Heritage Interpretation Enriches the Park Experience

November 19, 2020, Feature, by Jon Kohl

2020 December Feature Heritage Interpretation Enriches Park Experience 410

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The city of McAllen, Texas, owns a historic 25-acre adobe mansion with wooded gardens, called Quinta Mazatlán. It hosts weddings, conferences, dignitaries and art exhibits, and would hardly seem a place sorely in need of heritage interpretation. But, this doorway to the city also opens to eight other city, state and national sites scattered across the Rio Grande Valley that compose the World Birding Center (WBC). Despite that its members channel migratory bird species back and forth between the neotropics and North America right through South Texas’s backyard, WBC has trouble channeling humans from city to back country. 

So, what could Quinta Mazatlán Director Colleen Hook do to motivate her school children, wedding attendees and art exhibit goers to journey from the Spanish revival-style interior featuring bird carvings to watching real birds at more remote locations? How might interpretation contribute to that human migration?

Identifying the Missing Piece

Quinta Mazatlán’s challenge echoes throughout American parks: how to involve diverse visitors in meeting park objectives. Parks often use the visitor experience to leverage their involvement. After all, if visitors enjoy a great experience, shouldn’t they want to help places where they enjoy them?
To improve experiences and entice visitors to help parks through environmentally friendly behavior, donations, purchases and word-of-mouth advertising, parks often manage three factors underlying those experiences: (1) heritage attractions or place; (2) activities to interact with the place and (3) services that support that interaction, such as hikes, clean bathrooms and well-groomed playgrounds.

Yet, that formula lacks one critical factor that traces back thousands of years, when humans evolved the ability to create meaningful stories needed to coordinate action in the face of threats. Hunting megafauna or navigating changing climate did not emerge from instinct, rather from their meaning-making in order to understand their environment and share that meaning with clan-mates. That psychological imperative to encode meaning in stories (i.e., meaning-making) remains inherent in us all from birth to death.

When we understand in new ways, emotion can motivate us to act in new ways. Dr. Sam Ham, University of Idaho emeritus professor and principal communications researcher behind heritage interpretation, says, “We can only save what we care deeply about. Love is a powerful motivator.” It is not enough to take a nature walk with a ranger who spouts information. Rather, that individual should guide visitors to create meaning about places they visit and through the emotional relationship that emerges, the visitor forges a deeper appreciation and connection to those places — heritage interpretation’s holy grail.

The interpretation discipline provokes people to think such that through contemplation they construct more and deeper connections between interpreted places and their values, experiences and worldviews. While visitors on a guided hike may come to conclusions about the place and their relationship with it — because the human meaning-making function never turns off — their chances of arriving at a deeper understanding improves considerably if the ranger facilitates that process. The ranger builds a presentation structure around a provocative big idea or theme and chooses communication techniques to hold attention and facilitate thought and emotion. That individual directs visitors’ unstoppable meaning-making toward the interpreted heritage. Otherwise, visitors might think about anything else, such as tonight’s TV shows or what to order for lunch.

Through interpretation, visitors emotionally connect with a park and then may take actions in its favor that, otherwise, would have seemed unlikely.

Interpretation Contributes to Park Goals

The following stories illustrate how managers use interpretation to meet typical park goals.

Interpretation and Forest Bathing

Given that interpreters direct people’s meaning-making to deepen relationships, as well as widen awareness of connections, in a sense, interpretation makes people more complete — the definition of healing. Interpreter David Ford works for the city of Boulder, Colorado’s Outdoor Space and Mountain Parks. He has integrated his 12 years of interpretation experience with forest bathing. Originally from Japan and akin to other nature-based human development approaches — such as forest kindergartens and biophilic architecture — forest bathing builds on our innate inclination toward nature to restore and heal people. It has grown increasingly popular, as more people reside in human-built environments that kindle anxiety, stress and declines in health.

The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs offers forest bathing certification courses and programs around the world, but its approach is decidedly not interpretive. According to Ford, it focuses on participant therapy by repairing people’s relationship with nature. “What’s so interesting to me,” says Ford, “is if we integrate forest bathing with an interpretive walk about an ecosystem, take ponderosa pine forests in my case, we can talk about the pine’s adaptation to emit essential oils, its communication system with the forest.” This guided interpretation not only exposes people’s five senses to the forest, drawing them closer and encouraging relaxation and recovery characteristics of therapy, but also helps people “form a deeper sense of place rather than just learning about it.” While such place connection may not rank high for forest therapists, it certainly does for park administrators. Ford has found that his interpretive forest bathing also attracts new community segments that, otherwise, may not have visited Boulder’s parks. He has worked with cancer survivors, refugees, immigrants, people experiencing disabilities, and soon, he will work with addicts and chronic pain patients, too.

He recalls once when a 45-year-old Mexican immigrant from a nearby Spanish-speaking community attended with her 5-year-old daughter. She grabbed her daughter from wandering off-trail, fearing land mines. She had heard of American parks littered with vintage WWII ordnance and her misconception of Boulder’s parks tainted her trip. When Ford noticed that she would not let her daughter go, he asked about her concern, which she quickly shared. Other Latino participants confirmed the rumor. The group talked and as the interpretive forest bathing program progressed, Ford witnessed change. “It was neat to see the cautious steps as they walked away from the group out to the sit spot. After 10 to 15 minutes, their comfort when returning to the group was evident. They entered the forest with nervousness and departed with confidence,” he says.

Since interpretation deepens appreciation and relationships with places, as opposed to teaching information, the integration of forest bathing techniques accelerates transformation toward greater wholeness for new audiences. 

Goals: Health and wellness; equity; conservation

L.A. State Historic Park Builds Community with Interpretation

On September 28, 2001, California Governor Gray Davis signed the bill authorizing the purchase of 34 acres that would become the Los Angeles State Historic Park, located downtown in Chinatown. Some 35 community organizations lobbied for the park’s establishment to benefit local communities, some of the most underrepresented and park-poor in the United States’ second-largest city.

Eighteen years later, this community-based park continues its local focus with an idea based on the community healthcare worker model, whereby organizations train community members to help their local counterparts navigate the healthcare system. In this case, park collaborators adapted the model to parks. Park Community Engagement Coordinator Luis Rincon says, “We provide a green space to get people walking, lower cardiovascular disease and cortisone, and they may also get to know the plants.” When the park officially opened in 2018, people wondered where the park had stashed its basketball courts and barbecue pits, confusing it with state and city parks. That’s when Promotorx stepped in.

The nonprofit Community Nature Connection managed the project, training locals and park managers in engagement skills, such as community listening workshops and heritage interpretation. Promotorx then worked with park staff to co-create introductory interpretive programs that helped people understand the importance of this historical park, navigate its operation and encourage their engagement. They also worked with community members to organize and advocate for what they wanted there. Consequently, the park has implemented most of its wish list, according to Rincon, including a farmers market, bilingual yoga, tai chi, cultural festivals, campfires and camping.

Rincon also notes that community involvement bubbled over into community advocacy (the park, of course, remains neutral). When a developer proposed a 920-unit apartment complex along the park’s edge, community members, including Promotorx, mobilized to ask the developer how it would benefit the community. Community members don’t want a gentrified Chinatown; they want a voice in the community that develops around their park.

Goals: Health and wellness; equity; community building and relations

Interpretive Strategy at Quinta Mazatlán

Colleen Hook realized that many of Quinta’s visitors never visited other WBC sites; she had to learn how to reroute them. So, she prepared an interpretive plan that specified how to deploy interpretation to achieve just that. Effectively, she would create interpretive exhibits and artwork inside the mansion to coax people into the encircling forest gardens. There, educators, interpreters and outdoor trail signs would interpret the Central North American Migratory Flyway that passes through Texas and how backyard patches support migrating birds, as well as WBC’s avian abundance. Those sites then would interpret bird conservation to complete the migratory passage of city dwellers to conservation-contributors and meet Quinta Mazatlán’s management goals.

Goals: Conservation; human migration outdoors; World Birding Center support.

Jon Kohl is Executive Director at PUP Global Heritage Consortium (jon-costarica@jonkohl.com).