Finding a Balance Between Providing Answers and Provoking Questions

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 Erica Paul ‘18

Imagine that an individual is a first time visitor to a National Park site, such as Boston African American National Historic Site, and they do not know what to expect from the experience. Upon arriving at the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, the start of the Black Heritage Trail, the calm, smiling face of the NPS interpretation ranger instantly assuages the nerves and fears of the visitor about the journey that they are about to embark on. I believe that David Larsen is correct in his assessment that the significance of interpretation lies in its ability to create a relationship between the significance of the site and the visitors’ wants and needs. Nevertheless, my opinion is that there is a far greater amount of responsibility and excitement to the idea of good interpretation than just this.

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Larsen presents the concepts of interpredata, interpreganda, interpretainment and interprecation as problematic in attempting to connect with visitors. Inherently, there are systematic problems with each of these strategies. Interpredata implies a presentation of data throughout the interpretation of a site and its resources. When an individual thinks of data, often the first thought is of mathematics and statistics. In this context, a presentation of data could be a reliance on facts to describe a site. While facts are crucial for historical accuracy, relying too heavily on this formulaic interpretation of a site is boring to a typical public audience.

Interpreganda logically leads to a visualization of the word, propaganda. Throughout my educational background, the concept of propaganda has been consistently described as a useful, but often-negative method to coerce the public into a specific mindset. This seems very much at odds with the idea of an individual experiencing personally a National Park site and then making independent, thoughtful decisions about the material and subjects discussed. If a park ranger is expressing personal opinions through propaganda, a visitor is losing the other side of the story. While American media outlets are prone to being singularly faceted in the telling of a news story, the interpretation of a National Park site does not have to follow similar patterns. Propaganda can be used as a tool to express opinions in history, but should not influence an individual’s beliefs.

Furthermore, in every presentation of a site, there is an element of entertainment and active engagement with the audience in order to captivate and hold their attention. However, there is a danger of the talk becoming too theatrical, or focused on highlighting the charismatic nature of the ranger’s personality rather than the information. There is a healthy balance between entertainment and facts that does not rely too heavily on one or the other. Lastly, interprecation consists of educating the visitors on this history of the site, which seems like a valiant goal. On the other hand, there has to be an element of a personal line of questioning, which allows individuals to discuss what interests them as opposed to just a formal education.

A stellar interpretation of a park site is rooted in a balance between education and appreciation and understanding, a balance between providing answers and posing questions, and so forth. The elements described, entertainment, education, and data, are all effective in moderation, but if emphasized too strongly, then they pose problems for interpretation. The tour guide has a responsibility to recognize the needs of the audience, but also to share the essential facts in order to represent a park site with historical accuracy.


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.

4 thoughts on “Finding a Balance Between Providing Answers and Provoking Questions”

  1. While having a discussion on the Civil War, one of my students asked the hypothetical question, “If the Confederacy had won, how long would slavery have lasted?” Before trying to answer this, I thought I’d ask someone better informed than myself about this subject. I told him “Let me get back to you on this.” I know today, in modern times, we would not see slavery. I also think that as long as a lot of the Confederate soldiers and southern patriots, who were still alive in the late 1800’s, it wouldn’t be abolished then. We were just looking for an approximate year and why. So, what would be your opinion on this? My class is eager to hear your answer.

    1. @W. Gardiner Thank you for your question and our apologies for the delayed response. Yours is a tricky question, as are most alt-history questions. We will actually be featuring an extended answer to your question in a blog post in the near future, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, here is an abridged version.

      The Confederacy was founded to preserve slavery, but the institution of slavery itself was going through some changes. First, the concentration of slavery was shifting farther and farther South, away from the Upper South. Second, industrial slavery was just beginning in the Civil War Era, propelled by manpower shortages in the Confederacy caused by the war. Elsewhere in the war, slavery had been abolished by most, but not all, Western nations. Brazil kept slavery legal until 1888, and some Middle Eastern and African nations kept the institution legal until the 20th and even 21st centuries, albeit under increasing diplomatic pressure.

      A Confederate victory in the war would likely have created a nation proud of the institution of slavery, bucking the international trend of emancipation. However, some pressures could exert change within and without the Confederacy. First, other could have imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions on a slaveholding Confederacy, crippling the South’s cotton export-driven economy. Second, poor white farmers and laborers might object en masse to an industrial and agrarian Southern economy dominated by slavery and either voted for emancipation or fought to abolish the institution within the Confederacy. Third, the United States (or any other nation for that matter) could have invaded the South after its independence and ended slavery by the sword, as was the case in the real life Civil War. All of these avenues (as well as some not considered here) could end in the potential expulsion of slavery in the independent Confederacy, but it would be anyone’s guess as to how long it would take after Southern independence for one of these scenarios to play out or if any of them would be successful in defeating slavery at all.

      Hopefully this might add something to your class’s discussion. We encourage you to perhaps share their consensus on the issue with us. Be sure to check the Compiler in the coming weeks for our expanded explanation.

      -Jeffrey Lauck ’18

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