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.

Continue reading “Risky Business: Provocation and Interpretation”

Antebellum Spiritualism and the Civil War

By Kyle Schrader ‘16

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

Victorian Séance circles to commune with the dead were popular expressions of Spiritualism. Photo Courtesy
Victorian Séance circles to commune with the dead were popular expressions of Spiritualism. Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Spiritualism in Antebellum America prepared many Americans to actually accept the deaths of loved ones in a superior way. In books such as This Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust, Spiritualism and its infusion into American society is seen to have enabled many Americans to come to terms with loved ones’ deaths through the belief that a “Spirit World” existed and that life after death was better. Unlike the other Christian movements of the nineteenth century and earlier, however, the Spiritualist movement guaranteed and, indeed, “proved” the existence of an afterlife to many people (even those as mainstream as President Lincoln).

As a Pohanka intern at Seminary Ridge Museum, Kyle Schrader is spending his summer researching antebellum spiritualism. Photo credit Kyle Schrader.
As a Pohanka intern at Seminary Ridge Museum, Kyle Schrader is spending his summer researching antebellum spiritualism. Photo credit Kyle Schrader.

Though Spiritualism may have had an effect on the Civil War, the War’s effect on Spiritualism was far greater. The War caused the movement to cease many of its activities, reducing its public presence and awareness as the war raged on. When the war ended, people sought comfort in national pride, spiritual unity, and organized religion. Spiritualism was far too unorganized (as the founders wanted) to attract people after being out of the public spotlight for so long. Thus began the recantation movement that damaged Spiritualism’s strength and nearly disbanded the movement altogether. Continue reading “Antebellum Spiritualism and the Civil War”

Schmucker Hall: An Artifact for a 21st Century Audience

By Jenna Fleming ‘16

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

Built in 1832 to house the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Schmucker Hall served as a field hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg. After years of housing the Adams County Historical Society, it became home to the Seminary Ridge Museum in 2013. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Built in 1832 to house the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Schmucker Hall served as a field hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg. After years of housing the Adams County Historical Society, it became home to the Seminary Ridge Museum in 2013. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In her 2011 History News article, “Do Museums Still Need Objects?,” Rainey Tisdale argues that while modern museums definitely need to continue displaying artifacts, a reevaluation of the ways in which these objects are utilized, presented, and interpreted is likewise necessary. Though advances in technology and shifts in public views of history are changing the museum experience for many visitors, artifacts still play a central role. Tisdale, an independent curator and professor of Museum Studies at Tufts University, presents a seven-point outline of ways to make museums more effective. Specifically, she calls for the innovative presentation of objects, making them more interesting and relevant to visitors and thereby achieving a more personalized version of history.

Focusing on a few distinctive objects that make a museum’s collection unique may be a better way to educate visitors than the simple display of a greater amount of more commonplace objects. This may seem counterintuitive as some museums are very concerned with acquisitions, but the emphasis of quality over quantity can ultimately result in a more positive learning experience. Additionally, Tisdale advocates the personalization of history through allowing viewers to connect with the past through artifacts. This goal might be achieved by highlighting how, when, and by whom an object was used, or even giving the viewer the opportunity to interact with it in some way. The desire for interaction with historical artifacts does raise the question of a museum’s ability to strike a balance between preservation and education. In association with this challenge comes the need for curators to be more open to advice, requests, and opinions of the public. Tisdale believes that greater communication between museum officials and visitors is another way to modernize and improve the museum experience. Continue reading “Schmucker Hall: An Artifact for a 21st Century Audience”