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.
In David Larsen’s article “Be Relevant or Become a Relic,” he offers his own definition of what interpretation should consist of, as well as gives examples of poor interpretation strategies. These include what he calls “interpredata, interpretainment, interpreganda, and interprecation.” The main point that Larsen makes throughout his article is that the fundamental goal of interpretation is to allow visitors to make a connection to the resources of the park, rather than merely feeding them information.
Based on my experience working at Antietam National Battlefield the past two summers, I agree with several parts of Larsen’s argument. He argues that interpredata, the mere transmission of facts and data from the interpreter to the visitor, does not serve as a productive method of interpretation. During my time at Antietam, I have seen a number of rangers provide interpretive talks and programs, each with their own unique style. While some focus intently on the minute details of the battle, others give a larger overview with more personal connections woven into their program. I have found that the latter are the ones that are most useful because they really stick with the audience and allow them to form those connections. Like Larsen says, too much information all at once can be overwhelming. Cutting out some of these unnecessary data points allows the interpreter to focus more on the human aspects of the battle, which in turn serves as a better means of facilitating a connection between the visitor and the battlefield.
This is also tied into Larsen’s point about interpretainment, or interpretation as mere entertainment for the visitors. The constant spouting of numbers and statistics by interpreters can be useful for some visitors, but it can also be incredibly dull for others. All of that information simply goes in one ear and out the other, offering them little help in their understanding of the resource and also discouraging them from attempting to learn anything further. Though the overall goal of interpretive programs should not be to give the audience a source of entertainment, there needs to be some amount of this in order to keep the visitor interested. Otherwise, the visitor will not be engaged enough to make those connections.
There are also aspects of Larsen’s definition that I feel are not as well thought out. For instance, the author claims that the “interprecation” is a pitfall in the interpretive process. Larsen says that “while education and interpretation are related and often overlap, there are significant differences between the two.” As evidence, he cites how formal education focuses more on specific learning goals and utilizes tests to determine whether or not a student has achieved those goals. As both a member of the interpretive staff at Antietam and as a future teacher, I feel that Larsen is looking at the wrong aspects of education when making this comparison. The achievement of specific learning goals and successful test scores is not the real essence of education, at least not for actual teachers in the classroom. A teacher’s goal is to cultivate student interest and get them to connect with the learning material, not simply to give them enough knowledge to pass an exam at the year’s end. These goals, facilitating a connection between the individual and the resource, are the same goals that Larsen pinpoints as necessary for good interpretation. In my experience, interpretation and education are essentially the same, albeit with different audiences and in different settings.
My final critique of Larsen’s article would be that it is very focused on the scientific aspect of interpretation. He pulls his examples from parks such as the Grand Canyon, which has little in common with Civil War battlefields. Most of the interpretation done there is in geology and the scientific processes that created the canyon, whereas the battlefields focus almost entirely on the history of that particular setting. I would not say that this makes Larsen’s points irrelevant for the non-scientific sites, but I believe it would have been more useful had he included more consideration of historical parks in his article.
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.