Fundamentals of Historic Site Interpretation

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

By Amelia Benstead ‘16

Though I agree with David Larsen’s sentiment that “the role of interpretation is to facilitate connections between the meanings of the resource and the interests of the visitor,” I disagree with the majority of the other claims that he makes. If interpretation is to make an impact on the visitor, it is vital that a connection be forged that both piques the interest of the visitor and draws upon the meaningfulness of the resource being explained. Without that interest or connection, the information that is interpreted becomes nothing but flat, dry facts which fail to make a lasting impact on the visitor.

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Larsen’s next statement that “interpretation does not provide answers; it poses questions. Interpretation does not teach; it offers opportunities for emotional and intellectual connections. Interpretation does not educate; it provokes increasingly sophisticated appreciation and understanding. Interpretation does not tell people how it is; it reveals personal significance…” offers both points of agreement and disagreement for me. I would disagree and say that often interpretation does provide answers to visitors, but agree in saying that good interpretation also leaves the visitor with more questions that they will then pursue the answers to on their own. I believe that interpretation both educates and teaches the visitor about the significance of a particular site, while offering that visitor opportunities to make emotional and intellectual connections that enrich the meaning of the site to the visitor and supplement their understanding and appreciation of the story that is being told. Finally, I disagree with Larsen’s statement that interpretation does not “tell people how it is.” In most instances, the interpreter can offer a well-supported view of a particular story to a visitor, but there are some situations in which it is necessary to make a concrete statement which does not allow for any disagreement. For example, when I tell the people on my tour when the Civil War began, regardless of what any visitor may try to say, my answer will always be 1861, because that is nothing more than a concrete fact and it needs to remain that way. But I agree that interpretation reveals personal significance to the visitor, as it is that personal significance which will help the visitor to remember their visit to the site, to better understand the site, and to further examine the site through other resources in the future.

Finally, I both agree and disagree that interpredata, interpreganda, interpretainment, and interprecation have no place in good interpretation. Interpretation is in many ways just the interpretation of data and facts. While it is valuable to examine propaganda during interpretation as it pertains to the site, creating interpreganda is harmful to the site. I believe interpretainment, so long as it does not damage the integrity of the site or the information, is crucial. Without presenting interpretation that is entertaining, you cannot capture the interest of your audience, and the information is lost on them. Lastly, I believe that interprecation is interpretation. There is always some element of education that is part of interpretation. However, it is important that the element of education is not the only element present. Good interpretation includes data, entertainment, education, and the forging of personal understandings and connections between the visitor and the site.


Sources:

David L. Larsen, “Be Relevant or Become a Relic: Meeting the Public Where They Are,” Journal of Interpretation Research, Vol. 7, No. 1: 17-23.

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