I used to date a girl who loved to eat French fries while eating a Frosty at Wendy’s. I should have known that the relationship was never going to last (this and the fact that that she had a monobrow that I couldn’t stop staring at). I’m not a person who likes salty with my sweet. I tend to lend myself towards the sweeter things in life without much salt but I have been recently reminded that sometimes you have to have some salt to remind you how sweet life is. I put some salt in my life on a visit to Antietam National Battlefield.
For me battlefields are hard to visit. I get lost in all of the details of what took place, have a hard time relating to the men who fought, can’t grasp the landscape of today that doesn’t really represent what it was like at the time, and I’m secretly envious of men who can grow gapless beards. I also stay away from places that stir too many emotions. The salt running down my face in the form of tears really ruins the taste of my soft-serve ice cream.
Monday Paul made the statement, “I was struck by the quality of the site’s interpretive exhibits (and also by a masterful first-person program conducted by Ranger Mannie Gentile, but this is a blog about nonpersonal interpretation, so I won’t get into that)” when referring to our visit to Antietam National Battlefield as part of a field session of the NAI Region 2 workshop. This is a blog about nonpersonal interpretation, but I can’t not (which is southern for I must) talk about the value of personal and nonpersonal combination.
This field session was not our first choice, but based on the recommendation of a friend and the fact that no one else besides Paul and me had signed up a for a day in the car (discussing type on billboards session) it was decided that we would visit what our friend described as a “bucket list” kind of place. Normally I wouldn’t put a battlefield on my bucket list (with spaces occupied by goals such as visiting the new Yankees Stadium, seeing birthplace of Helvetica, or eating all cased meat known to man) but needless to say I was intrigued and based on some pre-trip interpretation we were receiving from a second passionate new friend at the workshop, it was a must-see.
Based on my views of the need of salt in my life, I hesitantly agreed to the trip and had hoped for an opportunity to take pictures of funny signs. (I did get one. You’ll have to read all the way to the bottom of the post to see it. Don’t just skip the writing part where I toiled for days trying to make this interesting, funny, and relevant or at least tolerable to see the picture. Okay, if I were you I would just skip ahead see the picture. Please, just come back for more of the story.) I knew that Antietam would be a salty place.
Upon arrival we had an opportunity to orient ourselves at the visitor center (a Mission 66-style visitor center—an interesting juxtaposition in and of itself to the battlefield.), visit the gift shop, and explore the exhibits. The interior exhibits were well done and provided most of what you would expect in a Civil War battlefield site.
I did notice the obvious lack of color, setting the tone for the experience, except for this handmade flag that was an excellent reminder of why this war was fought and the struggle to make the United States what it is today. Reconstructing a battle such as Antietam visually in Illustrator cannot come close to representing what actually took place on the battlefield.
After experiencing the museum, our group re-convened upstairs in the observation room with windows overlooking the battlefield itself. If there was one thing the exhibits did, they made you want to understand more fully what took place that day and see where it took place. Either of these two reasons are perfectly acceptable objectives for exhibits. The purpose of this gathering was for a personal approach to the interpretation of the battle by the fully bearded Ranger Mannie. I was filled with questions but decided to hold back to see if Ranger Mannie was successful at meeting my needs as a visitor and not to embarrass my NAI friends by asking why the soldiers were wearing wool in the summer.
Ranger Mannie was terrific in verbally illustrating the events leading up to, the day of, and the days following September 17, 1862. His approach was well tuned based on his experience, understanding, and passion. David Larsen in Meaningful Interpretation states that “interpreters must channel their own understandings, enthusiasm, passion, and love for the resource so their audiences can form their own understandings, enthusiasm, passion, and love for the resource.” This was accomplished through this use of sound interpretive techniques. With very few props, a couple of photographs of key individuals, Ranger Mannie used his body, inflection, timed pauses, and other well-timed techniques to tell the story.
I have no doubt that Ranger Mannie spent time specifically choosing the right words to assist in establishing his theme for the program. This was no accident. Mark Twain once said “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” This is an important lesson for those responsible for designing personal and nonpersonal interpretation. Finding the exact word that echoes the theme, provides brevity, is powerful, and poignant can be like capturing lighting in a bottle. This was also seen in the Battlefield’s wayside exhibits titles and text. An example of lack of effort in choosing the right words can be found on this blog.
The take-home message for me from the visit is the power of interpretation. The combination of the personal and nonpersonal interpretation at Antietam made the experience. It also reminded me that sometimes you need some salt in your life.
Oh yeah, here’s that funny sign.