"You're an interpreter, not a historian. Your job is to spark interest, not overload anybody with facts."
I recently had a conversation with a former colleague about challenges I face bridging what I learned in school with "real world" experiences. In his efforts to help me, he reminded me that historical perceptions change constantly and the core of my job is to spark interest in the public. I agree with this... to an extent. I did not spend [cough] four years in a public history graduate program without the expectation of applying some of my training in the field. My past experiences granted me the fortune of working with folks who considered themselves historians and remained current with the trends of historical thinking. Then I jumped into a park that had a larger story to tell besides just the history component and have encountered a number of challenges working with those who are not as familiar with history.
When I expressed those challenges to my former colleague, he was trying to help me by encouraging me to think of the perspective of non-historians. But I cannot strip away my own understanding of historical thinking. And while I understand a major part of my job is sparking interest in history, in parks, in culture, and for here, in the physical place, I can't operate without a solid background in history. I am not comfortable relating "well, let me tell you what I heard," stories. If I am going to relay information, I want to be able to present evidence. I don't mind sparking interest, but when visitors seek "fuel" in the form of further information, I need to be able to navigate the resources well and know where to send them. My current challenge is working for a cultural center in a rich and complex region for a historically isolated culture that did not do much to document lives. Oral tradition is alive and well in Cajun country.
The National Park Service strives for excellence among its employees. Regarding its treatment of history at national park sites, the Organization of American Historians produced a document called Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service. I have only read it through once, but am still chewing on many of the thoughts. I do a lot of thought-chewing. One of the biggest gaps is that of the historian and the interpreter. "You're an interpreter, not a historian." I consider my historian background one of my assets as an interpreter. I agree that the roles are separate, but developing my skill sets for one role enhances the skill set for the other. I suppose that is why I started this blog in the first place; I wanted a place to sort out the differences between the two and how the two can integrate.