During the first week of July, my fellow museum educators and I spend three days roaming the Peace country of Alberta with Derek Larson, our resident palaeontologist, looking for dinosaur bones. Day 1 involved precariously shimmying our way along a high, steep riverbank in the heart of bear country looking for fossils in the underexplored Dunvegan Formation. Day 2 saw us strewn across the ground, under the hot sun, looking for tiny microfossils in the badlands of the Kleskun Hills. Day 3 had us crouched in thick, sticky mud along a well-known creek bank digging fossils from one of the world’s most famous dinosaur bonebeds.
As a non-scientist, my experience with professional fieldwork is not very extensive. For half of our summer interpreters- university students working on their science and education degrees- it was the first time they’d ever done anything like that before. So why would we leave the comfort and safety of our museum classrooms to venture out in search of fossils we’ll likely never do any research on ourselves?
I believe authenticity is more desirable than scripted information in interpretation. I’ve been in this line of work at one facility or another for five years now, and I’ve met a lot of interpreters. Many people in this field have a genuine passion for what they talk about, and often go out of their way to learn more and become further immersed in it.
An all-too-common sight in our field is the interpreter who learns the standard material, knows how to smile and speak clearly, memorizes the program scripts but doesn’t go any further than that. Now, having these public speaking skills and other professional abilities is obviously essential to what we do, but I believe that interpretation can be much more than just impersonal recitation of the facts.
It’s one thing to read about the subject you talk about. It’s another to actually do it yourself… to get your hands dirty in that world… to be the real thing… even if it’s just for three days. Obviously we shouldn’t expect ourselves to become academic experts in our chosen fields. Our role is to speak about science, art, history, etc. on behalf of those who spend their lives doing those things themselves. But there’s no reason why we, as interpreters, shouldn’t try to become as immersed as we can in what we teach about.
As much as we gussy up and over-think our jobs, at the end of the day interpretation is simply the art of explaining the meaning of something. We put the technical language of arts, culture, history, and science into words the public can understand and appreciate. Imagine if you wanted to have a conversation with someone who only spoke Japanese, and you needed an interpreter to help you. Would you go for a person who, while speaking perfectly serviceable Japanese, had never been to Japan themselves? What if you had the option of someone who had actually lived there, knew the language, the customs, the culture…. I think the choice is pretty obvious there.
We took our interpreters out for three days of fossil hunting because it wasn’t enough for them to simply hear about what the world of paleontology is like. They had to live it: to know how to use a geologic hammer, to know what a field jacket is, to know how hot and thirsty the dusty badlands make you, to have stories to tell about the prehistoric treasures they found.
Your audience is going to ask you tough questions. They want a deep well of knowledge, not a shallow pool. They’re going to remember honest and engaging stories from someone who has actually experienced that life, not paint-by-numbers scripts and cookie-cutter responses. So get out there, already. Talk to experts, see if they’ll take you behind the curtain. Visit other facilities and see how they do things, even if they have very little to do with the subject you interpret. Learn everything you can about as many things as you can. Make friends with other interpreters (if you’re an IC member you’re off to a good start). Follow up “I don’t know” with “but I’ll find out”. Be genuine and enthusiastic, and don’t try to hide that. Know your stuff. Be the real thing.
Nick Carter is a Science Educator at the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum in Wembley, AB, and a Naturalist with a special interest in dinosaurs, both living and extinct. Contact via firstname.lastname@example.org