the moment and shared again in the recollection. 

Our job is to facilitate that experience, and make it meaningful.

A Book on a Stick

Have you been here? Say you have traveled some distance to an important historic house. You are standing in the middle of a large green lawn, at an interpretive panel halfway through a site visit. The sun is beating down on you and there are a few mosquitoes in the air. 

The editorial voice delivers a long and detailed description of the ancestry of the area’s inhabitants: how they came to this nation, how their cultural background predisposed them to figure in this seminal moment in history. But at no point does that voice connect you to what’s around you. At no point does it exhort you to look around, make a connection between the present and the past, to see the house or the river landing or the giant old trees. Nowhere does it connect the story to the ground beneath your feet at this moment. It is simply information: detached, factual and generic. There is absolutely nothing in this presentation that couldn’t have been transmitted to you in the same way at home; there was absolutely no reason for you to travel and stand here, now, in the hot sun, to receive it. “Hmm. I could have just read the Wikipedia page,” you’re left thinking.

Connecting to place and experience

Now picture this: you have traveled to the same important historic site. You are standing on the same lawn, reading the same panel or screen. But here, the editorial voice welcomes you and places you among the many people who have stood at this exact spot over time. Evocative text encourages you to stop and look around you: breathe this dry prairie air, feel the sun overhead and the ground beneath your feet, scan the horizon and understand how this place where you’re standing, by virtue of its position at the crossroads of the region’s early settlement, was a crucible for the events that changed the region’s history.

Images and text connect the events of this site to what you see in front of you: this property, that home, these trees—they were part of the story, and still are.

You touch the old tree’s weathered trunk, as your own forbears might have done; as the site’s historical figures surely did. Even the mosquitoes and hot sun have relevance for you, for you now realize you’re feeling them as others might have done in history; you now understand how they might have influenced the events that brought you here. 

You may go home not knowing—intellectually—much more than you might have gleaned from a web page. But you feel and understand far more than you otherwise would have. You are connected to the essence of that place, and now, any new learning that you do will be framed within the context of that rich, emotional, sensory memory.

Freeman Tilden (Interpreting Our Heritage, 1957) acknowledged that interpretation is delivered in the presence of the resource. That is its greatest strength. He also asserted, “Any interpretation that doesn’t somehow relate what is being described to something within the experience or personality of the visitor will be sterile.”

So why do we stick Wikipedia pages in the ground? Why do we write a book on the wall? Why do we start dumping generic information all over our visitors, simply because they’ve arrived? It’s bad interpretation and bad tourism. As writers, we must fully acknowledge and capitalize on what our visitor sees, hears, and feels throughout the visit. It seems like such a simple concept—honestly, it’s just good interpretive writing— but it’s surprising how often we forget it. 

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  1. Sylvie Binette

    Love your writing. It gets me all enthusiastic about our work as interpretive planner and trainer.

  2. thank you for this! engage with all the senses, yes! wikipedia cannot replace that.

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