One of the great things about being involved in this field is that you can appreciate really good interpretation when you find it. Whether it is a sign at a trailhead, a brochure, a website, or a guided tour, you understand the skill that goes into a really effective product. Sometimes that appreciation leads me to question some notions I have held for a long time about what constitutes “effective.” That is what happened to me this summer.
My husband and I did a nine-day tour of southwest Colorado for our vacation. One of our favorite stops was Mesa Verde National Park. We signed up for a guided tour of Cliff Palace, one of the largest of the cliff dwellings that are open to the public. National Park Service interpretive guides conduct the tours. Our guide was great in all the ways you might expect – good, clear voice, vast store of knowledge about the site, ability to make eye contact, neat in appearance. But she went beyond those basics.
For anyone who has not visited Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde, it is an amazing experience. These dwellings are so well constructed that you can visualize what life must have been like for the ancestral Puebloans who lived here thousands of years ago. The tour begins at one end of the dwelling and the guide points out various features and answers questions as they come up. During our introduction, we heard the applause from the group ahead of us as their tour ended.
I did not think too much about that applause except to register the appreciation of the audience for the guide. When we got to that point in the tour, however, something else happened. We were gathered around a large kiva – the circular pit used in spiritual ceremonies. Our guide explained that the belief system of these ancient peoples was based on the idea that they had come out of the earth and that other worlds existed beneath our feet. She ended by saying that, this may seem odd to people whose religious affiliation connected with Judeo-Christian tradition but that in the United States we enjoy freedom of religion and that demands that we respect traditions other than our own.
She urged us to quietly and respectfully explore and appreciate the work of the people who made this place and allow whatever insights might arise to come forward. There was no applause. We filed around the kiva and looked up through a tower to view a remnant piece of art on the walls. It was a perfect ending to a very special experience. I felt deep appreciation for the place.
I have to add that, unfortunately, a gust of wind blew my hat off my head and into the kiva. I was mortified! But our guide stepped into an alcove and fetched a long pole, which she used to retrieve my hat. The whole group applauded – and she cringed! That is when she shared that she really does not like to hear applause in this place. She always ends her tour in a way that leaves people in a contemplative mood. Our guide wanted us to experience appreciation for the place, rather than appreciation for her. It made me realize that applause is not always the best indicator of good interpretation. I will always remember this tour as a fine example of the art of interpretation.