Interpretation for Archeologists   4. Tools For Interpreters   Distance Learning

Interpretive Equation and Techniques

The Interpretive Equation is a quick formula to help an interpreter remember basic concepts that relate to all interpretive activities. By applying this simple equation to any interpretive activity, an archeologist can move the visitor from an attitude of caring little about a resource toward an ethic of stewardship.

(KR + KA) x AT = IO
(Knowledge of the Resource + Knowledge of the Audience) x Appropriate Techniques =
Interpretive Opportunities

Let’s examine each of these elements in turn to understand why all four are important when developing and presenting effective interpretations of archeological resources:

Knowledge of the Resource (KR)

Knowledge in interpretation involves more than rote facts about the archeological resource. Rather than reciting non-controversial "safe" facts packaged in a bland, one-dimensional presentation, archeological interpretation should discuss human values, conflicts, ideas, tragedies, achievements, ambiguities, and triumphs. Interpreters must identify and be aware of the many different intangible and universal meanings the resources represent to various audiences. They must be knowledgeable about past and contemporary issues, as well as the condition of the park and its archeological resources. Keep in mind that balanced KR keeps visitors actively thinking and learning in interpretive situations.

Knowledge of the Audience (KA)

Archeologists conducting interpretive programs should be aware of the audience’s time, physical capabilities, and pre-existing knowledge. They must understand issues of sensitivity. Interpreters typically encounter many different kinds of visitors in their audiences, including:

  • Educational groups
  • Families
  • Extracurricular activity groups
  • Subject matter experts
  • Physically or mentally challenged persons
  • Organized tour groups
  • Specialized tour groups
  • Persons of diverse cultural backgrounds

Each of these visitor groups may have unique characteristics, interests, and needs. For example, elderly visitors may require seating or student groups may have limited time. Consult with other archeologists and interpreters, particularly at your park, to develop presentations that meet the needs and interests of specialized visitor groups.

Be aware, however, that your audience numbers more than those individuals who actually set foot in a park. Consider these other park “visitors”:

  • Web surfers
  • Classroom program participants (teachers, students, school administrators, families)
  • Readers of books or other informational material
  • People talking together about a park experience

Interpreters should realize that any random group of visitors will contain people representing diverse interests. Balanced KA recognizes and respects the diverse levels of interest, motivation, and understanding of park visitors and constituents; it incorporates a balance of multiple perspectives that encourages people to think about and develop their own stewardship values. Each visitor is interested in a park for one or more specific reasons:

  • For recreation
  • For "trophy hunting" (interpreters should recognize, manage, and educate visitors who may potentially vandalize or otherwise damage archeological resources)
  • For nostalgia, refuge from the present or isolation
  • For information or to gain knowledge
  • To make connections and linkages to his or her own experience
  • To act as a steward or patron of a park's resources

The most effective interpreter will discover and address his or her audience's varied needs and interests.

The "visitors' bill of rights" should guide each interpreter to recognize and respect the specific personal values and interests visitors associate with archeological resources. Whether visiting a park on-site or off, visitors have a right to:

  • Have their privacy and independence respected
  • Retain and express their own values
  • Be treated with courtesy and consideration
  • Receive accurate and balanced information

The interpreter's tasks are to ensure that visitors have a positive experience at any of these levels and to help visitors reach a deeper and richer level of understanding. No matter who a visitor is or how much is known, the interpreter should strive to give something of value to take home.

Knowledge of appropriate techniques (AT)

Interpreters have many techniques available to them. Determining which technique or techniques are most appropriate for a visitor group results from assessing the resource themes and the audience itself. The interpreter should never choose a technique without first identifying the theme, goals, objectives, and the prospective audience to determine if it is an appropriate "fit." Whichever technique is chosen, interpreters should ensure that it addresses the tangible/intangible/universal linkages of the resource. Interpreters must stay current on communications and delivery techniques and new media possibilities, and use them appropriately. Interpreters must regularly evaluate the effectiveness of the techniques used, and replace and update them when they no longer achieve the desired outcomes. Use of a variety of appropriate media and techniques provides multiple opportunities to access the meanings of resources and in turn encourages the greatest number of people to become personally involved with park resources.

Case Study

Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site
Several opportunities exist at the Knife River Indian villages for visitors to be exposed to archeology at the site and its contributions to knowledge about the past:

  • Self-guided walking tours for three historic village sites
  • A visitor center with museum
  • A 15-minute orientation film that provides the visitor with an aerial view of the earthlodge rings and tells the story of the Hidatsa people that lived there
  • A furnished Hidatsa earthlodge behind the Visitor Center
  • Eleven miles of trails through natural areas and cultural sites
  • Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan for teachers and students to use prior to a trip

For Your Information

The World Wide Web has become a dynamic means for sharing archeology with the public. The web allows researchers, travelers, and browsers to access information about many NPS resources. An increasing number of visitors come to parks with a good deal of background knowledge, much of which they may gain through the web. Or, the web may be the single source of information for people who do not physically visit a park. Therefore, it is important that archeology interpretation has an online presence that is clear and engaging so virtual visitors may also have enriching experiences.

For Your Information

Training opportunities:

Try it Yourself

Several NPS training modules are designed to help interpreters to develop interpretive techniques:

The Interpretive Opportunity (IO)

The IO enables the interpreter to put it all together. An interpreter must be proficient in as many techniques as possible, and should ensure that his or her program addresses interpretive themes through as many different techniques as are appropriate to provide interpretive opportunities to the widest possible array of audiences.

The IO involves a string of moments that display your knowledge, preparation, and awareness of the audience and your park. Interpreters are in a powerful position. They influence people’s ideas and by allowing emotions to come into play, encourage new ways of looking at new materials. The IO provides a stage for you to present your ideas about the resources and transform people’s thinking about them.

The effect of the interpretive opportunity may not be immediately apparent to either the interpreter or the visitor. Interpretation may have both a long-term and/or a short-term effect. Interpreters should not always expect to see an immediate reaction in the visitor.

For Your Information

Interpreters find some methods and interpretive opportunities work better than others on the basis of their own skills and preferences as well as the audience. Your colleagues said:

“I like a good conversation more than just about anything and an interpretive moment is like a good conversation.”
“Visitors learn about and understand some of a site’s meanings [from off-site], but a personal connection is more easily formed by experiencing the site itself.”

Try it Yourself

What are some of the audiences that visit your site? What kinds of audiences do interpreters encounter?

How might your techniques change for an audience of subject matter experts? A third grade class? A group of Elderhostel visitors?

MJB/EJL