Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Pointillism as Interpretive Teaching Tool

I headed over to Civil War Memory to find a different article (because it is a wild and crazy Tuesday night, what can I say?) and just saw this post. Completely unintentional, it serves as an outstanding gateway into what I have been pondering recently. In fact, I couldn't have asked for a better introduction.

I recently accepted a position as a park ranger at Andersonville National Historic Site. My work is for a short term and I have only been there a week, but I have already had much to mentally process while learning content and developing my own interpretive tools. Over the next several weeks, I will give formal interpretive talks and informal interpretation is the name of the game while working the front desk (well, that and "the bathrooms are outside and to the right"). One of the things I struggle with while trying to interpret this place is the battle of conveying volume versus personalization. In the usual few moments of time I get with a visitor, how can I demonstrate the vast numbers of souls that experienced this place while providing these souls with an inkling of individual humanity? What is more effective, a macroscopic understanding of this place or a microscopic look into a life? Is there a way I can do both?

Seurat's fine example of pointillism. What is more fascinating?
The individual dots or the grand scheme?
As I have been pondering this idea, the image of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte continued to surface in my mind.  Actually, it was as much of the idea of pointillism as it was a scene from Ferris Bueller's Day Off (I will come back around to interpretation, wait for it). In it, Ferris and his girlfriend and his best friend find themselves in the Art Institute of Chicago. One of my favorite scenes of the movie involves this Seurat painting (starting around minute 1:12 into the clip).

Cameron (Alan Ruck) stands mesmerized by the piece. Through a series of shots, we see how he falls into the painting, focusing on the dots (pretend the scenes that cut to Ferris making out don't exist). I think most who view this piece are more astounded with the detail of the dots than of the piece itself. However, the whole of the painting is composed in a way that invites the viewer's eyes to rest, to absorb.

Granted, a portrayal of a beautiful Sunday afternoon is nearly the opposite of the grand scheme of things at Camp Sumter. It isn't a pleasant rest, but there is something to be absorbed. Each of the soldiers who experienced this place any time between 1864 and 1865 have a story that stretches beyond those years. Even each the 13,000 laid to rest at the national cemetery have legacies and stories, even if their earthly bodies never left that Georgia ground.

We have a grand scheme here, yet each story acts a little like an individual dot of the full painting. Each one completes the whole. Each one is significant. In those few precious moments I have to interact with a visitor, on what factor do I dwell? The scope or the individual? And is one aspect more effective than the other?

(Seriously. These are not just rhetorical questions.)

And Kevin, indeed, the board is on display in the main lobby and anybody walking into the theater passes it. I'll speak for the short-handed, hard-working interpretive staff by saying they have done a stellar job at planning and pulling together as many of the stories to be able to answer tentative questions like you have. While it would be amazing to pick out at least an individual soldier a day, that task is nearly impossible (especially as we approach the summer months and astronomical numbers). I know you weren't suggesting that tactic, necessarily. However, they have several key individuals they can highlight to give meaning to those numbers on the board. An example this week would be one about Dorence Atwater being one of the numbers who arrived 150 years ago this week. His story gives a human face to those numbers and provide a connection for visitors.

*You didn't think I would leave off that oh-so-important disclaimer, did you? I write this entirely for myself, on my days off, and my opinions do not officially reflect those of the National Park Service.

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