Interpreters understand that visitors arrive to a site with varying levels of knowledge about the resource. Usually visitors go to historic sites to learn more about the history or to understand the history better (or because someone in the family is dragging them along... it happens). Interpreters take what visitors already know and build upon that. Sometimes visitors know absolutely nothing about the topic, sometimes they know a great deal about the topic, and sometimes what they know is not entirely accurate. How do you take preconceived, but often inaccurate, ideas and use them as a teaching tool?
I work at the Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette, Louisiana. Through a film, a museum, and interpretive programs, the center tells the story of the deported Acadians who found themselves in south Louisiana and how they have become the Cajun culture today. Louisiana sees a fair amount of visitors (the state boasts a 9.4 billion dollar tourism industry with over 24 million visitors to the state). South Louisiana, especially, has capitalized on the distinct-ness of the region. Many folks visiting Lafayette start their visit at our center as it is 1) free and 2) an introduction to the area by way of historical and cultural explanations and 3) the welcome center staff often suggests to visitors to start at our center. It is interesting to see the types of perceptions people have before their arrival to the region, especially since pop culture has amplified stereotypes about the Cajun culture.
Adam Sandler played a Cajun from the swamps in Water Boy.
Disney's Princess and the Frog portrays the Cajuns as a community of fireflies (fun-loving but sometimes backwards).
The most recent portrayal of Cajuns in the media comes from Swamp People (Choot 'em!). In fact, tourism analysts have argued that the popularity of the show has provided a boost in tourism.
Many visitors greet me with questions prompted by these shows and movies. "Where are the REAL 'Swamp People?'" "Do people really live in the swamp?" "What does alligator taste like?" (I think it tastes like chicken, actually). Unfortunately, many perceptions have stereotyped Cajuns as backwards, illiterate, toothless/shoeless, uneducated, funny-sounding people who eat anything and live in the swamp. Often, people don't know of the Acadian roots and how the British forcibly removed the Acadians from their homes in the 1750s. Many people don't know that the distinct cultural features we now call "Cajun" are rooted in history, as the Acadian population had to adapt to environmental factors as well as other cultures in the region. The isolation of the region allowed for the population to hold on to their cultural features (language, traditions, family structure, religion, etc). The isolation also allowed for these misunderstandings to abound outside of the region.
It helps that visitors have some sort of reference to the culture, even if the reference is inaccurate. When myths or inaccuracies surface in conversations, opportunities arise to dissect the roots of misunderstandings. Stereotypes can serve as a launching pad for discussion that can lead to a better understanding of the history. Being familiar with these stereotypes and pop culture references allows me to greet visitors at their understanding levels and provide the types of information that will help visitors make connections to the history.
*Reminder: these thoughts are my own and do not reflect that of the National Park Service