On Stories: Interview with Ron Thomson, Interpretive Planner


“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Rudyard Kipling

We’re currently working with the National Park Service and Interpretive Planner Ron Thomson of Compass on wayside exhibits along the Natchez Trace Parkway. The Natchez Trace Parkway is a storied road; it winds through 444 miles of American landscape, encapsulating 10,000 years of human history and settlement. Ron’s expertise in defining and expressing storylines has been an invaluable part of the collaborative process, and we wanted to interview Ron to share some of his insight on the process of interpreting cultural and shared heritage.

Our past collaborations with Ron include the “Magna Carta and the Four Foundations of Freedom” exhibit at Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art“Cronkite: Eyewitness to a Century” at University of Texas-Austin Dolph Briscoe Center for American History; and many others.

ron Tell us about your background…

I grew up in southeastern Pennsylvania, graduated from Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA, with a BA in American history, attended the University of Virginia as a Thomas Jefferson Fellow, and joined the National Park Service as a park ranger at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. I left the NPS after 21 years to become a consultant specializing in interpretive planning and text.

How did you become interested in working with the National Park Service and museums?

I found that helping people think about history and discover relevance in the past was not just challenging but fun. Since the NPS preserves and protects many of our most compelling historical sites, it would be hard for an interpreter to find a more meaningful collection of stories to share.

What makes a great story?

A talented storyteller, someone capable of not only capturing and holding attention but also of generating intellectual sparks and then fanning the flames of empathy and imagination.

How important are language and text when interpreting cultural material? How does language inform accessibility?

Words are the medium of the storyteller. An array of colorful paints is essential to the artist; a rich vocabulary is indispensable to the interpreter.

How do you see language evolving in the exhibition space?

By definition, interpretation involves transformation. Words become ideas. Ideas have relevance. Relevance has the power to create memories.

Do you see digital media playing a larger role in interpretation in the future?

Digital media is a part of 21st-century life. The real question is not whether the interpreter will integrate emerging technologies into storytelling but how and where. Interpretive planning still revolves around a core question. As the interpreter opens the interpretive tool kit and scans the possibilities, what’s the best tool for the job at hand? Now, that tool may be digital.

How does narrative influence interpretation?

Narrative is just another way to say story. A clever, easily followed storyline is critical to interpretive success.

What has been your favorite project in your career thus far?

Interpretation is an attractive profession because it invites intellectual exploration. It’s not the topic that makes a project interesting- it’s the discovery. That said, stories that celebrate creativity and diversity, and narratives that resonate in the lives of everyday individuals, are my favorites.

What are your hopes for the field?

There is no substitute for surprise. I hope that interpretation never loses its ability to present good stories with a special twist, that fresh insight that sheds new light on the complacently familiar.


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