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Interpreting National Park Settings Is a Skill, Not Something You Wing


Ranger Lisa Free interprets backwoods life at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Danny Bernstein photo.

Editor's note: Interpretation in national park settings can't be taken for granted. While some is provided by full-time rangers with degrees in specific fields that they interpret, much also is provided by volunteers who are schooled during a week-long program in how to interpret. Contributing writer Danny Bernstein is volunteering this summer at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and recently went through a course on interpreting. Here's what she learned.

In National Park Service lingo, interpretation is the process of providing each visitor an opportunity to personally connect with a place. We interpret for the visitor informally when we talk to them in the visitor center or on the trail and formally when we give a program.

Informal Contact

Mike Meldrum, an interpretive ranger at Cades Cove, talked about enhancing the visitor experience. The visitor wants to know "What's in it for me!" and that's what we have to answer.

Visitor contact is highly personalized. An interpreter (ranger or volunteer) must be able to evaluate the visitor and use a "well-crafted response," a visitor-centered approach. Much like Disneyworld, we're in the business of exceeding expectations. We heard several audio quotes from Michael Eisner, former head of Disneyworld. Ranger Meldrum loves Disneyworld and goes there every year. "You need to be committed and passionate," he says. "You're like a Jehovah's Witness with a day job."

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece for the Traveler on marketing the parks like Disneyworld and received many heated responses, but here Ranger Meldrum was applying Disney techniques to the park, not trying to market the Great Smokies like Disneyland. To accomplish that, he explained, we need to:

* Make eye contact and smile

* Greet and welcome every visitor

* Seek out visitors and ask "Can I help you?"

* Use appropriate body language

* Preserve the positive visitor experience

* Thank each visitor for coming to the park

* Not engage in personal conversation with other park personnel when visitors are around.

The National Park Service has even developed a visitors' bill of rights. 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.

Ranger Meldrum reminded us that, "Visitors are always watching you. So if you have a uniform, be careful. You're on stage."

Appalachian Stereotypes

At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, an obvious issue is that of stereotyping. Kent Cave, Sugarlands supervisory interpretive ranger, grew up in Eastern Tennessee and is well-versed in Appalachian stereotypes. Visitors may come to the park with one of two stereotypes of Southern Appalachian residents. One is the inbred, moon-shining, barefoot hillbilly. To create that image, Ranger Kent first played a video about a moonshiner called MOONSHINE with Jim Tom Hendricks (). It was hilarious.

The next documentary, The True Meaning of Pictures by Shelby Lee Adams was not funny, but rather was intended to be disturbing. Mr. Adams is accused of perpetuating stereotypes. A photographer and videographer, he often aims for the house at the top of a hollow to find the most isolated families. We saw a short clip of an old woman smoking a pipe and a family with several handicapped children with the strong hint that these folks were inbred.

The second stereotype of Southern Appalachian is that of the self-made man, the "Hell of a Fellow," the Daniel Boone mountain-man-type embodied in Sergeant York, with Gary Cooper. The movie is based on a true story about Alvin York, from the hills of Tennessee, who becomes the most decorated soldier in World War I.

But a third type of visitor thinks that the national park was plopped here by the federal government and has nothing to do with the people around the park. They'll ask, "Why were so many Civil War battles fought in National Parks?" and "Was the Cherokee Indian Reservation placed close to the national park so they could get more tourists?"

As interpreters, part of our job is to dispel the stereotypes and focus on the actual history.

Costumed Interpretation

The Smokies was home to more than 200 communities before the landscape was transformed into a national park. Therefore, interpreters enjoy getting into costumes and talking about former residents. To learn how to do that, we walked to the Ownby Cabin on a nature trail at the back of Sugarlands Visitor Center. Ranger Lisa Free, dressed as Mary Ownby who lived in the cabin over 100 years ago, was weaving a basket.

We were supposed to find problems with her setting. Some were very easy. There was a plastic water bottle close by. Ranger Free wore modern sneakers and used scissors and a screw driver with plastic handles. Other inconsistencies were not so obvious. In the photograph above, Ranger Free has rolled up her sleeves above her elbows. Just like many religious women, showing your elbows is a no, no.

Ranger Free started out by doing a first person interpretation, i.e. playing the character, also called Living History. But that's not done much in the Smokies. There's not enough training in this technique and it makes it tough to answer visitor questions when the interpreter can't break character. Instead, Ranger Free quickly switched to third-person where she could talk about the owners of the house and the times. It's easier to interact with visitors in the third person. The ranger feels a strong sense of responsibility to respect the former residents by getting the details right.

Formal Programs

If you sign up for a program in any national park, you'll follow a ranger or volunteer as she or he casually talks about what you're seeing.

But the program is not put together casually. It's the result of setting out themes, goals, and objective for what ends up being an hour's walk. This interpretive program needs to be "place based," i.e., it can't be done anyplace else. Then a supervisor has to approve the details and maybe dry run it. This all sounds like creating a lesson plan for elementary school teaching. The only difference is there's no formal assessment; visitors are not going to take a test. Somewhere in the National Park Service, educators and interpreters work on these guidelines, and there are Ph.D. dissertations on Park interpretation.

Mike Maslona, supervisory interpretive ranger at Cades Cove who led this session, enjoys acronyms. To start, he had EIEIO. In another order, EIEIO becomes:

* Orient the visitor - Where is the bathroom?

* Inform the visitor - How many bears are there in the park?

* Educate - More deeply than just inform with the facts

* Enlighten - Beyond education

* Instill - Instill stewardship

The concept of stewardship, to preserve and protect for future generations, is a holy word. We need to make visitors feel that the park resources, mountains, bison, Liberty Bell, Civil War artifacts, cabin, are their resources. So we need to inspire more than just educate with dry facts. Rather we need to imbue our programs with internal meanings so that visitors can see connections and want to protect the resources. This is a very optimistic view of the world - just educate and people will protect the parks and not litter, harass a bear or carve their names on a cabin.

Interpretation goes beyond just a lecture and uses appropriate techniques such as question and answers, old photographs, quotes, audience participation, jokes and even silence. "When you get to a waterfall, let the resource talk to the visitor."

In designing our program, we might start with a tangible item - thing, place, or event - and then connect it to intangible meanings - old, utilitarian, home. An old-fashioned hand bell could be a dinner bell, cow bell, school bell or a garden bell to warn the gardener that a bear was in the garden.

To build on those tangible objects and their roles, Ranger Maslona introduced his wife's favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz. From the characters, he explained, we can hone various aspects of our program.

* Scarecrow wanted a brain. So we need information.

* Tin Man wanted a heart. We have to have an emotional connection with our subject.

* Lion wanted courage - We give visitors opportunities to do things they wouldn't do by themselves, like walk a trail or canoe a creek.

* Dorothy wanted home - Make a connection between what visitors knows (home) and what they experience in the park.

* Wizard - That's us presenting a program.


After an interpretive walk to Cataract Falls behind Sugarlands Visitor Center, we each gave a 3-5 minute version of a potential program. The programs ranged from the night sky to Cades Cove as a state of mind, fishing, cooking at the Mountain Farm Museum, and bird songs.

The presentations, in fact all the sessions, were really geared to seasonal rangers and interns, the folks in college or right out of college. I was very impressed with the group. Putting aside my park volunteer hat for a while and looking at them from the perspective of a retired college professor, I noted that they were all prepared, eager and not afraid to show how excited they were about this opportunity to work in the Smokies this summer. They were not interested in mixing with volunteers, maybe because we were so much older than they were. The seasonals were in their early 20s and most of the volunteers were past 50s, and maybe we reminded them of their parents.

Most seasonal rangers had not come from academically selective universities or majored in forestry, subjects most associated with working for the National Park Service. But these newcomers obviously had tremendous drive, ambition, and the willingness to plan ahead. And that will carry them forward more than the prestige of the college they attended. I wish them well!

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Danny, thank you or providing such rich insight into the role of a park interpreter. I was not aware of the professional approach taken to build an interpretation.

The parallels with marketing Disneyworld (I am yet to read your article) and discussion about sterotypes was also most interesting.

I wonder if a similar approach is taken here in Australia.

Allan McDonald @

It's really refreshing to see NPS interpretation no longer trying to shy away from some of the more controversial or less inspirational aspects of our nation's history. As we present more realistic retelling of our story, we will help prevent repeats of past mistakes.

I had the wonderful privilege of becoming acquainted with Dr. Merrill D. (Sam) Beal when he was a seasonal interpreter at Madison Junction in Yellowstone. Dr. Beal was author of "I Will Fight No More Forever," an account of the Nez Perce campaign and Chief Joseph's people. At that time (late 1960's) we were still trying to gloss over the less palatable parts of what had happened to our native residents. Sam told me how he had been cautioned to take care when presenting his evening program of the same title. He had even faced the possibility of being ordered to discontinue its presentation. Yet when he finished his story of this tragic chapter in American western history with a recital of Chief Joseph's famous surrender speech, ". . . my heart is sick and sad and from where the sun now stands, I shall fight no more forever . . . " there were few dry eyes in the audience. It was this emotion that led this young ranger to further study of the history of places like Wounded Knee, Bear River, Bighorn, and Big Hole. I'm sure it also led others who heard his talk to similar action. And I'm sure it has helped make a difference in our land today.

Despite our present challenges, we are a much better place than we were back when our Indian neighbors had to deal with BIA (Boss Indians Around) and our black brothers faced "Whites Only" signs in so many public places.

America's true story is the story of many people. Only by telling it truthfully can we hope to improve our future.

Relevancy, Workforce, Stewardship...let's apply everything we said above reference greeting visitors to our employees. Safe, healthy, happy employees are the key to Disneyworld's success. There's enough of them, they get training, they know what their role and function is, they're supervised. They believe they make a difference, they are stewards, they look forward to coming to work....Now when all of that is true for our employees ( I believe every employee who works for the NPS has a duty to interpret) we will be ready to apply the tips above to connect with our visitors. Happy, healthy, safe employees make compelling, relevant, meaningful contacts....

I agree with Chief Ranger above: Every NPS employee has a duty to effectively interpret the park. The park visitor cannot distinguish between a professional interpreter, a law-enforcement ranger, or a uniformed staff member involved primarily with park administrative activities. With decreasing front and backcountry staffing, the demands for excellence in interpretation should fall on all NPS'ers, not just those having "interpreter" as a job title.

I'm very glad to read that one training program given at the Smokies highlighted the value of the night sky. To the extent that many NPS volunteers have more life experience and relevant education than younger uniformed seasonal staff, does the public notice the difference? I wonder why it is that the more traditional academic disciplines of natural sciences and cultural history are not more prominent among those hired for summer duty as seasonal park rangers?

I'm less enamoured with the multiple references to Disneyworld as a model of excellence in interpretation/education. The last thing I want is to see is the NPS promoting the Disneyfication of our natural and cultural heritage. I felt this way when I was in Yosemite in 1970 when I first heard my superiors extolling Disneyland as the model to be embraced by the NPS for visitor services. I feel the same way today when reading the article above. I wonder if others have similar reactions/reservations?

Great customer service that is sensitive (personalized) doesn't have to be Disneylandish at all. If anything, the NPS has a great legacy of customer service. I would recommend using the NPS as your brand of service. You already have all the best elements of that in place! Well done.

Regarding customer service – the Disney analogy is well, wrong. Sure the folks at the Disney theme parks do a good job – all the basic customer service elements are there. Yet, and as has been state here, the NPS developed and set standards in customer service long ago. Let us look to ourselves as the standard bearer. The NPS has been at this work decades longer that any of the theme parks. Not just the NPS either, the concession operations and cooperating associations all have been providing a high level of customer service.

"You're like a Jehovah's Witness with a day job"
Wow. So, would it have been cool if this had been a banker and you likened him to a Jew?
Or no, what if it was a guy that worked in petroleum, and you said he was like a Muslim?

FYI, MOST Jehovah's Witnesses HAVE day jobs, and donate their own time to go door to door.
Funny that you used that right before a paragraph about stereotypes.

I thought it might be useful to give a plug for a professional opinion paper authored by several members of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees regarding the mission of the National Park Service and the critical role of park interpretation/education.

Professional Opinion Paper 7 - A Renaissance Of Park Interpretation And Education Reaffirms The Mission Of The NPS (Huffman et al., 2008)

"Without greatly enhanced interpretive and educational programs, the social relevancy of the national park system, and even the ideas that underlie it, threaten to become increasingly insignificant as a part of mainstream twenty-first century American culture."

The link above will give readers much more information as well as access to the full pdf of the report. However, I thought it useful to reproduce the recommendations from this paper in this comment:


• The National Park Service must commit itself to a broad-scale and powerful program of communication with the American public.

• The Service should review the historic findings and recommendations contained in the appendix to this paper as well as contemporary information and develop a single long-range strategy for implementation.

• The NPS should aggressively build partnerships with academic institutions, sociologists, educators and others to strategically place interpretation and education efforts ahead of the changes that will dramatically affect the parks before they are upon them.

• A clear message must be sent throughout the Service that all employees are interpreters and educators as part of their duties.

• Leadership across all levels must support and encourage interpretation and education beyond park boundaries, including options for those who access parks digitally.

• Investment in training, professionalism and certification of park interpreters and educators must be considered essential to the long-range survival of parks, not optional.

• Reinvestment and flexibility must be developed to support regional teams in teaching an updated interpretation and education skills curriculum to employees and partners.

• Interpretive and educational offerings must be free to all interested parties without the application of special fees or other obstacles.

• As a core and essential operation, professional uniformed personnel who represent the Service first and foremost should perform interpretive and educational offerings.

• The Service must embrace the broadest use of available communication options and technologies to reach the diverse public where and how it gets its information.

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