Brian Forist, Lecturer in Outdoor Recreation, Parks, and Human Ecology, Indiana University

Proposal Type


  • Seeking Additional Presenters
  • Seeking General Feedback and Interest
Related Topics
  • Civic Engagement
  • Teaching
  • Theory

Public historians and other scholars are engaged in a variety of research that illuminates the vital role visitors to heritage sites play in constructing their own understandings of the past. Research and scholarship of this sort provides significant insights into new interpretive practices that truly serve the visitors to protected sites. In this panel, research projects and/or use studies will be highlighted, results will be shared, and participants will engage in a conversation with the panelists about new directions in visitor-centered interpretation.


Interpretation is “…largely a service for visitors to parks, wildlife refuges, museums, zoos, aquariums and other such leisure places. Its practical objectives are straightforward: to assist the visitor, to accomplish management goals, and to promote public understanding and appreciation” (Machlis and Field, 1992, p. 2). Interpretation takes place in formal settings such as guided hikes, talks, and campfire programs as well as in informal settings including scenic overlooks, historic buildings, park visitor centers, and trails.

Researchers from Indiana University have conducted a multiple-case study assessment of visitor-centered two-way (dialogic) formal and informal interpretive experiences (including interpretation related to global climate change) at six U.S. national parks. Their research is based in dialogue theory. The researchers have identified essential elements of visitor-centered two-way interpretation, associated interpreter skills, and key steps in facilitating this new form of interpretation. Dialogue-based interpretation is, indeed, much less presentational than the traditional offerings. It is more about the visitors and their interaction with the protected resources than it is about the planned presentation by the interpreter. It attempts to veer programs from didactic one-way presentations to active and engaged two-way communication between the visitors and the interpretive message. This approach is more complex and challenging but would certainly increase the potential for the visitors to make direct connections and therefore have lasting memories of their interpretive experience.

The panelists will outline the research conducted by the Indiana University team and others, will share results, and recommended new practices in visitor-centered interpretation..

I am seeking other panelists who have research projects to share regarding visitor-centered interpretation in the public history arena. Ideal panelists will share results of their work along with recommendations for new practices based on those results. Also of interest would be case studies of visitor-centered interpretation based on visitor research, visitor input, or stakeholder engagement.

Machlis, G. E., & Field, D. R. (1992). On interpretation: Sociology for interpreters of natural and cultural history (G. E. Machlis, & Field, D. R. Ed. 2nd ed.). Corvalis, OR: Oregon State University Press.

If you have a direct offer of assistance, sensitive criticism, or wish to pass along someone’s contact information confidentially, please get in contact directly: Brian Forist, [email protected]

If you have general ideas or feedback to share, please feel free to use the comments feature below.

All feedback and offers of assistance should be submitted by July 2, 2017.


  1. Benjamin Filene says:

    This sounds like interesting research. One basic suggestion that I have–to clarify for your audience (and for the program committee) is to define “interpretation.” I believe you mean live, guide-driven tours of a historic site. But many of us in the museum world use “interpretation” just to mean the act of interpreting–more akin to the word “analysis.” Another question I have is about the term “protected sites.” Is that different than just an “historic site”? It seems like your study’s findings could apply to any number of public history venues. Finally, if you aren’t able to find panelists doing similar research, another idea would be to invite a site partner, new to your research, to try to apply your finding to his/her real-life work and to report “from the field” on what rings true and what, perhaps, was harder to apply in practice.

    1. Brian Forist says:

      Benjamin, Thanks very much. Your comments are of extreme value. Indeed, by “interpretation” here, I am referring to guided experiences, both formal (tours, walks, presentations, dialogues, etc), and informal or extemporaneous encounters between site staff and visitors. When I use the term “protected sites” it spans a bit more than historic sites. My work is primarily conducted in national parks and that includes sites that are primarily historic in nature, others that are primarily natural resource sites, and most which are a combination. I recognize the fuzzy border between “natural” and “cultural.”

  2. Mike Dove says:

    I think these findings need to be heard Brian. In lieu of finding other presenters who are engaged in similar projects, you certainly could present your research and invite audience members to share their experiences in order to better measure how theory translates into practice. Today’s interpretative strategies of course include greater use of digital technologies- I’d be interested in hearing how mobile phone apps and tools such as VR stations are impacting traditional guided experiences.

    1. Brian Forist says:

      Thanks much, Mike. Your suggestion is an excellent one and will be worked into the final proposal that I will be crafting in the next week with one co-presenter.

  3. This sounds exciting! When I completed my thesis recently, I found there was relatively little literature or training material in the world of museums and historic sites that presented any communications theory more complex than the mid-20th century transactional model. It may be helpful to discuss that model (messages moving between senders, being perfectly decoded, sent back, etc) as a point of contrast – I think that many practitioners are unaware how deeply embedded this theory is in our thinking, even if it has never been examined as such. Also, there is a strong link to constructivist educational theory, which has infused much museum programming, but has yet to permeate live interpretation, where we seem to have a harder time letting go of prioritizing museum-originated messages. Looking forward to seeing how this develops. If it’s of interest, I’d be happy to share my thesis and its discussion of dialogue in food interpretation.

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