By Jim Kimmel, Ph.D.
Dept. of Geography
Texas State University
San Marcos, Texas
1. Include interpretation in your initial site and activity planning.
Since interpretation is a fundamental function of nature and heritage tourism activities, it should be a major focus of planning and development from the outset. The interpretive program will determine the types of activities and facilities
2. Evaluate your resources to identify the range of interpretive topics that the place will support.
Every place has many topics for interpretation - history, geology, wildlife, management issues, etc., etc. Remember that what is common to you can be fascinating to your visitors if presented properly.
3. Develop Interpretive Themes.
How to develop a theme:
1. Select a broad topic
2. Narrow the topic
3. Write the theme as a complete sentence
Broad topic: Heritage of the Texas livestock industry
Focused topic: Importance of cattle drives
Theme: The Texas economy was devastated after the Civil War, but wild cattle and wilder young men revived it and established the basis of our modern state.
Characteristics of good themes:
o stated as a complete sentence
o tells an important story about the place that is relevant to the visitor
o appropriate for the audience
o of personal interest to the presenter
o presenter has sufficient knowledge to carry out the theme
4. Match interpretative programs to your intended audiences.
Develop the interpretive program to meet the needs, interests, age, gender, and ethnicity of your intended audiences.
5. Determine the objectives for the interpretive program.
You want your visitors to have an enjoyable and beneficial experience. But the program can accomplish other things as well.
The "tangible" elements of your stories should help illustrate broader and deeper "intangibles" that can affect how your
audience thinks and acts in the future. For example, juniper invading grassland due to lack of fire (tangible) represents the more intangible concepts of modern range management.
6. Determine how you will operate the interpretive program.
The biggest operational program is whether you will use guided or self-guided interpretation. Your choice here has major implications for cost, liability, and market focus.
Guided interpretation means that an employee or a volunteer accompanies the visitors and conducts the interpretive program.
Guided interpretation is personal and direct, giving the visitor a richer and more valuable experience. Guided interpretation can also help protect the visitor and the resource from harming each other! The major disadvantage of guided interpretation is cost. Even if volunteers serve as guides without pay, the time cost is substantial. High quality interpretive programs take time to prepare, in addition to perhaps several hours to conduct the program for each visitor group.
Self-guided interpretation consists of signs, displays, installations, dioramas, booklets, audiotapes or other means of
communication that the visitor uses. Self-guided interpretation has two advantages.
(1) It is cost effective. Once the program and materials are prepared, minimal staff time is required. Though preparing high quality materials can be expensive, the cost is minimal thereafter.
(2) The visitor has more freedom. They can participate on their own schedule and they can spend as much, or as little, time as they wish.
7. Ensure quality and credibility of your interpretive program.
The quality and credibility of the interpretive program largely determines the quality and credibility of the attraction.
Interpretation does not have to be high-tech or highly expensive; however, it must be credible, well designed, and executed with quality. The National Association for Interpretation (interpnet.com) headquartered in Ft. Collins, Colorado, works to help ensure quality and credibility of interpretation. The Association offers information and links to resources. It also offers a certification program for interpreters.
8. Estimate costs of developing the interpretive program.
Due to the large number of variables in planning and developing an interpretive program, it is impossible to provide a
specific cost estimate here. However, we can estimate a range. If volunteers do the majority of the work, an interpretive program may involve little out-of-pocket cost. The time cost will be substantial and you must ensure the quality and credibility of the program. On the other hand, to develop a program similar to those found in state and national parks and modern museums, it will be necessary to hire professionals. Costs to develop such a program can range from $50,000 to $1,000,000.
9. Evaluate your interpretive program and revise as necessary.
Interpretation is a combination of art and science. Both of these perspectives require constant monitoring and modification.
We learn as we go. Audiences change. Sometimes even the "facts" change. Interpretive programs must be flexible and easily modified to meet new conditions.
Sources and References
Ham, Sam, 1992. Environmental Interpretation: A Practical Guide for People with Big Ideas and Small Budgets. Golden, Colorado: North American Press.
Knudson, Douglas, Ted Cable, and Larry Beck. 1995. Interpretation of Cultural and Natural Resources. State College,
Pennsylvania: Venture Publishing, Inc.
Veverka, John. 1994. Interpretive Master Planning. Tustin, CA: Acorn Naturalists.