Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Magic at Mammoth Cave

Yesterday I trekked my way out to Mammoth Cave National Park. It is one of my favorite places to visit, especially this time of year; the colors along the rolling hills of that karst topography are brilliant. And the idea of standing in the world's longest cave excites me every time I visit.

The view from inside the cave without lights.

The view from inside the cave with lights (National Geographic)

The park ranger leading the program offered a quality tour, full of humor, information, and heck, some interpretation. Tour groups in the cave tend to "accordion"as the different paces of visitors stretch out the group. During the times when the group stopped the park ranger provided brief "Q&A" sessions, asking if anybody had any questions he could answer. Prompted by his earlier introduction, one woman asked, "Since you have worked here for seventeen years, do you find this repetitive or the cave ever losing its magic?"

Without stopping to inhale, the ranger responded in a soft tone, "Oh, no ma'am, it never loses its magic." He paused, then repeated himself, "It never loses its magic." He quickly recovered from his emotional response with an explanation that views may make the cave look different, lights shining cast new shadows, and visitors are as much a part of the experience. He said that visitors may provide different ways to look at things, ask new questions, and insert their own creative perceptions about the place.

I love that idea. The visitors are a part of the experience. They connect to that place in their own way while impacting the park ranger. Indeed, with a more interactive experience, visitors have the chance to converse with each other or vocalize their viewpoints. The park ranger understood his role as facilitator to the experience, not be the experience. That feels easier when visitors literally get to be immersed in the resource (we were 260 feet below ground when she asked that question). But the park ranger pointed out things (sadly he didn't do a lot of pointing AT things, except with his flashlight). He maintained the idea that each one of us impacted the cave in one way or another, often unknowingly. He revealed ideas and let us absorb them.

Sometimes it is too easy to fall into the trap of telling, not revealing, especially at historic sites. Sometimes we know so much and want to share all the important details that we forget the significance of letting visitors immerse themselves in the resource. What happens when tours become more about engaging with visitors and less about the furniture? What happens when tour guides, park rangers, or interpretive staff spend more time interacting with visitors and less time telling about the battlefield (or house, or statues, or other historical feature). The visitors can provide new insights, ask new questions, provoke the interpreters' understanding, and cast all sorts of new light onto the stories of the past. Contemporary visitors expect to be a part of the experience and not just told facts. I bet those engaged visitors will better remember their visit to the site than those who were talked to the whole time, too.

History won't ever lose its magic to those actively studying it. Those presenting the past the public have a chance to expand and share that magic.

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