The Interpretive Disaster

An interview with the editors of the Interpreter’s Big Book of Disasters

I suppose every profession is prone to minor disasters. I was a waiter once; I recall tipping about a half litre of pop onto a child’s head. In another job I remember hopping out of a vehicle to grab some equipment… and forgetting to put the truck in park (I stopped it just before it drove itself over an embankment.) Interpretive disasters, though, are in a class of their own: they tend to be so very public.

When Pam Murray, Cal Martin and André Laurin approached me to contribute a story to their new book, The Interpreter’s Big Book of Disasters, I confess it wasn’t a question of whether or not I had one to share. It was which of my innumerable regrettable moments I’d choose. And now, having contributed a cautionary tale, I am breathless with anticipation. I’m sure I’ll learn a few practical things; I’m sure I’ll have a good chuckle. But mostly I’m counting on a nice, refreshing evening of schadenfreude: the reassuring knowledge that my own interpretive misadventure wasn’t the worst one of the lot. Was it?

No, really, was it?

Big Book of Disasters

What inspired you to gather interpretive disaster stories from across the country?

Pam: Knowing that people I respect have accidentally stuck sea stars to a child’s head or brought the wrong box of props to a program on an island is strangely reassuring. I think that reflecting on our disasters so that we can do better next time is an important part of professionalism in our field.

Cal: To me, there is little that is as professionally satisfying as listening to other interpreters share stories about their programs. It is endlessly entertaining, but also memorable. So, when we were brainstorming ways to support interpreters and raise money for Interpretation Canada at the same time, it seemed like collecting those stories was a perfect fit.

André:  The idea for the book came out of an idea to create a survival kit for interpreters, with a “how-to” handbook, which eventually morphed into The Interpreter’s Big Book of Disasters.

Which story made you cringe the worst?

Cal: Oh man, that’s a tough question! I think my pick is “Sea Lion Porn” by Heather Graham-Nakaska. I can completely relate to not having the time to check my films beforehand and then to be completely embarrassed by them.

Pam: For me the most cringe-worthy stories are those where the actions and reactions of audience members created awkward situations. No matter how thoroughly we plan or how much experience we have, our audience will never be completely predictable.

André: I found that I could relate to all of the stories that were submitted in some way, shape or form; however, funny enough, your story made me cringe the most. (Oh god I KNEW it. -ed.) Of all the disasters one can envision and prepare for, losing a participant (let alone a child) is probably my biggest fear.

Do you feel we as a profession are more or less prone to interpretive disasters now, compared to the early days of your career? 

André: I don’t think things have changed much. Perhaps that’s because I’ve only been in the business for 15 years or so. I’ve learned a lot from the errors, disasters and successes that have come my way, which in itself, is the process.

Pam: I’d like to think we are less prone to them, but I’m really not sure. I think it depends a lot on the culture of each organization, and how seriously they take the profession. The worst interpretive disasters, to me, are the missed opportunities when interpretation is treated like an afterthought, and unfortunately I still see a lot of this.

Cal: One one hand, in today’s world, there are so many resources at our fingertips.  But, recent times have seen a lot of austerity, resulting in budget cuts, shortened seasons and positions, and virtually non-existent training. As a result, I think the profession struggles with repeating the same mistakes, even though we live in a time where this should be mostly preventable.

What is your single best piece of advice to brand-new interpreters, to avoid some of these epic interpretive fails?

Pam: The most important thing is that once your audience is with you, you have to let go of any fear you have of making a mistake.  Enjoy what you are doing! You are the only one who knows how things are ‘supposed’ to go, and if you respond authentically and professionally to the unexpected, your audience may not even realize it’s a disaster.

Cal: Most disasters can be foreseen, and simply taking 30 minutes to think through different scenarios can save a lot of embarrassment. But, if an unforeseen disaster does happen, own it. After entertaining your coworkers with your story, submit it to us for the next book!

André: Buy this book! No, really, BUY THIS BOOK! By doing so, you’ll be supporting Interpretation Canada, whose purpose is to support heritage interpreters across Canada. Read the stories, laugh, cry, and learn.

Don: There you have it, my friends: laugh, cry and learn, and support one of the world’s finest organizations for interpretive professionals. Order your copy here.

Please share with your network. Thanks!
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