Sunday, July 21, 2013

Not a Question of Rivers

It's John's fault. He slammed it right out of the park with a piece earlier this week about shifting interpretations at battlefields. So I've been a'thinkin all week. Many things regarding interpretation and history have piqued my interest the past few months, but I have been busy. I left a job where I was immersed in history (and interpreting that history) to other work that forces me to deliberately make the decision to think about history and interpretation. It has been a valuable experience, if not frustrating sometimes.


Them people got places to be! (Image: Library of Congress)
Over the last nine months, I have moved thrice, living in super-rural (Stewart County), super-metropolitan (Viva NashVegas), and currently a version of suburbia. Every environment provided me new neighbors- different audiences who were usually willing to share their opinions about history when they learned of my background. "It's boring" or "my great-great-great-granddaddy fought in the Civil War" or "I've lived here all my life and never been to [insert local significant historical site here]." These insights force me to think about how I do (or have done) my job. Living in worlds outside of the "historians' circle" or "NPS 4evah fan club" grants me insight to how much what historians, interpreters, and park rangers do is often misunderstood.

Historic sites compete. Not necessarily with each other. Not even necessarily with other local "tourist attractions." Historic sites compete for attention. These places stand as physical representations of countless stories that reveal the complexities of a community, region, or nation. Those stories contained within are what make the walls (or bricks or fields or graves or monuments) valuable. But what good is value if people don't know of it, if it stays tucked away and out of reach to the majority of people? So interpreters craft methods to build meaning to visitors as a means to understand that value. Borrowing from John:
This is not revolutionary, it's a concept that Freeman Tilden piloted in 1957 with his Interpreting Our Heritage (“Information, as such, is not Interpretation”) and David Larsen echoed again in Meaningful Interpretation using the words of Tanaka Shozo (“The care of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart”). But it's key.
So as I trek through my day-to-day, realizing my own constant distractions from something I am fairly passionate about, I wonder about the perceptions of those without that original interest. It's hard to convey significance sometimes, even when the meanings of places are broadcast loud and clear. The emotional connections created with the type of interpretation John advocates provide these historic sites ammunition for competing with daily distractions. They provide inspiration. They provide a chance for reflection. They provide reasons for action. They make people want more.

I agree that this is key. Researching, reading, and synthesizing are just parts of the interpretation craft. Storytelling is another part. Discovering and understanding audience is yet another part. However, that key of creating a meaningful connection is what we strive for, what we work for, what is likely the most difficult part of being an interpreter. Incidentally, it generally proves the most rewarding part of being an interpreter.

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