Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Pandering to Audiences


What does that mean? The earliest use of the word (Shakespeare's era and writings) meant "pimp." The word evolved and now the dictionary defines said word as "to gratify or indulge" or "to cater to." Wikipedia has an entire page dedicated to "pander (politics)." That page defines the act as "the act of expressing one's views in accordance with the likes of a group to which one is attempting to appeal."  

My question for you interpreter types: when does knowing your audience and reaching your audience become pandering? At what point is a historic site pandering to its current, limited audience rather than encouraging new audiences or inspiring new interests among that current audience? 

Sorry, Civil War Battlefields. I have to pick on you because you are the places I am most familiar with, most passionate about, and will ultimately have the most criticism for. As it turns out, you tend to demonstrate some of the best examples of pandering, too. 

Guys. You already have an audience. What does this post really do? Start a debate? A conversation? So what? If you can't really answer the "so what" question, you might have to push yourself a little more. And maybe I shouldn't pick on poor Gettysburg here. They are only followed by 25,000 people on Facebook, serve as the most-recognized battle of the Civil War, and now stand as the #1 landmark as designated by TripAdvisor.

I also understand that during the Civil War there were only white males that made up the US population so it is difficult for us as a modern society to relate since we now have women and people of various ethnicities within our population. That's why we have to obsess over soldiers and soldiering experiences of the war, too. There's no room at battlefields to talk about larger effects of war on populations, how a nation ultimately engages in war, the scarring of landscape, shifting economies, or how support comes from homefronts. We have to talk about campaigns! And fighting strategies! And, of course, those quirky stories about uniforms and gun powder. People like that stuff, right? We already have an audience, right? They already like, share, comment, retweet, and sometimes they even visit. They enjoy the posts of a pretty sunset-with-a-cannon picture. They like the name-and-date-and-place trivia, so we are golden, right? Why bother with anything more, right? 

That's when we fall into the trap of pandering. The number of "likes" do not equal interpretive quality. What can you do to answer the "so what" question? How can we do a better job of engaging, sparking interest, and helping create meaning (instead of pandering)? If you know your resources, you have the ability to create an interpretive piece (program, post, video, whatever) that will capture attention and spark further interest. Before you go and pimp, I mean, pander to your audience your knowledge about a site, consider that question. So what?  

P.S. "Because this campaign was important" doesn't work well as an answer to the "so what" question, by the way. It just sounds like an excuse to pander.

And in case there were any questions, yes, I have been there.
Indeed, there are interpretive spaces and content throughout the massive visitor center.

*I would like to acknowledge a point that a friend of mine made in that sometimes social media posts are just there because there is a concept that we need to fill the feeds and sometimes rangers are busy doing ranger-y things and don't necessarily have the time to develop content of substance. I get that. My apologies if that is what this particular example was. However, do we have to post if it isn't a stellar post? A question for a later discussion.
**All opinions here are my own and certainly don't reflect any official stands of my current or past employers. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Weirding the Past

As I wrap up a project I started while working at Andersonville National Historic Site (a site bulletin about The Raiders), I am perplexed about what seems to capture the attention of people. I am also intrigued how often we, as interpreters, use what we know about attention in our telling of the past. Rather than saying "the people of the past were like us," we tend to say "whoa! look how life was different!" What makes better connections with people today?

Instead of "Girls, in the past, you couldn't wear pants!" as a way to catch attention, we might consider conveying to young ladies that women of the past had many of the same character traits or interests. I think that is why the original American Girl book series was so popular. The authors told stories of girls who were smart and engaging and interested in exploring the world around them, who made mistakes, who learned lessons, who had parents and siblings, who were human. The books included historic things, like contemporary events or period clothing (all that skirt(s)? makes it hard to be a rambunctious young lady) but that was not the center of the stories. Girls reading the series (ahem, kids like me) could learn about the past while feeling like she related to that character.

When we tell stories at historic sites, it is easy to fall into the trap of "look! here is a weird story!" It seems to catch attention, right? People react to that story, right? "They didn't have electricity!" [cue the generic "whoaaaa" response]. How about talking about life with what they did have and how they reacted? Fire fueled heat and created light. Fire was common. People didn't think "oh, I wish I had electricity," they adjusted with what they had. That meant places burned and architecture adjusted. That meant women who cooked around fires learned to adjust being around fires. I can't tell you how many house museums I have visited talk about the exorbitant number of women who perished in a fire when their skirts bursted into flames in the kitchen. It might be a house museum rule: you must talk about women dying in fires, petticoat mirrors, and closet taxes. Yes, dying in this manner happened to a few. No, all these notions about women burning to death were just that- notions. The few who died in that manner died tragically and those stories grew. But these folks in the past weren't stupid. They dealt with fire daily; they knew how to act around fire and in the case of fire touching a skirt, natural textile material would not burn so quickly.

The Virginia Historical Society has digitalized some of their collection and it is an amazing resource. Sneden's images are especially helpful. This one is of the gallows for the Raiders at Andersonville.

So back to Andersonville's Raiders. There are six graves that stand isolated from the other over-20,000 graves in the national cemetery at Andersonville. These graves provoke questions. Who were these guys? What did they do to be separated like that? Former interpreters used this story as one of the weird ones, perpetuating myths based on the oddities of the story. They were camp-robbers-turned-killer-criminals! They were ruthless cutthroats who murdered! They hanged for their crimes! They were evil and did not deserve to be buried with the others! But what happens when we take this story (with current research) and convey it so people can relate? Conditions in camp at that time were bad (and yet, not even at its worse). Starvation lurked behind your corner, threatened to take your life at any moment. What would you do to defeat starvation? Would you gamble criminal activity (and potential death) to save yourself from starvation (and potential death)? These men chose stealing and ultimately were put to death for their choice. Maybe there is more to their individual stories, but history is not entirely clear one way or the other who stood as "the bad guys" of the prison population here.

I won't lie: this tool of catching attention with the weirdness from the past is an easy thing to do. But rather than impressing an audience with a quick "ooooooooh," how can you leave them with something more to 1) ponder and 2) engage about?