Monday, July 2, 2012

Viva Visitors!

Sometimes, I think interpreters forget their role in the visitor experience. I don't mean the independent role they play as purveyor-of-information or sparker-of-interest. I mean the integrated role in the human interaction. Interpreters listen as a means of finding out the visitors' needs. But listening can also be enlightening. I know I sometimes forget how much I learn from visitors. Today, a visitor provided me with my own interpretive experience.

A family from Miami visited towards the closing end of our day. They missed the last movie but had a chance to walk through the museum. Within ten minutes of closing, the father asked again about films about the Acadian story. I showed him what we had available in the book store and we began talking about the deportation story. The conversation revealed that his interest rested more in the role Spain played in the development of Louisiana (knowing that it the governor of Spain at the time invited the Acadians to the region).  He was quite knowledgeable about Spanish history in the region, so I didn't have to tell him much. It turned out he is a high school history teacher in Miami.

He began telling me about Miami and listed the national parks there. "You haven't been?!" he asked in amazement. "You should go! They are beautiful," he continued. "But go in the winter when the mosquitoes won't carry you away." As the father told me about Miami, he mentioned how the city "looks more like South America than North America, there are so many immigrants." At that moment his wife piped in, "Us, too! We came here." 

"Yes," he said, "We came here, too. We escaped. We fled the communism and are now American!" He articulated his last statement boldly.

Havana, Cuba (photo courtesy of

New Orleans, Louisiana
(photo courtesy of
Havana and New Orleans have many similarities,
rooted in their shared Spanish heritage.
I asked if they came from Cuba and they said yes. I responded with an extra spark about how I had just been reading about the Cuban influence on New Orleans and how when Spain rebuilt New Orleans in the 1790s, the Spanish modeled the city after Havana. "So you know!" he said with a smile on his face. I mentioned how our website would soon have information about the many people groups that influenced the culture in south Louisiana and that Cubans will have a page. This excited the man. I was not about to get a word in. He started by saying that many don't know about Spain's history related to the United States and led to him mentioning the importance of history and led to his expression of gratitude that the United States has places like national parks. "These places are special all over the United States! That is why we are taking our son to see what these places mean and how they represent our freedom." 

That is a very good point, sir.

I say that a lot. I quote Wallace Stegner by calling the national parks "the best idea America ever had." I can practically recite the introduction to Ken Burn's series, "America's Best Idea: The National Parks." But I have only known freedom. I have only known democracy. I do not have a history of personal oppression to compare with my current state; I lack the contrast of knowing my freedom and knowing anything else (I am grateful for that, don't get me wrong!). I appreciate what I do and believe that I make a difference in my own small way. That does not mean it is always easy, however. I know this history and want people to connect to these places and stories on their own terms. There are times I get so caught up in hard work that I trip up and frustrate myself. But sometimes all I need is another human to remind me why I work so hard trying to make our complex history accessible to more people. 

The family was on their way to Arizona and Utah to see more national parks in celebration of their Independence Day holiday. I wish I could join them.

*Reminder: these thoughts are my own and do not reflect that of my employer (or anybody else, for that matter).

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