It was a summer afternoon, a bit sticky, but with a gentle breeze coming off the Shenandoah River. The scene was fairly typical of what you would expect to find at any National Park Service National Historic Sites in the early 1990’s; beside the historic buildings you find several rows of rustic wooden benches, nearly filled by an attentive audience with a uniformed National Park Service Interpretive Ranger giving a talk. The park was Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and the topic was John Brown’s Raid on the federal armory there in 1859. During the season, this very scene would be re-enacted several times a day complete with an attentive audience.
However, this time something was different. Spread out among the visitors on those rustic benches were four National Park Service Interpretive Rangers, but dressed as civilians. When it came time for questions, these NPS folks asked questions too, very thought provoking questions and some challenging statements, but from the perspective of provocation;
“Slavery was a morale sin. Brown had every right to correct that grievous wrong.”
“Wasn’t John Brown a traitor to attack a federal armory?”
“Weren’t slaves better off and better treated by their Masters?”
“Wasn’t slavery a curse on America’s story of freedom, “life, liberty and the pursuit of
What was going on here? What was the Park Service trying to do? I’m not sure, for I saw the video of this event several years later at a training session at the Mather Center at Harper’s Ferry. Was this a training video for Interpretive Rangers on how to deal with difficult questions? Or was this a test to see if this was a viable approach to getting the audience to think . . . No, to provoke the audience to think, to consider different perspectives? Or was this an attempt, way ahead of its time, to create “a safe place for unsafe ideas”?
The answer is unknown. While the questions posed are my guesses at what might have been asked, there was a method to this seemingly mad approach to communicating a story with many nuances to an integrated audience and it was pure Tilden, Principle #4 – PROVOCATION. “The chief aim of Interpretation is notinstruction, but provocation.” In this Harpers Ferry experiment, the goal was to provoke the audience, our visitor, into doing some critical thinking. How did the issue of slavery play out in this landscape? Was Brown a madman or a prophet? For Tilden, “the purpose of Interpretation is to stimulate the reader or hearer toward a desireto widen his horizon of interests and knowledge, and to gain an understanding of the greater truths that lie behind any statement of fact.”
Provocation, broadening one’s horizons, still a highly relevant principle has greatly influenced my approach to viewing history, interpreting America’s complex storyand interacting with my audience during my career as an interpretive NPS ranger. During the early 1990’s, this idea of provoking people to consider a different perspective, to go to the visitor center bookstore, grab a book off the shelve to broaden one’s perspective was significant. More importantly, keeping abreast of the current research, incorporating those fresh ideas and concepts into our talks was critical to this concept of being able to provoke your audience into seeing this story from different perspectives. Books and the ability for sites to build their own professional libraries is an absolute must – a critical component to being able to really think about the stories we tell. Not an easy feat in this age of budget cuts.
This concept of “not instruction, but provocation” was critical to our production of a cable television series for our park. Video does live forever. The idea of provoking your audience in the comforts of their home, questioning what they are hearing, then searching Google for additional information is powerful stuff.
While Tilden’s language seems stilted, the concepts and illustrations remain vital. Indeed one that has been reworked in the modern era is Principle 5 – Interpretationshould aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to thewhole man rather than any phase. The NPS has tried to update its interpretive training by having the Ranger develop “universal concepts” or as Tilden would see “ asthe whole,” about each site that people could readily relate to. What is the essence of
Ellis Island, the universal/whole, that visitors could reflect on? The quest for freedom? The desire for a better life for you and your family? A chance to start anew? These universal concepts, again, help provoke the visitor to think about each NPS site and how they might apply to them personally.
But the world is changing. We need to add new principles to Tilden’s List:
1) Interpreters should engage the audience in a civil dialogue on the topic
of the interpreters talk.
2) Interpreters should develop partnerships with various communities/stakeholders, both within and outside the park, to assist the process of learning from one another and sharing stories from different perspectives.
The days of the audience coming to the mountain for information on a specific site are over. People come to our parks with a fantastic amount of experience. In order to tap into that experience, to truly make their visit memorable and meaningful, the Interpreter needs to engage the audience, to make them feel comfortable enough, to share their perspectives on the talk with the group. One of the blessings of working in the Blackstone Valley was that at any given talk, several members of the audience had relatives who worked in the mills or they themselves had mill work experience. They shared rich family stories that put human faces on the mill workers and their daily challenges. From my perspective, creating an environment where those stories could be shared not only expanded my knowledge but provided a more memorable experience for all. These skills are critical to the role of today’s interpreter and require strong interpersonal and management skills, but the rewards can be fantastic.
To be successful with this new principle, this must be seen as much a management issue as an interpreter’s (see Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service ). The Interpreter should be, not just a sounding board in these civic dialogues, but also knowledgeable on the subject matter so as to better direct the conversation. It can happen that as these civic engagements take place, the interpreter can simply become a facilitator. This would be unfortunate. Historical ignorance is rampant these days, and the interpreter needs to be current with new research, new books on the subject matter as well as new trends in historical thinking and issues of the day.
When I first joined the National Park Service in the Fall of 1993, the very first training I had, outside of the local park, was to ‘ tell the untold stories of America’s story”. That was our charge – tell the untold stories of our sites. I cite this early training mantra as I delve into this idea of how to better promote inclusive, equitable and accurate representations of our past. It also connects to the recent, and unfortunately poorly utilized report, Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service (Whisnant/Miller/Nash/Thelen) The gulf between interpreter park rangers and NPS historians is deep and all the issues are well documented in the Imperiled Promise report, but as we ask interpreters to expand their skills, engage their audiences in dialogues, support from historians is critical. Tilden agreed for he wrote that “the work of the specialist, the historian, the naturalist, the archeologist, is fundamental…without their research the interpreter cannot start.” Unfortunately specialists, such as historians, are declining within the NPS which should set off alarm bells for interpreters.
Getting back to the main point here is that by telling those “Untold Stories” that often represent voices not commonly heard, not only promotes a more inclusive, equitable and accurate representation of America’s complex story, it also has the promise of drawing in a more diverse visitor group.
I spent 24 ½ years in the same park – a partnership park / heritage corridor and while certainly books, my colleagues and the great professional organizations I belonged to played a big role in shaping my professional career, I found that the partnerships I developed with the local historical societies and small house museums to be incredibly significant. These partnerships were essential to understanding the importance of this “sense of place” for these volunteers were responsible for collecting, caring for, displaying and importantly sharing all their “stuff” that made their site important. These local organization and their members have had a profound influence in the continued development of our park. Now, add to my career journey, the wonderful professional organization like NCPH and its members – for it is these communal, collaborative organizations that keep me thinking and trying new approaches, listening to my colleagues here, sharing our ideas and successes. Tilden would agree for he was constantly listening, going on other interpreter’s tours, taking their strong points, incorporating them into his work, then sharing those thoughts through his writing.
I think that Tiden would agree with Alexandra Lord’s writings that interpreters need to know more about “and understand the experiences of people who were not like us and to use that knowledge to understand not only who we are today but also the roots of many of the of the issues we currently face.” The challenges we face as interpreters is to stretch ourselves, to become more worldly so we can better communicate our great, and complex national story. While Tilden provides us with concepts to guide our journey, it is also fundamentally true that our colleagues, our
professional organizations, our many diverse partners also provide us with theknowledge and shared experiences to make our talks more powerful and thought-provoking.