Voice of the Village

In 1995 I was hired as a seasonal interpreter with Arkansas State Parks. I was so excited to have the chance at a professional position, doing what I went to school for, and working in an area I was passionate about. One of the first steps towards being prepared for that position was to attend seasonal interpreter training. My initial impression upon meeting other classmates at the training was mixed, mostly because I wasn’t sure that I fit in with the group. This was a feeling that I was well accustomed to and had experienced in most every other interaction that I have ever had with humans.

Being highly trained in the skill of observation, one thing that I picked up on immediately was the amount of original personalities in the group. I was witnessing originality from the outside looking in but I found myself concerned about my lack of outward originality as well as my lack of  inner voice. Now that I look back with experience I see that it was the originality of those interpreters’ personalities and styles that help make the profession what it is today.  That training helped me find my voice as an interpreter.

Originality and voice are key elements of interpretation.  Freeman Tilden speaks of both elements in his definition of interpretation from Interpreting Our Heritage.

Heritage interpretation is an educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by firsthand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.

The use of the word original was no accident. It is those original objects that make our interpretive sites special. Those original objects can range from a prehistoric ceramic vessel to a landscape to a compelling story. It is “the thing itself” as Richard Todd coined in his book The Thing Itself that is the motivation behind creating where you work or what you interpret. How those relationships and meanings are revealed is where an interpreter’s voice comes into play.

I recently came across an article titled Getting Real at Natural History Museums on the online version of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Reading the Chronicle could be part of the reason that I have issues interacting with others. Perhaps I should spend more time visiting TMZ or on Facebook. The writer of the article Thomas H. Benton (pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan) re-caps a recent visit to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (insert joke about Paul, museums in Philadelphia, cheese, and the Phillies) and is particularly harsh about his experience and what museums should interpret.

I have been compelled to read his article several times along with the other supporting articles that he provided about his visit. I also was compelled to come up with a pen name. His perspective voice from outside the field of interpretation is more than valuable to those of us on the inside because not only did he write about what museums and interpretive sites should be doing he speaks to the importance of originality, and “the thing itself.”

At one point in the article Benton aka Pannapacker (no wonder he has a pen name) makes this summation about museum interpretation.

It had taken many generations for museums to cultivate a kind of cultural capital that shaped visitors’ expectations in advance, similar to the experience of making a pilgrimage to a famous cathedral, full of relics. But in the last few decades, many natural-history museums have tried to emulate the entertainment industry, focusing almost exclusively on children and tourists—attempting to generate spectacles that do not cultivate quiet reflection and cannot sustain repeated encounters. The result has been a dilution of the museum’s formerly well-established identity: one that had cross-generational appeal and a deep connection to institutional histories and the local community.

On an interesting side note Benton was contacted by the Academy as well as other museums to help facilitate discussions on visitor experiences and expectations. The power of the visitor opinion or voice is a driving force in other areas online as well.

Paul and I have both have consulted Trip Advisor while planning distraction-based activities while we attend baseball games on “family vacations.” Our wives have been impressed with our combined knowledge about places that offer authenticity and original objects in cities with MLB parks. If you haven’t checked on reviews of your interpretive site or facilities on the website, you should. It can be empowering and depressing. There are several other online communities similar to Trip Advisor where visitors can be responsible for sharing or tearing experiences at your site.

If you stay close to your mission, interpret original objects, work with an original staff, and follow Tilden’s definition of interpretation you are probably doing fine. If you spend most of your day on Facebook just remember that there is someone out there with a voice to report that they saw you on Facebook while at the front desk.