I began my time in the National Park Service as a volunteer at Gettysburg National Military Park while I was in my undergraduate studies, working as a volunteer between 2013 through 2016. I worked as an interpretive intern at Gettysburg beginning in the summer of 2016, extending through the spring of 2017, becoming a Pathways Seasonal Interpretive Ranger for the summer of 2017. I have been a seasonal at Gettysburg for two years, entering my third this upcoming summer. In 2017, I graduated from Gettysburg College with a bachelor’s degree in history with a double minor in Civil War Era Studies and public history. In May 2019, I will finish my master’s degree in public history which I will receive from West Virginia University. While I am working towards my masters, I work in the West Virginia and Regional History Center during the academic year, working as a student archivist.
During my tenure as a student and public history, I have been assigned to read Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage for four separate classes. Additionally, I have been required to read it for my first National Park Service summer internship as well as my first season in uniform. In the book, Tilden outlines six principles of interpretation. Throughout my career as a public historian, these principles have heavily influenced my work as a public historian. Tilden’s first principle reads: “Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile” and has greatly influenced how I interpret history at Gettysburg. During my first summer of working with the National Park Service, I went through an extensive two-week training period where my supervisor took all of the interns out to the battlefield. He regaled us with a story from that part of the Battle of Gettysburg, filling our young minds and heart with emotion and a sense of relevancy about our jobs as interpreters. We then travelled to the local Walmart parking lot and listen to the same exact story. We left the parking lot with confusion, not only about why were out in a parking lot but we had forgotten the relevance of the story in relation to the 1863 battle. We came back into our classroom and my supervisor read aloud Tilden’s first principle. This principle and lesson taught me the power of place and the importance of our jobs as interpreters. Without seeing what you’re interpreting, there is no relevancy to the interpretation. This principle has helped me understand the importance of place and how vital it is for historical interpretation as it helps to evoke the emotions in visitors that often makes it relevant for them. This principle greatly impacts how I interpret the Gettysburg battlefield, promoting me to utilize the field and cultural resources more and more in my programs.
As an example, one of the many programs during our summer season is a thirty-minute overview of the Battle of Gettysburg, titled “Battlefield in a Box.” It utilizes buckets and ropes to create a battlefield map, allowing rangers to stand over it and explain the battle. We do this program two times a day, once out on the battlefield near a historic farm and the other at the Visitor Center. Neither program though allows for the visual of the battlefield, making it difficult to discuss the actions being interpreted. With the program at the farm, I tend to drag the box roughly one hundred yards to an open field, allowing me to better see hills and physical features of the battlefield. I find this approach to the program much more successful as it helps connects visitors to the field they stand on, thus helping them feel more connected to the history being interpreted. I find that visitors spend more time asking questions following the program when they can see features of the battlefield, leading them to spend more time on the fields and attend additional programs. Seeing the battlefield during this interpretation increases their interest in the battle, thus helping them create a greater appreciation for the field which they stand on.
Another significant influence on my work as an interpreter is Tilden’s sixth principle: “Interpretation addressed to children should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.” At Gettysburg National Military Park, we offer roughly twenty-five programs daily, including one specifically designated for children ages 5-13. Our program, titled “Join the Army,” is an hour-long program designated to interpret the experience of Civil War soldier’s to children and families. I give this program roughly three times a week, meaning that I do it the most among my fellow seasonals, and have had the pleasure of watching my coworkers give the program. Each ranger does the program differently, many discussing the uniform, equipment, and camp life. While I discuss these elements of the soldier’s experience, I often discuss disease, slavery, and the horrors of the battlefield. I’ve asked my coworkers why they don’t discuss the “harder” side of soldier life during the Civil War and they tell me that they don’t want to scare the children. While some people dilute information to children, Tilden would argue that presenting it differently for children works best. This is what I try to do with all of my family and children programming.
Tilden’s six principles of interpretation in my opinion still hold fairly well to contemporary professionals as it did with those of Tilden’s time. However, the biggest “revision” to Tilden that I would add is for one to discuss the use of technology in public history and historical interpretation. In my opinion, Tilden would argue that technology should be utilized when it will only be effective. I believe that technology will help answer many of our interpretation problems and will advance interpretation in a lot of ways, such as accessibility. The use of technology needs to be included in Tilden’s principles as public historians and interpreters are relying on it more and more. Adjacent to Gettysburg National Military Park is the Eisenhower National Historic Site, the home of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The two-story house is not entirely ADA accessible as it does not have an elevator to take people up to the second floor. Due to this, EISE staff has been looking into utilizing technology to create an iPad virtual reality tour of the second floor, but they are not sure how to integrate interpretation into this product. Eager to utilize this technology, they are forgoing making this experience interpretive as to fast track the creation of this digital tour. Their eagerness to incorporate technology may hinder the interpretive experience for some visitors, something that Tilden would not approve of. While a principle should be incorporated about technology, it needs to be worded as to ensure the technology upholds interpretive quality. This principle can further include the use of social media which is also increasingly used within historical interpretation.
As for how public historians can promote inclusive, equitable, and accurate presentations of the past, following Tilden’s principles can be a good stepping stone to achieve this. Interpretation is designed to be provocative, which at Gettysburg means interpreting aspects of history that some visitors may not want to hear. Previously, Gettysburg did not interpret the history of slavery nor its impact on the Civil War. Today, slavery is an integral aspect to the interpretation at Gettysburg. By ensuring that we are provocative, not just instructive, we as public historians ensure that we are promoting more accurate presentations of the past. We too can present more fair and inclusive narratives about the past as we forgo telling the stories of elite men, we include stories of those marginalized and who may have been forgotten in past interpretations. Tilden’s principle can be adapted to today’s society as we as public historians continue to decide what is provocative and then decide how best to appropriately include it in our historic interpretation.
Savannah Rose is a Graduate Assistant at the West Virginia and Regional History Center, West Virginia University, and a Pathways Interpretive Ranger with the National Park Service at Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. She will earn her M.A. degree in history with a concentration in public history from West Virginia University in May 2019. She has participated in the creation of several digital history exhibits, interpretive programs, and Historical American Building Surveys in her work with both WVU and the National Park Service.