Tabletop Interpretation

One of the perks at last week’s NAI National Workshop in Saint Paul, Minnesota, was free admission to the Science Museum of Minnesota. There were many other perks as well, though I wouldn’t consider a lutefisk facial one of those benefits.

The museum was an amazing place. Here are some pictures and thoughts that I wanted to share.

The museum lobby also hosts a visitor center for the National Park Service’s Mississippi River National River and Recreation Area. I found this relationship strange initially (not a strange as the combination of fish and lye) but after understanding their proximity to the river as well as the visitation at the museum it made sense.

An overlook adjacent to the museum is highlighted by several wayside exhibits.

The National River site also takes time to interpret the urban landscape, a view a readily available as views of the river. I can imagine a planning meeting discussing the need to interpret the river but resolving to interpret other elements of the landscape. I love the rock pedestals but I’m not sure how well the fit into the landscape.

National River interpretation also spills over into a creative use of tabletop exhibits that are very well designed and an interesting use of space.

Paul wrote on Monday about the use of Twitter hashtags. Here’s the museum’s take on collecting feedback while visitors are waiting in line for their tickets. It sets the stage for visitors to share their thoughts throughout their experience. The questions give visitors something to Tweet about. This helps those struggling for something interesting to say. This is an effective use of social media through interpretation.

Okay, so I haven’t shown you anything from the inside of the museum. More to come in a future post.

Jump In

About this same time last year, NAI’s National workshop was hosted in Las Vegas, Nevada. Paul and I were asked to be auctioneers at the annual scholarship auction. Once I heard this news, I immediately started practicing counting. I had to make sure I could count higher than Paul. That competitive nature, contributed to a thought I had to once again embarrass Paul in public. My thought was to auction off our hair. Paul waffled (as any National League fan would) and a deal was was finally struck, my hair versus his goatee. (To this day, Paul still claims it was an even trade for the exact number of hair follicles.) As most of you know, for actions outside of my control, we both lost our hair.

Believe it or not we were asked to help again this year. We almost never get asked back, anywhere. So we were stoked. The competitive thought process began all over again.

Since this year’s workshop is Saint Paul (insert your own joke here), Minnesota Paul had the idea of taking a polar bear-type-plunge in the Mississippi River.

This time around I was the one not overly excited. (For this reason and 11 others.)

This is where I need your help. We need an acceptable challenge to help raise money at the auction. Please give us an idea. The auction is Friday night. We’ll be sure to give you credit at the auction.

The current leading idea revolves around a plate of lutefisk.

Apps for Interpreters (That We Also Kind of Like)

Most of you know where I stand in the realm of Mac vs. PCs. That doesn’t mean that I have to be against every single product that Apple offers. (Though it is true that the iPod Touch, iPhone, and iPad are all the exact same product just offered in various sizes.) What I can’t really wrap my mind around is how it is possible for Paul to write a post about iPhone apps and not make fun of the fact that I now have one too. I expect those comments to come rolling in today. Paul did a nice job avoiding hyperbole but I’m here to say these apps will change your life.

.

For the first time ever on a recent birding trip and guided birding boat tour that I led, I didn’t bring a field guide with me. With the Sibley Guide eGuide to Birds app it is not necessary. The app has amazing options for viewing maps, hearing various versions of calls, along with all of the other images and information that the actual field guide offers. There are many other types of bird guides out there that cost less but overall I was most impressed with this one. It is pricy for an app ($29.99) but it is all about priorities. There are also apps for other naturalists’ interests such as field guides for herps, mammals, fish, etc.

.

Speaking of apps for naturalists, LeafSnap is pretty cool too. First, it is beautifully designed. You can look through the browsing section for hours at a time.The feature that has made this app so popular is that you can take a leaf, place it on a white sheet of paper and photograph it (or snap it) and it will provide you with a list of possible species that you can peruse based on your location.

.

If you ever find yourself problem solving or brainstorming and struggling with conceptualizing the issues at hand, SimpleMindMapping is available to you when ever the ideas are flowing. The free version allows you to save and view your mind maps but the paid version allows you to email and share the maps. As with most free technology today, the basic options are free and you pay for advanced elements.

.

Keeping the Star Wars streak alive (and an attempt to continue to isolate any readers we still have) I bring you my favorite Star Wars-related app. I have a demanding job and personal life where at any given moment I’m searching for wisdom and guidance. Where do I turn? Thanks for asking, I turn to the Star Wars Quotes app. If Yoda can’t help me solve a problem, no one can. I also have friends (which may surprise you) who are also Star Wars fans (no we don’t dress up; well, only on special occasions) who are sticklers for accuracy that this app provides.

I tell you that to tell you this: There are quote apps for almost all interest areas that allow you to access information quickly and easily to meet your needs.

Today’s random quote from Han Solo in Episode IV: A New Hope: “Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy.”

.

Speaking of quotes you must have, Dragon Dictation allows you to make your own quotes. It allows you speak into your iPhone and will take your transcribed dictation straight into a text message, email, word processing file, Facebook status update, or Tweet. If you need to make a quick note while out on a tour, you need this app. (Also, it’s great if you ever need to tweet or text while driving.) It is amazingly seamless, but struggles with my southern accent at times.

For all of you interpretive naturalist types out there please share your favorites below in the comment section. In the meantime I’ll be listening to bird calls on my iPhone.

Why Clip Art is Evil

Author’s note: One of the first pieces I ever wrote for NAI was a commentary in the July/August 2003 Legacy magazine called “Why Clip Art is Evil.” For a long time, much as I am the guy who hates Comic Sans now, I was known as the guy who hates clip art. Not long ago, I received an email from Friend of IBD William Bevil, who said, “In much the same way that you tackle Comic Sans, I think it’s time to talk about the perils of clip art. I don’t think you guys have posted on this before?”

I can’t believe that I haven’t posted anything about clip art on this blog yet, so I thought I should. Then I thought, rather than try to recreate all those same arguments from 2003, I’d just share that article with you. You’ll see antiquated references to things like “Who Let the Dogs Out?,” CDs, and New Jersey, but the points remain. So with that, I give you this article from 2003:

Why Clip Art is Evil
I long for the days when an image was worth a thousand words. Now, with the advent of what is generously referred to as clip art, many pictures are barely worth the words it takes to name the digital files that describe them on the free CDs that show up every time you try to order an inkjet printer. In a world where there are synthetic, mass-produced solutions to nearly every question—from “What’s for dinner?” to “Who let the dogs out?”—it seems only natural that our options for visual expression are limited to a pre-established set of generic, soulless pseudo-cartoons.

Now, it’s important that I differentiate between clip art and illustration. Illustrators are talented, purposeful people who create artwork intended to speak to a specific audience. Frequently, illustrators specialize in a specific area of interest, a comforting notion to interpreters who rely on the accuracy of the information they put forward. Many of NAI’s members are illustrators, and not only is their artwork expertly produced, but its focus on specific subject areas (animals, plants, etc.) makes it meaningful.

Clip art, on the other hand, magically appears in the middle of a stack of CDs that you thought contained only software for the computer you threw away last year and, possibly, your missing “Best of Van Halen.” Your clip art CD proclaims—usually with several exclamation points—that it contains “over 3,000 images,” each evoking exactly the same emotive response: This image is free! It doesn’t have to be meaningful! This is how interpreters—people who devote their lives to conveying unique, relevant messages—end up creating newsletters and brochures peppered with cartoons created by robots in a New Jersey warehouse. (To be fair, no one actually knows where clip art comes from.)

Most interpretive sites do not enjoy the luxury of a budget that allows for paying illustrators or photographers. However, alternatives to clip art are not as elusive as one might think. First, many people do not consider themselves to be illustrators. But even a person with no artistic skill at all (if such a person truly exists) stands a better chance of effectively conveying the sense of a message or the attitude of an organization than does clip art.

Clip art appears everywhere. It was designed to be ambiguous and personality-free so that it might accidentally suit a wide range of unforeseen purposes. Those individuals who venture to create their own illustrations will find that not only do they have access to any image they want (after a couple minutes with a pen and paper), but that their illustrations take on a certain style, giving their publications a personality that is unique.

Take, for example, the case of the disgruntled elf. In my search for artwork to accompany this article, I stumbled across “Elf–Disgruntled.EPS,” and placed him in my document. I then placed “Balloon07.EPS” right next to him and sat back to enjoy my creation. Then—perhaps after one too many Dr. Peppers—I wondered what NAI’s staff members might come up with if I asked each to draw a disgruntled elf. Several had actual work to do and declined, but to those who agreed, I stipulated that each artist should spend five minutes on his or her drawing. Five minutes later, I found myself in the possession of images that had personality, and more importantly, would never coincidentally show up in some other interpretive association’s magazine.

Note from 2011: Of the four NAIers who drew elves for this study, I am the only one still employed by NAI. That's likely not a coincidence.

In addition to having unique illustrations at my disposal, I discovered other possible resources. One staff member told me that both of her sons are terrific artists and would love to have work published. Another staff member once drew a weekly cartoon for a college newspaper, and assorted staff family members include two college art majors, an interior designer, and a high school art teacher. A simple decision to find an alternative to clip art turned up a variety of sources for free, high-quality artwork with a relative minimum of effort—all of this in an office of six full-time employees.

Because clip art appears everywhere—and because anyone who has ever been in a room that had a computer in it knows that it’s not that hard to place a clip-art file in a word processing document—it has the opposite effect of sprucing up a document. The only story it tells is that of someone who needs to get a newsletter to the printer sitting at a computer and scrolling through a list of 3,000(!) images, looking for the one that comes the closest to saying what he or she wants it to say.

Non-personal interpretive media frequently serve as the first contact a member of the public has with a site. If brochures, web sites, or magazine advertisements don’t effectively convey the mission of a site—or do so in a unique, creative manner—then the personal interpreters at the same site may never get the chance to tell their story. A good interpreter makes the most of the resources available to him or her, be it in person or through non-personal media. A good interpreter would not settle for a generic message created by someone who knew nothing about his or her site.

There is interesting, expressive artwork out there, and it’s not hard to find. Even if you don’t consider yourself an artist, you might surprise yourself when you sit down with a pen and paper. And if you don’t, someone else at your site surely will. So put the clip art CD back in the stack of old printer drivers and “Hits of the ’80s” and break out a pen. You’ll be glad you did.