Research Summary

Multiple goal conveyance in a state park interpretive boat cruise

Interpretive Program Achieves Some Goals Better Than Others

Journal of Interpretation Research

At one time, interpretive programs served to help connect people to a resource, whether to introduce them to a park’s flora, describe a historical event, or introduce visitors to an ancient culture. Today, that is still a key goal of most interpretive programs. But other goals exist, too. According to the Four Conceptions of Interpretation model, modern interpretation exists to fulfill four key goals:
1. Connecting visitors to resources
2. Conveying agency mission and influencing behavior
3. Encouraging environmental literacy
4. Promoting tourism

According to this model, interpreters are often called upon to help visitors understand and explore a resource (goal one), understand the need for the resource and how to act in order to protect it (goal two), learn information and develop skills to act responsibly in other situations (goal three), and promote the resource as a means of generating economic benefits to support the resource and surrounding communities (goal four).

The author of this study investigated whether an interpretive program at Arkansas’ Lake Fort Smith State Park fulfilled all of these goals successfully. The park had been closed for six years as managers merged the park’s two lakes into one to improve water management. The author used the park’s reopening as an opportunity to analyze the park’s interpretive goals and to find out how well they were being met.

The research involved analyzing the content of the park’s mission, official speeches, interviews with park staff, and a two-hour interpretive boat tour on the new lake. The researcher attended and transcribed the content of the boat tour, which was the centerpiece of the interpretive offerings at the park. Visitors from seven boat tours were asked for their contact information in order to conduct interviews one week after they attended the tour. In all, 52 visitors agreed to a post-visit phone interview.

The analysis revealed that, indeed, the park set out to meet all four goals laid out in the Four Conceptions model. The park mission, speeches, staff interviews, and interpretive program all indicated that the park hoped to achieve all four goals. Visitors, however, appeared to walk away mostly with messages related to goals one and two. Visitors showed strong evidence, through their recall and descriptions of the program, that they connected with the resource and understood the behavioral requirements of using the resource responsibly (namely, the need for the “no swimming” rule in order to protect water quality). The program did not show strong evidence of helping people understand water conservation themes beyond the park, or to support tourism activities around the park.

The Bottom Line

Resource managers often rely on interpretive programs to achieve a variety of goals beyond the traditional ideas of connecting people to a resource. In particular, interpreters are often expected to encourage visitors to change their behavior in order to protect the resource and to extend what they’ve learned beyond the visit to new situations. But achieving those goals, particularly goals related to changing people’s behavior, and after they leave an interpretive program, can be challenging. This paper described a seemingly effective program that met only two of four interpretive goals. It serves as an important reminder that if a program truly does aim to fulfill multiple goals, progress toward those goals must be continuously monitored. If the program isn’t meeting the expectations, it should be reworked, or the goals should be reevaluated.