Revisiting Fredericksburg: Using Provocation to Explore New Questions

By Jonathan Tracey ’19

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. 

To Freeman Tilden, provocation was an essential ingredient to effective interpretation, and I tend to agree with that idea. Both my walking tour at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center and the interpretive exhibits at Chatham Manor utilize provocation in different forms, with different challenges and opportunities. Overall, the atmosphere of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park is one that supports and encourages provocative thinking by visitors.

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Concord’s Wayside: Home of What?

By Olivia Ortman ’19

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. 

This summer, I have had the privilege of interning at Minute Man NHP in Concord, Massachusetts. My primary station here is the Wayside: Home of Authors. Right about now, you might be wondering what the Wayside is. That’s alright, I didn’t know what the house was until just this summer. The Wayside was the home of Louisa May Alcott, Nathanial Hawthorne, and Harriet Lothrop (or Margaret Sydney) – all prominent authors in the 19th century. This house also stood witness to the “shot heard round the world” and provided brief shelter to a fugitive slave. This house is a gold mine of history, yet with all this history comes challenges.

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Choosing Your Battles: Provoking the Public at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park

By Abby Currier ’17

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. 

During training to be an intern at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, our instructors continuously stressed the importance of reading our audience. Whether we were greeting visitors at the front desk or leading walking tours, our job was to always watch the visitors and gauge what they are interested in. For me, this was initially very frustrating. I prefer to deal with concrete things instead of making judgement calls. It all sounded pretty wishy washy and that I would somehow ‘know’ what the visitor wanted just by looking at them. Needless to say, I was not convinced.

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Making the Most of Interpretative Tours at Fredericksburg and Spotslyvania National Military Park

By Julia Deros ’17

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. 

Freeman Tilden argues that the purpose of good interpretation is to inspire people to want to discover and learn for themselves in order to gain an understanding and appreciation for what they see. After having experienced the challenges of interpreting the battlefields at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, I agree that provocation is important to good interpretation.

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A Different Sort of Park: Interpreting POW Experiences at Andersonville National Historic Site

By Andy Knight ’19

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. 

Unlike many other historic sites, Andersonville does not fit neatly into any one box. It is not a battlefield, although we still interpret the experience of soldiers and the ideas they fought for. It is not a historic home or building; the only original parts of the site left are earthworks. Andersonville is a Civil War site but tells a story common to every war. Andersonville National Cemetery contains the remains of American soldiers from every American war except for 1812. Unlike any other National Cemetery entrusted to the National Park Service (except for Andrew Johnson National Historic Site) Andersonville is an active cemetery. Andersonville does not have just one story to tell but rather many different narratives throughout different time periods. It quickly becomes difficult to cover this wide range of topics in a relatively short public program.

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Interpreting the Life and Times of Maggie Walker

By Lucy Marks ’19

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. 

As a part of my orientation as an intern at Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, I was told that 90% of visitors who come into the site have a very limited knowledge of who Maggie L. Walker was and what she had accomplished in her 70 years of life. Equipped with that information I felt a heightened sense of responsibility for the overall quality and accuracy of my tour of her home. In my opinion, Mrs. Walker is one of the most extraordinary people in history, a big claim to make, but this claim speaks for itself even in the smallest of details within her home. Mrs. Walker once fell down the stairs and broken her kneecap, a very painful injury with a drawn-out healing process. To prevent future injury, she had a skylight added to the stairwell to illuminate the staircase for safer travel. While this is a comparatively small change to her home, I think it speaks volumes about who she is and how she addressed obstacles in her life. Mrs. Walker lived in Richmond, Virginia during the height of the Jim Crow era. Mrs. Walker faced laws and restrictions that limited her not only as an African American, but as a woman. She didn’t just fight these laws; rather she sought creative solutions to benefit herself and others. Continue reading “Interpreting the Life and Times of Maggie Walker”

Risky Business: Provocation and Interpretation

By Alex Andrioli ’18

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. 

The fourth commandment of Freeman Tilden’s six principles for interpretation is, “The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.” This statement is both profound and problematic because the very heart of provocation is goading some sort of reaction from someone or something. Provocation usually has a negative connotation associated with it, like to purposely play the devil’s advocate in order to upset someone. Of course, a museum’s goal is never to intentionally upset visitors. However, at the same time, a museum may want to change the way visitors might think about a certain topic in order to view a familiar subject in a new light. There must be a delicate balance between provocation and instruction that provides visitors with enough information in order for them to make a personal revelation; to take away something that resonates with them. This is one of the challenges of the provocative interpretation that Tilden writes about in his 1957 book, Interpreting Our Heritage, and one that I have witnessed at my summer internship at the Seminary Ridge Museum in Gettysburg, PA.

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Provoking New Questions at Richmond National Battlefield Park

By Kaylyn Sawyer ’17

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. 

The first time I ever gave an interpretive tour was two years ago at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War in New Market, Virginia about a farmhouse that was in the midst of the fighting. My supervisor told me to make the house a home. Her advice to make a human connection between visitors and the past has influenced my style of interpretation, and I have carried it through other various internships including my time this summer at Richmond National Battlefield Park. While working in Richmond, I have been challenged, and challenged visitors, to think differently about the conflicts and battles in and around Richmond. The style of interpretation at Richmond National Battlefield Park follows what Freemen Tilden believes about interpretation: provocation is elemental to effective interpretation. Although it comes with its challenges, provocation brings opportunity and diversity to the visitors’ experience and sheds new light on concepts they thought they understood before exploring the park.

Kaylyn begins her tour at Cold Harbor.

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Provocation and Personalization: Sharing the History of Manassas Battlefield

By Jeff Martin ’18

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. 

When I first read Freeman Tilden’s “Principles of Interpretation”, I was surprised to find that provocation was considered essential for effective interpretation. I reread it, to make sure I hadn’t read it wrong or misunderstood. Provocation? Why would the National Park Service want to provoke people? As an intern at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park last summer, I learned that Tilden didn’t mean angering visitors; he meant inspiring the public to want to learn more on their own. To paraphrase, Tilden wrote that instruction and information are not the same thing as interpretation. Interpretation is not a fact-based lecture. Effective interpretation uses information to make broader points. However, the end goal of an interpretive site or program should not be the communication of information, but cultivating an interest among the public. Hence, provocation is key.

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A Not-So-Distant Mirror: Bringing the Revolution to Life through Interpretation

By Jon Danchik ’17

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. 

I have not been able to escape Freeman Tilden’s grasp over the course of my three summers with the National Park Service. His writings and ideas seem to be everywhere, not out of pure coincidence, but because of the fact that nobody has eloquently and concisely gotten at the heart of what historical interpretation is quite like he has. In Interpreting Our Heritage, a book so ubiquitous that it might as well be hailed as the interpreter’s holy scripture, Tilden asserts that “the chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.” This isn’t meaningless fluff; rather, it’s an important concept that guides what I do every day on the job. Visitors should walk away from an interpretive program with more than just a story in their heads, and it’s up to interpreters to make sure that’s the case.

The sites contained within Minute Man National Historical Park, where I am spending the summer, enjoy a timeless historical relevance due to their association with the opening of the American Revolutionary War. As a result, just about everyone who visits knows something about what happened here. Indeed, the “shot heard round the world” still seems to be ringing in people’s ears today. Some of the knowledge people bring with them is true, while other parts of it border on myth. The relative comfort afforded by a largely shared past seems to give visitors at Minute Man NHP the confidence to share their thoughts candidly in exchanges with historical interpreters throughout the park.

The famed “minute men” from which the park derives its name are the subject of a great deal of mythologizing. Many enter the park with an idea of “embattled farmers” with no military training somehow managing to fight off one of the most powerful armies the world had seen since the legions of Rome. While a popular misconception, it is one I frequently address in living history programs, in which I adopt the appearance of a member of a colonial militia company.

In colonial kit, I am not portraying anyone in particular, and am still just Jon Danchik. As a result, my exchanges with visitors are unhampered by a need to keep my experiences and mannerisms grounded in a different time.

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