Thursday, November 15, 2012

Symposiuming: Perspective of an Interpreter


I am sorry. I realize that it has been a solid two weeks since I promised my final installation of my Stones River symposium-ing. A friend of mine (who had attended the symposium, traveling from Maryland), emailed me yesterday to touch base after the symposium (unknowingly prompting me to list “finish post” on my to-do list today). So here I go…

I think I procrastinated this post because it seemed the most complex. I mean, I understand that this blog is, in fact, entitled “History and Interpretation.” I also understand that I want to use this place to sort out thoughts about both history and interpretation and where the two intersect. But I struggled with the idea of pulling out the interpretive aspects of a symposium.    

First of all, the name “symposium.” What does it even mean? Ask an average visitor and I am guessing the answers will vary from “an illness” to “a fair or festival.” Yes, some may know the definition (in this case, I am referring to “a formal meeting where specialists deliver addresses on a specific topic"), but if the goal is to encourage visitors who may not traditionally have an interest in this type of thing (or don’t know they have an interest because they haven’t been exposed before), maybe a word other than “symposium” would be preferable.  I’ve harped on this before and I have a feeling it will come up again. But if historic sites want to make the information accessible to a broader audience, thinking about how to market the information is crucial.

Early visitors to the battlefield, pre-symposium era. 
Additionally, I am finding that many events hosted by historic sites (specifically, Civil War sites, if for no other reason than because those are the sites I follow most consistently) are happy with attendance to programs, boasting of higher visitation than anticipated. “Hey, guys! We had over 300 people attend our event!” Great! Good for you! Question, though: who attended? Was it the same people that keep attending these types of events? Do you suppose it has something to do with the way the events were advertised (or named…)? I’ve said it before, but what good is quality programming if few attend? How can historic sites entice more people to visit? The Battle of Stones River 150th symposium was attended well enough (although, it certainly did not reach its attendance cap of 300) and overall, attendees expressed their satisfaction of the programming. In addition to the speakers, there was music and a performance by an actor who portrayed Andrew Johnson. The variety of events provided content that would appeal to a broader audience. If listening to lectures weren’t your thing, you could watch the performance or go on a ranger-led walk. Planners of the event wove pieces of interpretation throughout the weekend; some pieces proved easier to find than others.

I am operating with Freeman Tilden’s definition of interpretation here. One of his principles states, "Information, as such, is not interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information." The presentations themselves were not necessarily interpretive in nature (excluding Pitcaithley’s), although they were informative. To be fair, the presenters (excluding Pitcaithley and the park rangers) were scholars and not interpreters. They were engaging speakers, they had compelling arguments, but their talks informed. Interpretation is a craft, a skill set refined with practice and effort. However, I found provocation (the chief aim of interpretation) naturally happening between presentations and during the performances. The lectures unleashed all sorts of new ideas and attendees were forced to chew on these ideas. When attendees had a chance to process the information and talk among each other, they were able to pull meanings out of the information presented. I interacted with many attendees who expressed how they personally connected to the information presented, but they pulled those meanings out of the information, the meanings weren't explicitly presented. 

The music presentation did incorporate many aspects of interpretation, but rather than a presentation about history with facts, it was presentation of history with music. The performers told stories of where the songs originated while making connections to today. One song linked wounded soldiers coming home from wars before the American Civil War to wounded soldiers coming home during the American Civil War. The performers took it a step further to incorporate ideas of wounded soldiers returning today; they made the song meaningful and relevant (and hard not to cry).

Andrew Johnson conveying the difficulties
brought on by civil war.
I think the most interpretive piece was the performance by “Andrew Johnson.” Maybe theatrical performance naturally provides more room for interpretation because it is an art form within itself.  The actor portraying Andrew Johnson touched on “his” (Johnson’s) actions and possible motives behind decisions during early Reconstruction. He highlighted the personal agony of war. He ended with a tearful mention of his son’s death and how the death resonated through his whole family making day-to-day living difficult. The end of the presentation left the audience with heavy hearts and a reminder of the weight of war. The actor’s accent was quaint and his costume was splendid, and his performance breathed life into the facts and figures and arguments that scholars made earlier in the day. That’s what historic sites should be doing: tugging at more than just the brain.

The American Civil War was a personal experience for millions of people, although they experienced it in their own ways. “Death” and “destruction” and “devastation” are merely words: letters assembled together to express our ideas of assessing the past. For those involved at Murfreesboro (the soldiers who fought during the Battle of Stones River, the people who lived on the during the war, the “contraband” camps that followed the Union presence, the citizens who dealt with recovery for years following the war), heavy hearts may have been their only legacy. For those who attended the symposium, they were provided plenty of information that illuminated that legacy. While the interpretive aspects of the symposium were limited, there was enough to provoke attendees to make connections to the place and the stories. 

This symposium was deliberately held at a time to reflect upon the rounded "150"number- an anniversary year. The symposium itself is one of many opportunities the park has provided for the public to experience a deeper understanding of the past. The technical anniversary of the events is over the New Year's holiday. Stones River National Battlefield will have special events commemorating the anniversary between December 27th and January 2nd. These programs and events are a small portion of the many commemorative events happening nationwide during the four-year stretch of the sesquicentennial. There are still over two years-worth of sesquicentennial-ing the American Civil War. We learn from our experiences, from others, and most importantly, from our audiences (intended and actual). We keep asking "what works?" and more importantly, "what isn't working?" There are two more years-worth of utilizing that rounded "150" number and capturing the attention of a broader audience. Think of it! Potential! Potential rests within these upcoming years to provoke a broader audience's attention.  

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