Tuesday, June 12, 2012

At What Cost: Using Emotion to Convey the Past

"That made me want to read more."

"That helped me understand what they went through."

"That was the most self-indulgent film I have ever seen."

Visitors who walk out of the Echoes of Acadia film at the Acadian Cultural Center, where I currently work, announce a variety of comments regarding their responses to the film. Some are moved. Some are provoked. Some are irritated. Some are outright mad.

The film, co-produced in 1994 with Parks Canada, presents the history of the Acadians, how they find themselves on this continent, life in Acadia, and the deportation that eventually results in a group of the population settling in south Louisiana. Dramatic music amplifies the scenes of burning churches as the narrator describes the British governor who ordered the deportation and how his "sins scream across the pages of history." The film's intensity encourages us to warn families with younger children about the content.

Now, the contemporary historian in me questions the park's method of presentation regarding this story. Bias reigns throughout the telling of the film, presenting a villianized/victimized past. The perspective of the film is narrow, not providing more context to the story of colonists or of their struggles. It does not necessarily provide all of the facts of this specific story, neither. The contemporary historian in me grimaces every time I have to press the little green button to start the next showing of the film.

A drawing of British soldiers gathering
Acadian women from their homes.
Courtesy of Canadian Military History Gateway
Interpreter me, however, sees a challenge.
The film grants me a moment to stretch my interpreter skills. I have the opportunity to engage with visitors and use the techniques I have collected that make up my informal interpretation "toolbox" to steer visitors in a direction that prompts them to think beyond the story presented in the film. Some folks immediately recognize the one-sidedness of the film and use that to launch a conversation with me (the uniformed park ranger, a personal representation of the federal government's role in preserving the nation's stories). Some folks respond to the emotion the film invokes, even admitting coming close to tears. It is a sad story, the deportation of this group of people from their homeland meant separating families, sending a population to places where they weren't wanted. The film presents this portion of the story well.

Tapping into visitors' emotions serves as one way to encourage multi-level connections to a place, to a story. In fact, I meet a lot of visitors who re-visit the center for a second time years after their first visit. What they remember about their visit: the film. People want to experience emotion. Think of Hollywood's success! It gives patrons a chance to laugh or cry or experience terror or feel good; it taps into the human emotional experience. History is not devoid of emotion. In fact, history is the complex story of human experience and if you are sitting and breathing and thinking as you are reading this, you can agree that the human experience is full of emotion. Emotions vary, but so do people. Historic sites provide a way for visitors to "experience" history and engaging the mind and the heart can reinforce the message they are presenting.

The film's engine targets emotion, engaging the human heart, while neglecting the richer story. The film has, in many cases, provided new thoughts for visitors (many leave acknowledging that they knew little or nothing of this piece of history until their visit). Yesterday I had a visitor who, after seeing the film, told me that she now wanted to read as much as she could about the story. Yes! Sparking interest! That is exactly what historic sites should be doing! But on the flip side, at what cost? Where is the balance? We do not want to be dull when presenting the past, but neither do we want to sacrifice accuracy.

I will close with the acknowledgement that funding is short, especially within the National Park Service (and with all-things-humanities-related). 'Tis the story of our historian-lives! I don't know when the park will see money come its way for a new multi-media production (I told a former colleague of the film's dated reflection and he reminded me that Shiloh National Battlefield only got a new film this past year after presenting a film produced in 1956 for the last several decades). The Echoes of Acadia film serves a purpose, but the park can enhance the visitor experience by providing a film that reflects current scholarship and tells a more accurate story. Much like the story of interpretation at Civil War sites (think Rally on the High Ground, its process and how even decades-worth of work mean we still have lots left to do), the interpretation at this cultural center will not change overnight. But taking baby steps, like encouraging visitors to think beyond the one-sided story presented, will move interpretation of this story in a direction that more accurately reflects the history.

Reminder: these thoughts are my own and do not reflect that of the National Park Service.


  1. Well written. You should give talks to interpreters, if you don't already.

  2. Thank you, James- I appreciate the compliment, especially coming from you (writer extraordinaire!).