A few nights ago I was able to attend the first in the spring series of lectures at the New England Aquarium where I am now employed. I’ll give a rundown of some of the highlights from the lecture, titled “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Humans,” in the next post but I also attended a workshop beforehand on how to communicate ocean change and I wanted to write a little about how that went.
The word “interpret” or “interpreter” or “interpretation” gets thrown around a lot in the museum/zoo/aquarium/park world. It’s kind of a catch-all term to describe the actions we take to give visitors a better experience and hopefully help them come away with some of the core messages our exhibits are trying to convey. So we talked about how we interpret our exhibits (which are mostly made up of tanks full of animals) in a way that conveys and impresses ideas related to ocean change and climate change. A lot of visitors to aquariums, zoos, museums and science centers are coming purely for recreation and it can be tricky to slip these ideas in without seeming preachy.
The main concept we discussed was the idea of “framing.” Framing deals with being very decisive about how we talk to someone such that the topic does not seem overwhelming or confusing. There’s a lot of information about climate change and there are unfortunately a lot of politics involved which may or may not alter how people view these ideas. The idea of framing is to make the message clear and relatable. There are three main points about framing I came away with from our discussion.
The first is that different perspectives can tell a very different story about the same event. Likewise, the way you say something or “frame” something, can have a very different effect on the listener. A scholarly article I found on the topic (which you can read online here) makes the point that the response to the question “would you favor or oppose allowing a hate group to hold a political rally?” varies greatly depending on whether you preface it with either “given the importance of free speech” or “given the risk of violence.” That illustrates the idea that the way we phrase something or the perspective we have on something can greatly alter what our audience comes away thinking.
The second main point was that it helps not to start with the issue (in this case, ocean change) but rather to start with a shared, large-scale ideal that one probably has in common with the listener. Most of us in
Finally framing involves the idea of making very clear connections. The example we talked about was the following: burning fossil fuels increases the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which increases the pH of the oceans which causes damage to calcium carbonate which is primarily what hard corals are made from therefore burning lots of fossil fuels damages corals and puts reefs in danger. All of those points are facts and they all follow one to the next. Anyone who argues against that kind of logic is going to be incredibly hard to get through to. So to finally get back to all those exhibits which are mostly animals the suggestion is that we use the idea that most people who come through our doors whether for recreation or to learn or for whatever other reason want to be able to continue appreciating the animals and that without some change we may very well lose many of the species represented there.
The last thing I would like to suggest is that it is not just us who work in places like zoos, parks and aquariums who can interpret ocean and climate change. Anyone can do this in their daily lives. The next time a friend orders a tuna steak out at a restaurant, shrugs at the suggestion that he or she should try keeping lights off when they’re not in use or throws a recyclable commodity in the trash, use it as an opportunity. I encourage you to test your comfort levels but all you need to do is start a conversation. Explain why it matters to you. Explain the connections. Be informed. There really isn’t much else you can do.
What successes or failures have you had communicating difficult environmental concepts? What best practices do you use?