Journal of Interpretation Research

Recent Abstracts

Issues of the Journal of Interpretation Research more than two years old are available in their entirety as pdfs under "Archives." Abstracts from more recent issues are below.

Volume 20, Number 1


Introduction: Effectively Connecting with Communities Across Cultures: There’s No App for That!
Nina S. Roberts

“Why do so few minorities visit some parks, public lands, or even wilderness?” is a question that has been asked for decades. Similarly, “Why aren’t there more interpretive rangers from ethnically diverse backgrounds?” Empirical research ranging from interpretation and environmental studies, to outdoor education and adventure recreation, describe experiences of ethnic minorities since the early 1960s and, still today, there is much more to explore. From civil rights to civil disobedience, where have we been? And, from New Urbanism to the New Jim Crow (see Alexander, 2015), where are we going? Ultimately, how do we effectively disseminate information reflecting greater progress, who are we listening to, and what do we do with the information once we get it? People who cannot interpret the reality of racism may be deemed unreliable, while those want to be part of a larger conversation continue to be invisible. This needs a remedy because our work is also about whose voices matter. This is a time for asking the right questions (or new ones), leading to the right answers, and implementing solid change. Therefore, we need a new map to go on, based on both social and biological dynamics.

Parks and Underserved Audiences: An Annotated Literature Review

James L. Pease

In the 1970s, there began to be a realization that parks, monuments, and other recreational areas were not visited by people from minority racial and ethnic groups in proportion to their representation in the U.S. population. Parks personnel realized that the demographic trends in the U.S. would accentuate the problem in the decades to come. They worried that, as traditional white, middle-class visitors became less dominant in the population, support for parks would erode. Further, if the intention is to have Americans be ecologically and historically literate and parks are to be an important part of that effort, the lack of visitation by other racial and ethnic groups will mean a significant part—maybe a majority—of the population will lack that literacy.

Visitors’ Satisfaction with Interpretive Services at the Southern Sichuan Bamboo Sea, China
Minyan Zhao, Howard W. Harshaw, Wenyuan Dong, Wen Ye, Jiajun Liu, Tengwei Su

Chinese domestic tourism began booming in the mid-1980s. Increasing incomes and pressures of urbanization prompted people to seek nature-based leisure activities (Xu & Cui, 2013). Consequently, the increasing role of domestic tourism has been recognized in many parts of China (Airey & Chong, 2010). Bamboo forest tourism attractions have developed rapidly since the early 1990s in the southern provinces of China (Dong & Zhao, 2004).

A goal of nature interpretation has been the delivery of high-quality experiences. Quality has been measured in terms of visitor satisfaction (e.g., Manning, 1999; Tonge & Moore, 2007), which is influenced by the importance of a set of attributes and the perceived performance or delivery of those attributes (Bultena & Klessig, 1969; Martilla & James, 1977; Matzler, Bailom, Hinterhuber, Renzl, & Pichler, 2004; Mullins, Schultz, & Spetich, 1987; Oh, 2001; Vaske, Beaman, Stanley, & Grenier, 1996). Although there are no standardized measures of satisfaction, most assessments of satisfaction have been rooted in expectancy theory (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975), which posits that people engage in activities with the expectation that particular needs, motivations, or other desires will be fulfilled. Chinese visitors’ satisfaction with interpretive resources at five sites in the Southern Sichuan Bamboo Sea (i.e., Wangyou Valley, Jade Gallery, Sea View Tower, Tianbao Village, and Sea in Sea Lake) was examined relative to their expectations.

Inspiring the Outdoor Experience: Does the Path Through a Nature Center Lead Out the Door?
Thomas Beery, K. Ingemar Jönsson

This study investigates the visitor experience at a Swedish nature center within a UNESCO biosphere reserve. The question of whether this interpretive facility succeeds in motivating the visitor to get outdoors for a direct experience of nature is explored. Use of the environmental connectedness perspective and concerns about diminished nature experience support the importance of this study. A number of qualitative methodologies are used to investigate the research questions, including thought listing, phenomenology, and field observation. Results indicate that this particular nature center generally succeeded in the goal of inspiring visitors for a direct nature experience. The success in motivating visitors appears to be a result of a number of key variables, including place-based exhibitry, access, and personal visitor factors. Given the setting for this study, we conclude that interpretive nature centers have the potential to play an important role in the re-imagination of urban environments.

Volume 19, Number 2


Assessing the Effectiveness of Artistic Place-Based Climate Change Interpretation
Austin Barrett, Andrew J. Mowen

This paper analyzed the effectiveness of an artistic place-based climate change interpretive program at Glacier National Park in Montana. Utilizing the framework of place-based climate change communication and the use of artistic interpretive methods, this study offered support for the efficacy of communicating climate change at a climate-impacted location. The survey instrument assessed emotional, intellectual, and stewardship response measures, as well as climate change response outcomes. Regardless of the artistic program format (live music or poetry), visitors responded favorably to all three of the interpretive outcome domain measures. Statistical comparisons found a number of differences between interpretive outcome measures in regard to motivation and visitor characteristics. By utilizing artistic approaches, this study offers support for the growing body of research about the power of place-based interpretive messaging to engage the public on the issue of climate change.

Perception of Thematic-Based Interpretation at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial: A Study of Korean Visitors
Mark Morgan, Geumchan Hwang

The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (Gateway Arch) is a National Park Service (NPS) monument in St. Louis, Missouri, that serves as a symbol of westward expansion and frontier life in America during the 19th century. Most of the nearly 2.5 million annual visitors are interested in learning about its history and significance. Although the Gateway Arch is an international tourism destination, few attempts have addressed the language requirements of foreign visitors. This study evaluated thematic-based interpretation at the Gateway Arch using a sample of Korean visitors. A total of 148 subjects were recruited from the Asian Affairs Center (AAC) at the University of Missouri (MU) and assigned to one of three conditions: control group (n=42), watching a DVD prior to the visit (n=62), or participating in an on-site, ranger-led tour (n=44). Individuals were asked to evaluate five interpretive themes developed by NPS staff (by condition) using a questionnaire that was translated into Korean and checked for accuracy. Results indicated that theme perception was relatively poor in the control group, but improved significantly (p< 0.05) after watching a DVD and attending a NPS ranger-led tour. Managerial implications of this study focused on improving visitor experiences for international audiences, especially Koreans.

Assessing the Needs of Interpreter Training in Japan
Naoko Yamada

This research attempted to identify the needs present in interpreter training in Japan. Interviews with trainers and interpreters, and questionnaires administered to interpreters were employed to explore (a) the skills and abilities necessary for successful interpreters and (b) the challenges that trainers may experience regarding interpretive training in Japan. The results showed both consistency and inconsistency in the perceptions of interpreters and trainers. Interpretive design, communication and public speaking, and risk management are core subjects recommended for future introductory-level training programs in Japan. Managerial and training skills are suggested for new types of training programs. Several challenges to interpreter training in Japan were also identified.

The Churches of Venice: Sacred Places or Museum Spaces?
Venelina Dali Saunders

Many churches in Venice have become landmarks due to their artistic treasures. Their increased volume of visitors often has a primary goal of sightseeing rather than participating in religious services. Consequently, some of the churches have employed interpretation methods to satisfy the demand of mass tourism. The aim of the study is to investigate the role of current on-site interpretations of the churches and relate them to the visitors’ perceptions and experiences. The evaluation relies on qualitative methods such as case studies, visitors’ surveys, site observations, and interviews. The results are analyzed through the framework of the constructivist-learning theory, which affirms that people create their own meanings based on previous knowledge. The findings demonstrate that the interpretive methods on-sites present the visitors with experiences not usually associated with religious sites. The churches are experienced as tourist attractions rather then sacred sites—a perception that clearly interferes with their original purpose.

Analysis of Best Practices for Interpretation Development at Public Gardens
Nate M. Tschaenn, Robert E. Lyons, Dottie Miles, Jules Bruck

Interpretation can be the most effective way for public gardens to communicate with their audiences. However, many public gardens struggle to understand interpretation and how to best develop it. A survey conducted of professionals at 174 different public gardens investigated various approaches to interpretation development and their effect on the perceived quality of interpretation and interpretation development practices of the organization. These approaches included staff and volunteer training, planning documents, evaluation, and staff composition.

The results of this study revealed many interpretive development practices that are yielding significant benefits for public gardens. The data also revealed that the majority of public gardens have significant room for improvement with regard to interpretation development. For instance, organizations were more likely to be satisfied with the interpretive media that they routinely evaluated, but few routinely conducted evaluation. Recommendations that should help guide decision-making at public gardens resulting from this research are discussed.

Volume 19, Number 1


Free-Choice Family Learning: A Literature Review for the National Park Service
Colleen M. Bourque, Ana K. Houseal, Kate M. Welsh, Matthew Wenger

Learning in national parks often occurs in the context of family groups. Understanding the motivations, needs, and outcomes of family groups is critical to engaging a substantial portion of the National Park Service (NPS) audience. This literature review was prompted by an NPS initiative to improve lifelong learning. It explores research about the nature of family learning, factors that influence it, and recommendations for enhancing it.

This review uses Falk and Dierking’s (2000) Contextual Model of Learning as a framework for understanding personal, sociocultural, and physical factors that contribute to family learning outcomes in free-choice settings. Recommendations for improving family learning include: tapping into the motivations of family visits, helping families converse to construct meaning, and creating physical spaces for visitors of many ages to interact. The NPS can enhance visitors’ connections to parks if park programs, exhibits, and interpretive media are effectively and deliberately designed to engage families. National parks and similar sites need to thoughtfully design education programs and exhibits to engage learners of all ages in meaningful, relevant, and memorable ways.

A New Interpretive Pedagogy
Doug Knapp, Brian Forist

One of the most prominent debates related to interpretation lies in the approach that this informal education process takes—in essence its pedagogy. At its core, personal interpretation’s goal is to make the visit a memorable and meaningful encounter. It is an approach that if done properly, may be difficult to master, but one, that ultimately would increase the “success” of interpretation and improve its perception among those in the field as well as those outside the profession. This paper proposes a new pedagogic approach that focuses on the visitor more than the interpretive program. The more that can be learned about the constituents increases the ability to offer information that correlates to their lives and has far more potential to result in long-term impacts desired by our field. The notion of this new interpretation is to devote time and effort in the interpretive experience to learning who the visitor is and with that information, offer a message that would best resonate with participants.

Volume 18, Number 2


Introduction to Special Issue:
Interpretation: Making a Difference on Purpose
Sam H. Ham

What Leads to Better Visitor Outcomes in Live Interpretation?
Marc J. Stern, Robert B. Powell

We conducted a study to empirically isolate the factors that are most consistently linked with positive outcomes for the attendees of live interpretive programs. We examined the relationships between interpreter and program characteristics and three visitor outcomes—visitor satisfaction, visitor experience and appreciation, and intentions to change behaviors—across 376 programs in 24 units of the U.S. National Park Service. The analyses revealed a list of 15 characteristics associated with these outcomes across a wide range of program types and contexts. Some of these characteristics constituted commonly promoted practices in the interpretation literature (e.g., thematic communication, Tilden’s principles, and appropriate organization). However, certain characteristics of the interpreter, in particular their confidence, passion, sincerity, and charisma, were also strongly correlated with positive visitor outcomes. We discuss the study’s implications for both interpretive practice and future research.

Is It the Program or the Interpreter? Modeling the Influence of Program Characteristics and Interpreter Attributes on Visitor Outcomes
Robert B. Powell, Marc J. Stern

This study modeled the relative influence of program characteristics and interpreter attributes on three visitor outcomes (satisfaction, visitor experience and appreciation, and behavioral intentions) using Structural Equation Modeling (SEM). The three resulting models accounted for between 10% and 27% (R2) of the variance in the outcomes. The models suggest that both program and interpreter characteristics, as well as other unaccounted for factors, influence these outcomes. We discuss the implications of the findings for researchers and practitioners, calling for greater attention to both interpreter attributes and context.

Speculating on the Role of Context in the Outcomes of Interpretive Programs
Robert B. Powell, Marc J. Stern

Based on data from 272 live interpretive programs conducted across 24 units of the U.S. National Park Service, we investigate the influence of context upon interpretive programs and visitor outcomes. We first examined whether outcomes vary based upon the size of the audience and its age makeup; program characteristics such as duration, topic, and type; and characteristics of the setting including proximity to urban centers, program location (indoor vs. outdoor), and resource quality. We then examine whether different program or interpreter characteristics operate differently in different contexts by examining their relationships to visitor outcomes in four context pairings: programs with mostly children vs. mostly adults in the audience; culturally focused vs. environmentally focused programs; programs conducted in remote vs. urban parks; and indoor vs. outdoor programs. The findings suggest that a small number of program and interpreter characteristics may operate differently within different contexts. Based on these results, we propose hypotheses regarding which program characteristics appear to be more or less beneficial (or harmful) to generating desired visitor outcomes in different contexts.

The Difference Between Good Enough and Great: Bringing Interpretive Best Practices to Life
Marc J. Stern, Robert B. Powell, Kevin D. McLean, Emily Martin, Jennifer M. Thomsen, Bethany A. Mutchler

The purpose of this paper is to illuminate in both a quantitative and qualitative sense the practices that distinguish great interpretive programs from those that may merely be adequate to satisfy the visitor’s basic desires to learn, be entertained, or spend time with a ranger. Great programs, like great works of art, have the potential to impact audiences in a deeper sense by providing memorable experiences that may influence multiple aspects of visitors’ lives. This paper draws on experiences from three months of fieldwork, observing 376 interpretive programs across 24 units of the U.S. National Park Service, to illustrate examples of program elements that distinguished what we considered to be the best programs we observed.

Book Review: Interpretation: Making a Difference on Purpose
Carolyn Ward

Volume 18, Number 1



Assessing Interest in Sustainable Seafood through Strategically Framed Interpretive Statements
Jess Reese

One billion people rely on the ocean for protein. Sustainable seafood initiatives can engage citizens on a consumer level, empowering them to shape our world with food choices. Communication is a useful tool in garnering conservation support. This study conducted at Brookfield Zoo dolphin shows sought to discover whether interest in sustainable seafood initiatives improved with the use of framed interpretive messages versus standard conservation messages. The framed message included a value, metaphor, and offered solutions; while the unframed message offered only a solution without further elaboration. The conservation messages were alternated over the course of 44 dolphin shows, and delivered to a total of 17,157 zoo guests. By measuring the amount of sustainable seafood guides that guests requested, it was discovered that interest in guides increased 2.5% when strategic framing techniques were used over standard messages. This study illuminates the possibilities of inspiring conservation leadership through strategic framing communications.

Factors Influencing Behavioral Intentions for Leave No Trace Behavior in National Parks
Ben Lawhon, Peter Newman, Derrick Taff, Jerry Vaske, Wade Vagias, Steve Lawson, Christopher Monz

Resource degradation resulting from visitor behavior continues to be a significant concern for land managers, and effective educational messages such as those promoted through Leave No Trace, which target depreciative behaviors, are imperative. This study examined psychological and knowledge variables that were hypothesized to influence future Leave No Trace behavioral intent of visitors in Rocky Mountain National Park. Data were obtained from an on-site survey administered to individuals (n = 390, response rate 74%) in the Bear Lake corridor of the park. Results of a multiple regression analysis revealed that perceived effectiveness of Leave No Trace practices is a significant predictor of future behavioral intent (β > .21, p < .001, in all cases). Frontcountry visitors like those at Bear Lake are more likely to practice Leave No Trace if they perceive the practices to be effective at reducing impacts.

Visitor Evaluation of Night Sky Interpretation in Bryce Canyon National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument
Britton L. Mace, Jocelyn McDaniel

Natural lightscapes are an important resource for parks and protected areas, including Bryce Canyon National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument. Both locations offer night sky interpretive programs, attracting over 27,000 visitors annually, equaling all other interpretive programs combined. Parks need to understand what drives visitor interest and park managers need to assess if night sky interpretation is meeting expectations. A total of 1,179 night and day visitors to Bryce Canyon National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument served as participants and completed a 36-item survey measuring knowledge, attitudes, benefits, and behaviors related to the night sky. Results show those who attended a night sky interpretive program gained a significant amount of knowledge about night sky issues. Both day and night visitors have strongly held attitudes about light pollution and the protection of the night sky in national parks.


Impact of Inquiry Stations on Visitor Time
Sarena Randall Gill

Children are encouraged to spend more time outdoors and zoos provide a safe natural environment. Interactive opportunities for learning engage zoo visitors. This study seeks to determine whether the presence of four self-led temporary inquiry stations significantly increases the time visitors spend on a loop trail. Group composition, the mixture of adults and children, was also measured, evaluating significance of time spent on the trail. It was found that there was no significant difference in time spent on the inquiry trail, but there was a significant time difference based on group composition for both the inquiry and non-inquiry trail. The addition of permanent or staffed inquiry stations may encourage visitors to spend more time on the trail.

The Role of Intrinsic Motivation in a Science Field Trip
Gregory M. Benton

A school principal enlisted state park interpreters to organize a series of science field trips to provide a natural environment for instruction, encourage interest in science, and improve exam scores. Students participated in activities one day a month for six months and took exams. Benchmark scores increased compared with the previous year’s fifth graders in science. A non-experimental case study examined the emotional and intellectual impressions resulting from students’ experiences of field trip activities. Qualitative data included interviews with school faculty, park interpreters, and 93 students riding to and from the park. Students were asked: what was your favorite activity and why? The study found the elements of novelty, outdoors, touching animals, learning, exploring, (seeing) animals, and personalization to be linked to the factors of play, flow (optimal experience), and free-choice learning. Findings suggest that intrinsic motivation is an important aspect of student enjoyment of field trips.

The Understanding and Implementation of Key Best Practices in National Park Service Education Programs
Kristin A. “Kale” Bowling

U.S. national parks provide excellent venues for learning experiences in history and the sciences with tangible, primary resources. However, best practices associated with experiential and inquiry-based learning targeted specifically toward students, as opposed to interpretive practices for the general public, must be both well understood and well implemented to be effective. This action research study was undertaken in order to identify where and why gaps in the understanding and implementation of these best practices exist. A survey of 25 NPS educators revealed that they are being implemented approximately half of the time. Significant gaps exist between staff with academic training and/or prior work experience in education and those without this background. Follow-up interviews suggested that changes in the recruitment of new educators and the increased availability of training, networking, and coaching may increase the prevalence of experiential and inquiry based practices. Efforts that leverage education professionals outside the agency, the expertise of more successful park education programs, and the common concepts between education and interpretation may be particularly effective. Other agencies and organizations that conduct both interpretation and education may also benefit from similar actions.


Preparing to Be an Interpretive Naturalist: Opinions from the Field
Jonathan R. Ivey, Robert D. Bixler

This study documented the varying importance and availability of content and communication skills and certifications for entry-level interpretive naturalists, based on the perceptions of experienced interpreters. A web-based survey was sent to (n=867) interpreters. Responses were received from 308 interpreters. The five most important content skills were field ecology, field ornithology, conservation biology, field botany, and field mammalogy. The five most important communication skills were improvisational skills, understanding how children of different ages learn, ability to read an audience, good voice, and ability to write lesson plans/program outlines. Desired content skills were readily available in applicant pools for entry-level positions, but less so for communication skills. Results suggested general support for the National Association for Interpretation Certified Interpretive Guide and the National Park Service Interpretive Development Program. College professors advising students and persons wishing to enter the field of nature interpretation should make sure they develop the highly ranked skills, plus other less highly ranked skills that will help distinguish them from other applicants.

Conversations: Tilden’s Fifth Principle
Sam Ham, James Carter, Larry Beck, Ted Cable, Carolyn Ward

In our field, “interpretation” is everything, so it should be no surprise that we often “interpret” guiding principles differently. The following will begin a series of articles in the In My Opinion section of the Journal titled “Conversations.”