Have you ever wondered how something gets so far from its original intent that it really loses its meaning? I was reminded of this issue this week with two separate incidents.
While refueling my vehicle, on Monday morning I found myself in a conversation at the gas pump with a young man about the death of Osama Bin Laden. The young man I was talking to was nine years old on September 11, 2001 (I wasn’t for sure that he was actually old enough to be driving in the first place) and has a different way of looking at the events of that day and how he connects those memories to what happened to Bin Laden. Okay, this topic is way too serious for this not-so-serious blog. I know that the last thing you want to read here is my political commentary that could follow this example. Let me provide a second example that revolves around the less complicated topic of cheese dip.
The second event was the battery of emails that I have been receiving from On the Border, a chain restaurant that offers Mexican-type cuisine that is actually more like American-Mex that happens to be surprisingly delicious. I managed to get on their email list by being tricked into giving up my email address in exchange for free queso. It was a moment of weakness. The emails have been inviting me to return to On the Border to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Enjoying most things with mayo, I was seriously considering it.
Looking past the images of ice-filled buckets of “Mexican-type” beer I was looking for deeper meaning within the designs to develop a better understanding of what Cinco de Mayo is actually all about. I had a feeling that it was about more than cheese and cervesas (though that sounds like a perfectly acceptable holiday). Being a dumb American, it would have been easy for me to just accept this version of Cinco de Mayo and the carb-induced stupor that it could create and go to On the Border.
I knew there had to be more meaning behind it. So my next step was Wikipedia. (I forgot to use the adjective lazy along with dumb above.) At least it was a start and at least my intentions were honorable, right? After leaving Wikipedia, I found myself reading several other online articles about the Battle of Puebla and how the under-armed and out-manned Mexican army defeated Napoleon III’s French forces. Who doesn’t love an underdog (that’s why I pull for the Yankees). I found it even more interesting and meaningful to me as a dumb, lazy, southern American that the battle had direct impact on the American Civil War, when the Mexican army was responsible for stopping Napoleon III from supplying the Confederacy with supplies that France had hoped would split the Union. Now that’s a reason for a holiday. I’m glad I didn’t accept Cinco de Mayo at face value.
On a much smaller and simpler scale I have seen interpretation in the form of programs, events, and designs perpetuate inaccuracies and still be widely accepted.
Special events at interpretive sites can move in directions that you never expected unless you have clear instructions for vendors, performers, and interpreters. Cinco de Mayo is not the first holiday that is drastically different from original concepts. You can take a look at how we celebrate religious holidays in the United States such as Christmas or Easter and realize their departure from the intended. Concessions are often made at events and festivals to meet specific needs and wants of visitors. True interpretive events should be managed different from that of festivals as to not confuse visitors or spread inaccurate messages.
Living history programs are an easy place for myths to be extended for the sake of adding character to the person being portrayed. If the story is not interesting or dynamic don’t transform it into something that it isn’t by adding character. Also be aware of your surroundings (competition and peers). I’ve seen many of the exact same type of living history programs presented all across the country because of limited amount of authentic living history supplies readily available through vendors.
Fire making is often over programmed because of its allure and the importance to survival (plus it is really cool thing to do in a program). I’ve seen the same period fire making kit come out of the same period haversack many times in different places. Creating fire in a program is great but by taking the tangible steps of making fire beyond the act itself and by relating it to something that the visitor can connect with (like a characters favorite time of night sitting around the fire with their family sharing stories or that fire was an opportunity for a child to do something important for his family) makes a demonstration a program. Me lighting our gas stove to melt cheese for dip has little value to you.
Non-personal media that has period or cultural-based graphic design elements needs to be carefully considered as well so that they don’t turn into something that looks like it came from a clip-art search. Decisions on how you plan to use elements such as colors, icons, imagery, and text should be weighed against their value of supporting the purpose of the piece. Oh yeah, and how those elements are used should also aide the communication and interpretive process. Don’t take the easy cheesy route.
Happy Cinco de Mayo! Oh yeah, did you know that Cinco de Mayo translates to May 5th?