Interpretation and Revelation: A Training Odyssey

By Bryan Caswell ’15

Three weeks of training. Just the thought of what awaited me in my first days as an intern at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park made me want to groan. Yes, yes, I realized that we all needed to be introduced to the National Park Service and walked through the policies of the park, working the information desk, assisting visitors, and other administrative trivialities. But could that not be accomplished in a few days? When would we get to what I was really interested in, what I couldn’t wait to do and what (I thought) I didn’t need any preparation for? When would I start giving walking tours?
Now, as I sit in my quarters almost two weeks later after another day of training with our supervisor Greg Mertz, I have come to realize how much preparation my fellow interns and I truly needed. Ask me before I came to Fredericksburg what made a good walking tour, and I would confidently reply that such a tour consisted of the relation of the events of a particular battle in a knowledgeable and engaging manner. This of course is part of a walking tour, but only a part. As we began our training in interpretation and putting together our own walking tours, I began to glimpse parallels between what Greg was leading us through and my Historical Methods class in the autumn of 2012. I was once told in that class that it is the duty, not the goal, of an historian to be accurate in his or her use of historical facts; true history lies with the analysis of those facts and conclusions drawn therefrom. It became increasingly clearer to me in our sessions with Greg that the same rings true with battlefield tours. The relation of the facts and events of a battle is not the ultimate objective of interpretation; it is but a springboard for the interpreter to provoke the visitor to greater thoughts about what they have seen and to reach higher revelations of their own with information they have been given. Yet one question remained unanswered: how?

Enter the concept of a theme. I had previously thought that the theme of a tour, if it could be called a theme, was simply the battle that formed its subject matter. Oh, for the ignorance of the uninitiated. In the parlance of interpretation, a theme is deceptively simple. It is the guiding thread of your narrative, the idea that ties a tour together. The trick is thinking of a good theme, one that both fits with the guide’s obligation to relate the events of the battle and can be supported well-enough to affect the thoughts and view-points of visitors. In order to improve our understanding of the concept, Greg had us each take a balloon, inviting us to think of it as our theme. Un-inflated, the “theme” was unimpressive and limp. Yet as we began to add air, or the concrete elements of the battlefield tour, our themes grew more impressive with their support. The clouds of my frustration lifted and the sky cleared: when I saw the word theme, I now read a word infinitely more familiar: thesis! Armed with this new understanding, my walking tours seemed to very nearly write themselves as I worked like I was simply writing another paper, albeit one grounded in landmarks and geography. Now all that remains is to practice my tours as I walk the ground I will give them on, and with June 8th and the opening of the summer season, I will finally begin to fulfill my purpose in coming to Fredericksburg: at long last, I will begin to give walking tours.

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