Saturday, June 23, 2012

Fancy That: Nostalgia's Role in Interpretation

"Fancy being without a telephone,” Nancy cried. “Or without the radio, or automobiles, or airplanes, or electric lights.”

A 1933 Nancy Drew couldn’t dream of being without a telephone! How else would she tell her closest friends, George and Bess, the breaking news on her latest mystery? What would Nancy think today, with things like plastic, computers, the internet, or cell phones? Give me an average teenage girl today and her “fancy being without” statement would look much different.

From The Sign of the Twisted Candles by Carolyn Keene, 1933
Some of our fascination with the past is the imagination factor we have to implement when learning about history. What would it be like to only be without a telephone or the radio? The element of nostalgia plays a role in the spark of history. I think sometimes public nostalgia gets in the way of some professional historians who try to convey the “real” parts of history, sans nostalgia: 

“Hold on a minute, sir. Let me remove your current point-of-reference to this timeframe by wiping away all mistruths related to your nostalgic understandings AND THEN we can get started with our traditional program on historic facts.”

Nostalgia, I am sure, has been a thorn in historians' sides for centuries. The double edged-ness of nostalgia, however, is the understanding that these "mistruths" are also a part of history and how people, sometimes societies, remember the past. 

Using the nostalgia, however, becomes a tool for interpreters to catch the attention of the audience before leaping into the more informative portion of a program. Why do people hold on to the nostalgia? Generally, people make a connection to something about the past through nostalgia because it is more meaningful to them. Our challenge as interpreters is taking that nostalgia and reframing it in a way for visitors to get a better grasp on history. 

Recognizing or acknowledging visitors' perceptions before or during a program can help them feel more at ease. Generally, they are there to learn (although, admittedly, every once in a while a visitor arrives who wants to play a round of "Outsmart The Ranger"- they are exceptions to my argument). Rather than just telling them "the facts and just the facts, ma'am," engaging with nostalgia, especially the kind visitors bring with them to that particular historic site, serves as a means to launch a non-threatening learning experience. What better way to help visitors learn more than building on what they already know (even if what they already know is candy-coated or in song or a candy-coated song)? 

Fancy turning that nostalgia into the flammable stuff  ignited by a program or museum display.    

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