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.
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.
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.
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.