Park interpreters help visitors gain an understanding of the natural and
cultural heritage of parks. They explain what makes historical sites significant,
tell how geology created natural wonders or answer questions about the wildlife.
Paul Thistle is a museum director and curator just outside of Alaska. He
hires interpreters every summer to portray characters that lived in Alaska
and the Yukon during the Klondike gold rush of 1896.
"We're looking for people who have some dramatic background or experience,
whether it's Sunday school or school plays or theater courses in university,"
The most widely accepted definition of interpretation was penned by Freeman
Tilden in 1957: "An educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and
relationships through the use of original objects, by first-hand experience,
and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information."
Park interpreters may simply wait at the park office to answer visitors'
questions. Or they may lead groups on tours or welcome them at a visitor's
center. Whatever they do, good interpreters know the information cold and
are always finding creative new ways to explain it.
That usually means creating different interpretive programs. Interpreters
may use visual aids -- movies, pictures, artifacts -- or role-playing, costumes
Thistle expects his interpreters to go beyond the call of duty and come
up with creative ways to present the gold rush.
"We want them to use their creativity in this job," says Thistle. "We want
them to develop above and beyond the specific requirements of the job."
Interpreters work in a host of settings, from urban museums to wilderness
Not all interpreters wear period costumes and speak in old English. Many
park interpreters are dressed in traditional ranger outfits. But they're just
as ready to help immerse visitors in a park's natural or human history.
Good interpreters are comfortable with researching history in any number
of ways. Some gather oral history from living people. Others comb through
archives and piece together a vivid historical tale from history texts, artifacts
and other sources.