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Beyond the Interpreter's Words: Experiences Erupt from the Visitor's Entire Context

  • PUP Global Heritage Consortium


This article is the cover story for themed issue, Immersive Experiences in Interpretation. It refutes the traditional view of interpretation whereby most of the advice and attention centers on the interpreter, her words and actions. Rather the article propose a holistic view to understanding all the many stimuli in the multi-dimensional environment that together shape the conditions of the experience opportunity. When the interpretive agency understands this wider context, it can better design experience opportunities for people to engage and interact with the heritage that ultimately is the purpose of the interpretation.
6 january/february 2017
Plan your programs around the
“Wow” factor your visitors will love.
Pleasure and Pain Burn
Memory into Brain
that time in
when you
turned the
corner to
discover a
grizzly standing
there, or a
squirrel darted
in front of your
car, or you won
the lottery, hit a home run, earned
a… those moments don’t require
study to remember. e emotion of
experience burns those memories
permanently into the hard disk
of the mind. In fact, the mind
writes to memory from emotions
far faster than rational thought.
Even thoughts are easier to recall
when rst electried by emotional
surges. Surely when Einstein
discovered E=MC2, his reaction
erupted with emotional—not just
Good reasons tie emotion so
tightly with memory; it could save
your life. When I was robbed by two
assailants in front of my house years
ago, I never forgot and still feel a tad
anxious every time I approach my
street. But that keeps me on edge; it
protects me in the same way a robin,
which vomits back a poisonous
monarch buttery, will never ingest
one again.
Evolution has given us higher
animals a very useful—even life-
saving—tool in emotion. It ags
those experiences we should never
forget, for good or for ill, because
those experiences prove meaningful.
It is no wonder then that memory
emerges from emotion much faster
than rational thought.
Too Much Attention for
Interpreters Can Be Unhealthy
ough eons ago nature encrypted
our emotional experience with great
power, the interpretation eld hasn’t
quite caught up yet. Consider that
most interpretation denitions and
teachings tend to focus on what the
interpreter does (which includes
non-personal interpreters such as
brochures and exhibits), which can
have an unhealthy eect on the ego:
Beyond the Interpreters Words
Experiences Erupt from the Visitor’s Entire Context
j o n k o h l
Legacy 7
Freeman Tilden: Heritage
interpretation is an educational
activity which aims to reveal
meanings and relationships
through the use of original objects,
by rsthand experience, and by
illustrative media, rather than
simply to communicate factual
ICOMOS: Interpretation refers
to the full range of potential
activities intended to heighten
public awareness and enhance
understanding of a cultural
heritage site. ese can
include print and electronic
publications, public lectures,
on-site and directly related o-
site installations, educational
programs, community
activities, and ongoing research,
training, and evaluation of the
interpretation process itself.
NAI: Interpretation is a mission-
based communication process that
forges emotional and intellectual
connections between the interests
of the audience and the meanings
inherent in the resource.
Interpretation, just like experience
itself, must focus on much more than
either the actions of the interpreter
or the interpreted object. To survive
a bear attack, for instance, requires
that the unlucky hiker experience
much more than just the bear itself.
No, he must pay attention to noises,
smells, presence of favorable habitat,
time of year, movement of other
animals, footprints, and others. e
bear certainly does the same when
she comes upon a tasty hunter.
Many Dimensions Interweave
in an Experience Opportunity
As the bear turns the corner toward
the hunter, we can visualize it
passing through an opportunity
space in which it perceives numerous
stimuli that raise anticipation of what
may occur. We can visualize this
space, this opportunity, as if we were
visiting a circus.
As we pass through the big top
tent we interact with many factors
that condition our opportunity
to have a great circus experience:
warm temperature, buttery popcorn
aromas, racing red and green
spotlights, Julius Fucik’s famous
circus music, visitors owing past the
concessions stand, big animal wall
paintings, the ringmaster’s shout, the
trainer’s snap of the whip over the
bear, trapeze artists ying overhead,
clowns seducing the audience’s eye,
distance we sit from the circusgoer
to our le,  sign, and the
time each show segment will last.
Very little remains for chance.
Indeed, aside from numerous
visible actor-designers, many
designers synchronize their cras
behind the scenes: costume designers,
chefs, artists, writers, architects,
engineers, choreographers, all
8 january/february 2017
under the watchful leadership of
the creative director. In heritage
areas, many designers also manage
the scene, whether the visitor center,
signage, exhibitry, guided talks,
posters, menu, campground layout,
or anything else. ey all contribute
to the visitor experience opportunity.
Notice how I call it an opportunity
(an idea taken from the National Park
Service’s Recreation Opportunity
Spectrum), not an experience.
Despite claims from theme parks and
overzealous tour operators who oer
“amazing experiences,” they can only
oer opportunities, for the visitor
in the sanctuary of her own mind
creates her own experience.
Let’s just conduct a mindful
thought experiment: two people sit
side-by-side on a whitewater ra.
One, whose face radiates exhilaration,
yells, “is is awesome! I own this
river!” e other’s popping eyes
reveal abysmal terror, “I’m going to
die!” Both nd themselves immersed
in exactly the same conditions, but
their experiences are totally opposite.
is shows that the mind forges
experiences and the tour operator
or interpretive provider only oers
conditions within the opportunity
space for us to create an experience.
Experience is More than the
Sum of Its Activities
So what then is an experience, if
only the individual can make it? For
this answer, we look to Pine and
Gilmore’s denition (from their book
Authenticity) modied by Mayorga
and Kohl in their upcoming collegiate
textbook on heritage interpretation.
Consider a boy being attacked
by a bear (don’t worry, the boy on
the cover of this magazine is a stunt
double). First he nds himself in
the midst of an event characterized
by an activity (hiking), in context
(deep in the north woods with no
accompaniment during cub-raising
season), and interacting with
heritage (the bear herself). As she
threatens attack, the boy has a
reaction (deep dread), which creates
meaning (regret he ran o without
bear repellent), which then burns
into memory (assuming he has the
opportunity to later recall). e
entirety of this process from event to
memory is the experience, not just
the activity, reection, or meaning-
making, but all together.
Five spheres of the visitor experience
Interior psychological
Exterior context
Interior cultural
background Social interaction
with other visitors
Legacy 9
So this view nds interpretation
in the event, context, as well as
psychological steps that also must
occur. We could also visualize the
process as ve spheres overlapping,
interacting simultaneously and
continuously to generate experiences:
Interior psychological background:
Every visitor brings to the
opportunity beliefs, expectations,
values, knowledge, and attitudes.
e horried whitewater raer
brought a lack of condence while
the boy perhaps brought too much.
Interior cultural background: Every
person and interpreter also brings
worldviews, cultural norms, and
relationships to an event. e
woman might bring the cultural
idea that a woman can do
anything a man can and the boy
an ironic belief that humans are
superior to animals.
Exterior context: is includes all the
event’s physical aspects, including
time of day, temperature, distance
from the bear, whitewater class,
other visitors on the ra, etc.
Social interaction with other visitors:
Other people greatly aect our
reactions and physical orientation
in the context. If others react with
fear, we too might shiver in fear.
Here the woman might feel she
has something to prove and wants
to show o her strength. e
boy has no one to help his sense
of security or place themselves
between him and the bear.
Interpretation: As its own sphere,
interpretation penetrates and
intertwines the others. It gives
meaning to the context, a
theme to contemplate, manages
groups for social interaction,
and challenges cultural beliefs.
While we don’t know what kind
of interpretation exists in both
cases here, no doubt its presence
or absence directly inuences
meanings and memories created.
Steve Van Matre in his book
Interpretive Design and the Dance of
Experience adds yet another dimension
implicit in the spheres. He argues
not only to address the whole context
but the whole person in experience
design. e whole person then implies
creating objectives to engage the head
(ideas, themes, information to think
about), heart (emotions, experiences),
hands (objects to feel, touch, physical
activities), and taste (stimulating all
senses with powerful sensations).
Whole body involvement intensies
experiences, emotions, reactions, and
Interpretation Evolves toward
More Holistic Sense of
Society evolves toward holism
whether alternative medicine, organic
agriculture, situational leadership,
or environmental sustainability.
Interpretation too must also evolve
from a focus on just interpreter
heroics to the entire context and all
factors that dance and play inside the
experience opportunity. A holistic
thinker considers how visitors interact
with each other, with the little cultural
voice forever whispering in their
ears, how the environment inuences
their thoughts, and the intentional
interpretation that lays a path down for
meaning to be created, although never
guaranteed (see sidebar).
While we interpreters cannot
provide amazing experiences to our
audiences, we can pull a thousand
dierent levers, many invisible, to
coax them toward creating their own
transformative, unforgettable, and
amazing experiences.
a b o u t t h e a u t h o r
Jon Kohl is coordinator of the PUP
Global Heritage Consortium which
seeks to professionalize heritage
interpretation in Latin America and
abroad. is article comes from the
content of a webinar he gave for NAI.
Zones of Tolerance
Applied to Experience
In his 2013 book, Interpretation: Making a Difference on Purpose,
Sam Ham presents the Zone of Tolerance. Given that visitors
create their own meaning and interpreters
cannot insert messages directly into heads,
an interpreter must determine if the theme
he wants to develop is close enough to
what the visitor actually creates to call the
interpretive event a success. If after asking
visitors what they came to understand the
interpreter feels that their response was
close enough to what he intended, then he
can declare that visitor ideas fell within the
interpreter’s zone of tolerance.
We can apply the same logic to
experiences. If the visitor has an
experience that turns out close enough to
what the interpretive designer had hoped for, then the designer can
conclude that the event was successful as the visitor experience
fell inside the experience zone of tolerance. If the bathroom was a
horrible war-story experience, then, the designer needs to redesign
those conditions (pestilent bathroom, boys wandering without
parental guidance in grizzly-inhabited woods, extremely insecure
whitewater rafters) to minimize the chance that the experience falls
outside the zone of tolerance.
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