New Zealand: a visitor’s perspective (well, sort of)

My partner and I have recently returned from two weeks’ holiday in New Zealand.

It was a whirlwind fourteen days across both islands, taking in cities, wilderness and a huge diversity of landscapes. Both of us were struck by the huge variety of places you could encounter in just a few hours of driving.

As I said, this was a holiday. Which means that I made a deliberate decision to leave my “work” head at home and simply enjoy the experience without burdening myself with the meta-analysis of it all. Before we went away I made a pact with my partner that I would not drag him on a “Museums of New Zealand” tour (although I did gain an exemption to visit Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum in Wellington – more later). Put bluntly, I wasn’t going to spend my holiday thinking about signage design, quality of interpretive text, or musing on why experiences had been planned out the way they were. I was just going to approach everywhere we went as an ordinary visitor.

So rather than a considered review, I thought I’d just point out a few things which I thought were interesting or noteworthy, without any major analysis.

Worthy but not dull

There are lots of important bits of information about safety, cleaning up after yourself, and so forth that need to be presented to visitors. But Kiwis seem to have a bit of a sense of humour about it, which means (a) you’re more likely to read the signs and (b) remember them.

Hell's Gate
A 'no littering' sign at Hell's Gate, Rotorua. Given the pools ranged from 60 - 120 degrees C with pH 2 - 4, it was hardly an attractive proposition!
No littering sign at Mount John
Another 'no littering' sign, this one at Mount John Observatory overlooking Lake Tekapo (part of the University of Canterbury)

There did seem to be a bit of a theme across New Zealand of adding a dash of humor to interpretation – this even extended to Air New Zealand’s safety briefing video, which was full of rugby puns and gentle digs at Australians (the ‘put on your own oxygen mask before helping infants’ bit was illustrated by a sulking Aussie rugby fan).

Also, on our various roadside ventures into national parks and scenic vantage points, there were helpful instructional signs giving estimated walking times to particular destinations. Having this information was useful in deciding whether we had the time to factor a particular side trail into our journey or not. (And whether it was a trail for leisurely strollers like us, or the full-on hikers for whom NZ is a Mecca)

A way of looking closer

At the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki (NW coast of South Island), this illustration gave a whole new perspective to the geological formations in front of it:

Illustration showing faces and creatures in the rocks (apologies for cropping off of text - it was a little poem about what you could see hiding in the rock structures)
The actual structures the illustration was referring to - the leap of imagination in looking for the shapes was easier in the flesh, but it still makes you look at it differently, doesn't it?

Making the drive an interpretive experience

Points to our travel agent for this one. For the South Island leg of our tour she included hire of a Kruse system, a GPS-based travel guide which you plug into the car’s cigarette lighter (funny we still call it that although most cars ditched the lighter function years ago). It’s not a satnav (we had one of those as well), but rather a unit which uses your GPS co-ordinates to select and play audio tracks about the places you are driving through. The commentary includes Maori legends, the history of towns and places, tips for spotting local wildlife, suggestions of nearby scenic destinations and practical information (such as “this town has the last ATM for xxx km”).

It’s much more relaxing than combing through a guide book (which I can’t do when in a car anyway as it makes me travel sick), and was delivered at a sufficiently gentle pace mixed in with music (although my partner would have liked a ‘skip’ function for some of the songs which are admittedly an eclectic mix).

Kruse was a useful interpretive tool, revealing a depth of meaning to the places we were driving through (without it, many of the smaller towns would have been insignificant 80 km/h zones). It also helped us to understand the changes in the landscape as we moved across the island. We also took its advice for some scenic detours and stopping points which were definitely worth the trip.

On a technical front, it’s usually clever enough to know when you’re backtracking on a route and so doesn’t re-play the same tracks ad nauseum. Even in ‘holiday’ mode, I couldn’t help but marvel at the huge amount of time and effort that must have gone into researching and writing all the scripts. The hire was only NZ$10 per day and definitely worth it (I’ll take my commission now! 😉 )

Te Papa Tongarewa

Te Papa front entrance

As New Zealand’s national museum, this place was understandably HUGE. There was no way we were going to see everything and so we didn’t even set out to try. Fortunately, their current major travelling exhibition (European Masters) was one I had already seen in Melbourne so we could tick that off the itinerary straight away.

The building wasn’t the most intuitive in the world to navigate, but signage around the main congregation spaces was reasonably good and it was clear enough to find what was on offer on which floor, once you got the hang of the fact that the floor you’d arrived on was “Level 2”.

We concentrated mostly on the Maori culture and New Zealand history exhibitions, which for us first-time visitors to NZ were englightening. There was an informative exhibition on the Treaty of Waitangi, known as New Zealand’s founding document, and which I was only vaguely aware of prior to visiting. It presented the background to the treaty, and how differences between the Maori and English translations of the document have had ramifications which continue to this day.

I also enjoyed exhibition about the culture and experiences of Pacific peoples (from places like Tonga and Samoa) who have settled to New Zealand more recently. (I unleashed my inner kid, spending a lot of time on a virtual mixing table mashing up Pacific pop music.) There was also a large wall of objects linked to a touchscreen where you could select an item and find out its significance to a particular community. It contained more modern objects like T-shirts, flyers, album covers and so forth, but in display terms it was not dissimilar to this one from the Pounamu exhibition:

Pounamu, or Neprite Jade, was a much prized commodity for the Maori, who used it to make ornaments and weapons. The interpretation of these items is on the adjacent touchscreen. The spiralling layout was visually appealing as well as interpretively resonant (the sprial shape is commonly seen in Pounamu ornaments); I also found the shape of the layout made it easy to match the items in the case with their corresponding image on the screen.

The exhibition also presented some of the challenges faced in modern Pacific communities. Canned corned beef has become a major staple in many Pacific islands, displacing the people from more traditional food sources and creating an economic dependence on imported goods. This piece of art, a cow made from corned beef cans, was commentary on the issue:

The corned beef cow. There was an interesting back-story to this work, but I can't recall the details sufficiently clearly to recount. If I hadn't been in 'holiday' mode, I would have taken a picture of the interpretive graphic as well as a reminder. But I was, so I didn't, and now you'll need to reach your own conclusions . . .

And now, because it was a holiday, I’ll self-indulgently finish with a few snaps of the amazing scenery to prove that NZ is definitely a place worth visiting . . .

View of the Southern Alps from Lake Murchison
Arty skywards shot through an ice cave, Fox Glacier
Clouds boiling over Mount Tasman
Huka Falls nr Lake Taupo could be more accurately called 'Huka Torrent'

(PS Photo credits to my partner and his uber-fancy Canon)

Interpretation: whose business?

I have a confession to make.

Probably a contentious one, given I am Vice President of Interpretation Australia, but one I will make nonetheless: I’m having a bit of a problem with the word ‘interpretation‘.

The word is tantalisingly – misleadingly – simple: and this in itself presents an interpretive problem. Outside the heritage profession, it has a completely different meaning, usually related to translating foreign languages. And even within heritage circles, I sometimes wonder whether we are all talking about precisely the same thing when we’re talking about ‘interpretation’.

The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud from (One of the top images which came up from a Google search under 'interpretation' - yet another meaning for this vexed term!)

Before I go on, I’ll bring in an analogous example – the word ‘theory’. No-one would need to go look it up in the dictionary. Through common usage we all know it means a ‘hunch’, something we’re basing on conjecture but which we don’t have enough evidence to prove outright. In common usage, ‘theory’ and ‘hypothesis’ are interchangeable terms. But not to scientists. In science, a ‘theory’ is something that is so well backed up by available evidence that it can be taken as an established fact. A hypothesis, on the other hand, is closer to our common understanding of  the word ‘theory’ – we think we know what might be going on, but the results are not yet in.

This disconnect between everyday and specialist usage of a seemingly harmless word such as ‘theory’ has its consequences.  For instance, people who wish to undermine the well-established Theory of Evolution for their own political or religious agenda can turn around and say:  “Well, it’s only a theory, isn’t it?”

Now ‘interpretation’ doesn’t suffer quite like ‘theory’ in the way it is wilfully misinterpreted. But even so, I think the issue of definition runs deeper than just having to clear up confusion when you answer one of those ‘So what do you do?’ questions at dinner parties. How do you get someone to value something when they’re not even sure what it is?

The latest edition of Interpreting Australia focuses on the business side of interpretation: does interpretation make sense from a business perspective? How can we incorporate the value of interpretation into business bottom lines? Is there a firm line where marketing and customer service stop and interpretation begins? And what does this mean for who should be charged with ‘doing’ interpretation?

Sue Hodges writes the first instalment of a thought provoking series (the rest will be coming on the Interpretation Australia website soon) about how the unclear definition and intangible nature of interpretation makes it easy for it to be undervalued and ‘claimed’ by other professions rather than being a separate entity, calling for its own dedicated expertise and budget:

Intepretation suffers from being pluralistic. It spans many disciplines . . . Yet it is this very adaptability that currently threatens our profession; many other disciplines also want our slice of the pie . . . most [interpretation] could theoretically be undertaken by anyone because the required skills base is neither mandatory, legislated nor confined to the arts or sciences. Interpreters are vying for business against specialties which are more clearly defined, such as architecture. . . . it can be hard to justify adaptive and intangible interpretive work against the familiar and tangible work from allied professions. (Interpreting Australia Issue 43, p6)

In this context, consultants from all sorts of fields can claim they can do the ‘interpretation’ part of a project. And if clients aren’t entirely clear what interpretation is, and get different definitions depending on who they speak to, this only muddies the water further.

In a similar vein, I recently had a discussion with someone who is charged with helping local tourism businesses create better experiences (to the end of increasing visitor spend and of course, profits). While we both understood intuitively how interpretation can (and does) enhance tourism experiences, it’s hard to quantify exactly what interpretive ‘inputs’ will lead to a specific set of bottom-line ‘outputs’. And without this hard data, it can be difficult for some business owners, unfamiliar with the term ‘interpretation’ in the first place, to get it (and see why it’s a wise investment).

Our discussion did make me wonder whether the use of the term ‘interpretation’ was actually counter-productive in this instance, and whether we should just be seeing good interpretation as an integral part of creating a distinctive experience, regardless of what we call it?

Or maybe we turn it the other way around –  and show how interpretation is something people know about already! In another of the Interpreting Australia articles, Michele Bain of Designhaus draws upon the example of Jamie Oliver as an ‘interpreter’ of food and nutrition:

. . .he engaged us and inspired us so completely we never even noticed that we were actually learning to cook. (Interpreting Australia Issue 43, p10)

Perhaps if we described interpretation in these more familiar terms – i.e. applying interpretive principles to communicating the very concept of interpretation – we might help businesses make the conceptual leap from seeing interpretation as something that sounds very academic and not particularly relevant to them,  to understanding that it is the ‘secret ingredient’ which makes the difference between so-so and must-see.

To take the cooking analogy a step further: bricks-and-mortar might be the meat-and-potatoes of a destination, but without the carefully planned and expertly created ‘sauce’ that is interpretation, the experience may satisfy the basics but it is hardly going to be unique,  memorable or emotionally satisfying.

Maybe that is the way to describe what I do at the next dinner party . . .