Thursday, September 1, 2011

"And preachin' from my chair": The Historian and the Interpreter

I've been thinking lately of titles. The new blog Emerging Civil War's inaugural post touched off a powder-keg of thought for me. Looking down the list of contributors yields name after name listed as "historian at...." But most of those folks appear to have the official job title of "park ranger," "interpreter," or "visitor use assistant," and not "historian." This got the wheels in my head turning.

What does it all mean? Who am I to say?
What we choose to call ourselves is sometimes as important as the work we do. For those who 'do history' on Civil War battlefields, we have two distinct options. The best place to find how someone views themselves is right in their e-mail signature, but sometimes it's in the bio they put on their blog.

Some fashion themselves as historians first and foremost, imparting the historical truth to their audience. They persuade and argue a thesis for their audiences, acting as the professor in walking lectures with distinct points to prove.

Others see themselves as interpreters first and foremost, offering opportunities for visitors to connect with a site's meanings, to find meanings that the member of the audience find personally relevant. They offer multiple perspectives and a variety of viewpoints, acting as a facilitator, orchestrating a conversation between the resource and the visitor with no thesis to argue.

A historian emeritus from
Princeton on a battlefield...
Historians persuade; Interpreters reveal.

There is nothing inherently wrong with persuasive argument. But often historians on battle landscapes craft grand arguments with very specific theses. The historians dictate the conclusions and demand acquiescence to those conclusion by laying out every point of their argument to support their theses. They argue a point. There is what could be called a dictatorship of thought.

On the flip side of that coin, interpreters leave conclusions to their audience, offering multiple perspectives on an event and moral ambiguity. No one ends up having been right or wrong. This past summer, I've been running discussion-based experimental programs on John Brown. In the end, when the visitors step out of the engine house, I don't care what they think about John Brown. Some walk out loving him, thinking him a saint. Others walk out thinking him a terrorist and the devil incarnate. There is no right and wrong conclusion, only the visitor's conclusion. If they walk out thinking something, anything about John Brown, I've done my job. Think of it as a democracy of historical thought.

Take a look at the top of the blog. Go on... scroll up there. I'll wait. There's a very distinct reason we chose that title. "Interpreting the Civil War."

Yes, we'll argue historical points vehemently here in our own backyard, because to some extent we're hashing out our own personal meanings of these places. You have to care about something personally before you can help others find why they care about it too. But when we head out into the sacred spaces that America has set aside for itself, there is no right and wrong. There is muddy chaos, moral ambiguity and the visitor's conclusion. There are no theses. There are no right answers or acceptable opinions.

There is only the visitor and their personal appreciations of the places we hold dear.

1 comment:

  1. Mannie Gentile has an interesting take over on his blog about titles and the meanings behind them, using the bloody cornfield as an example. It's worth taking a look at.