This post was authored by Public History student Katrina Partlow during her internship at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.
Before starting my internship at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis there were four things that I knew practically nothing about. I knew little to nothing about space and science fiction, I had no idea how to talk or work with children, I had never worked in a place that welcomed thousands of people a day into their space, and I did not really know what interpretation even was. Although my knowledge was limited on these essential topics, I would catch on pretty quick. Every day is different at the Children’s Museum and there is always something new to learn.
Interpretation: What is That?
When most people hear the occupation title “Interpreter,” they first think of language interpretation. An Interpreter, in this context, is someone that helps bring about an outcome by providing indirect or unobtrusive assistance, guidance, or supervision. We aim to create an environment where visitors can learn how to interact with the environment and each other so that each visitor has an enhanced experience. Interpretation can take a million different forms from informal interactions, acting as a costumed character, storytelling, and formal programming. An interpreter aims to have a powerful interaction with each guest they encounter, even if it only lasts a few seconds.
How To: Be an Interpreter
Becoming an Interpreter seems really intimidating at first, especially when you are presented with the goal of creating an extraordinary learning experience with every person you meet in a very small amount of time. Luckily, there are a few guidelines and best practices we Public Historians can use on our interpretation journey that make it a lot easier than it may seem.
Before you begin your interactions with your audience, you want to make sure you know your stuff about whatever topic you plan to focus on. To the audience, you are the expert even if you do not know every little detail. There will be things you will not know about your topic and that is okay. You can use it as an opportunity to go on a learning journey with those you are interacting with.
Approachability is key as an interpreter. Your body language will often be the first thing the audience notices, especially if they are just passing by you in a gallery. Immerse yourself in the space you are in and do your best to be present and attentive. Initiation is next. The audience may not come directly to you, so you may need to invite them over to learn and explore together. You really want to match your energy to those you are interacting with whether it be calm and slow or big and loud!
The next key to being an interpreter is your questioning techniques. First, you must know what objectives you are setting for the interactions you will be having with your audience. The learning objectives the Children’s Museum uses are called Bloom’s Taxonomy. These objectives build upon one another and can visually be compared to something like a pyramid. The objectives consist of remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. This is a long list of objectives to work with, and depending on both the program and the audience it is reasonable to assume you may not hit all of the points and you may even go back and forth between a few. You do not have to hit all of the points for the interaction to be powerful and successful, but having an understanding of what you would like the audience to come away with will help you adapt to each interaction.
Now that you know your objectives for these interactions, you have to determine what questions you will ask to lead the conversations. The number one rule when asking questions during an interaction is to make sure they are open-ended. Asking too many close-ended questions may intimidate the audience and they may not interact because they are afraid they may get the answer wrong. By asking open-ended questions, you are able to turn learning into a journey at their pace and inspire critical thinking and creativity. Open-ended questions encourage the audience to draw their own connections and conclusions, which will hopefully help them extend their learning experience outside of the interaction as well. Visual aids will also be your friend. In the STEM Galleries at the Children’s Museum, props are every interpreter’s best friend. It gives the audience something to touch and interact with which is great for gaining and holding the attention of guests of all ages. You also want to make sure you are showing and not telling. The audience may feel as though they are being lectured at, and while that learning technique does have its benefits in certain settings it is not always a favorite of the younger members.
With all of your tools and knowledge in your back pocket, the last and most important step is the interaction itself. There is no way to truly prepare for an interaction than to actually have one. It takes time and practice, but eventually, the interactions will become more second nature as you become increasingly comfortable not only with the topic but with your role as an interpreter.
STEM vs. History: How Do They Connect?
STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. History is nowhere to be seen within this acronym, or is it? Everything has a history, whether it be a person, object, or topic. Some histories are harder to find and understand than others, but that does not mean that they do not exist within and all around.
The STEM Galleries at the Children’s Museum consist of Beyond Spaceship Earth and Science works. These two galleries are a nice contrast to one another as the former focuses on space and science-fiction and the latter focuses on biology and the environment.
In the STEM galleries, there is definitely a lot of science, technology, and engineering, but there is also history. For Beyond Spaceship Earth, history comes in a variety of forms. Guests are introduced to important historical figures such as Neil Armstrong and the evolution of space exploration. There is also the history of technology, and how science fiction has influenced it over time.
As Public Historians, it is our job to uncover the history of all that we come into contact with so we are able to translate and bring it to the public for them to explore. The answers and connections may not always be obvious, but using our interpretation skills we can go on a journey to explore those topics by ourselves and with those around us.
STEM Interpretation: My Experience at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis
When I applied to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, I didn’t even know they had a STEM Galleries department, let alone that I would be placed in it.
Science was always my least favorite subject in school, so the shock of being placed in the science galleries hit twice as hard. I even told my supervisors that I knew little to nothing about the topic, but they assured me I would catch on pretty quick. Going into a large, new institution with almost no background knowledge on the topic or position can be very intimidating for anyone, but it is important to remember that new experiences are extremely valuable as a Public Historian because it allows to continue to grow and adapt.
Despite my previous ick towards anything science related, I dove into the subject matter and the galleries with a new lens on the topic. I knew that if I, someone that continuously avoided anything science related from elementary to high school, could find something interesting about this topic and the history wrapped within it then I would be able to share that newfound passion with just about anyone. If your audience sees that you are bored, uninterested, or that you don’t like the topic then they will often match your energy and reject it as well. Even if the audience comes into an interaction with a negative or a lack of feelings towards a topic, it is our job as interpreters and historians to bring that positive energy and association to the table.
I cannot say that my first program as an interpreter went smoothly, or that they go smoothly even now that I have been doing them for a few weeks. Interpretation is like an art form that is different for each person, and I have yet to find my particular style. I find it particularly difficult to move away from a very factual, lecture-style interaction as that is the type of learning experience I am used to. It is also a challenge to interact with a younger audience. My education thus far has prepared me to present information to an academic, older audience, and it is absolutely a learning curve when adapting to any audience different than that. I have had conversations with people of all ages, and with each interaction comes a unique challenge as well as a unique opportunity to inspire learning.
I am very excited to continue learning how to interact with people. The information, training, and experience that I am gaining from this internship at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis can be applied to any job, but they fit especially well with my goals and objectives as a Public Historian. I hope to apply what I learn in my future career as I work to inspire interest and learning in other topics and institutions as well as in everyday life and the interactions I have daily.