Why does an interpreter head out the door
each day? Is it to impart wisdom or offer
moments for reflection? / CC Tito Perez
I have to admit something: when it comes to interpretation, I'm making this all up as I go along. I don't have some magical cache of best practices stored up, waiting to deposit them week after week in posts here on the blog. Most of what I know about interpretation I've stumbled upon, either in the thoughts of others shamelessly stolen and added to my toolbox or as rough experiments based on my so-called common sense.
Sometimes it's far more instructive to find out what I shouldn't do as I frantically grope in the darkness trying to discover what I should do. If I line enough of those bad choices and other possibilities off of my list, eventually I'll hit on a formula that works.
As Thomas Alva Edison likely did not say in relation to the light bulb, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work."
Researchers from Clemson University and Virginia Tech recently released a groundbreaking report on what makes good interpretation into great interpretation. Reviewers attended over 350 live programs in National Parks. The report is exhaustive as well as exhausting. I'm not one for statistics, so the meat of the report lies in the discussion and conclusions on pages 35-42.
What separates the mildly effective from the wildly effective? A large slew of things. But two major correlations were strong and loud in the data.
Visitors react poorly to "walking encyclopedias," who set out in their programs to impart facts rather than help visitors find a desire to learn themselves.
People don't like smart-ass know-it-alls. Back in college, I was the target of a Facebook hate-group: "The John Rudy is Smarter Than Me Fan Club." I am not making this up. The course was Slavery and the Atlantic World, and the slacker students in the back of the class didn't like the fact that I did my best to intelligently comment and ask meaningful questions each class period. So they lashed out.
I was a smart-ass know-it-all. I didn't deserve a hate group, but I was a certifiable ass. I wanted to prove that I knew my stuff, and force that newly acquired knowledge down the throats of anyone within earshot. I was cocky, brash and snide. If someone didn't care, I intended to flog them mercilessly into caring.
That doesn't work. It just doesn't. Ask me, I know that from experience. You cannot will someone to care. You cannot browbeat them into caring.
Let's bury "Walking Encyclopedias" and
"boring" in a common grave. / CC Cheryl Colan
So why are we trying to do that out in the field with visitors? The Clemson/Virginia Tech report classed 75% of park rangers as "walking encyclopedias," as human fact-fountains spewing a, "large volume of facts," at visitors. We had a derogatory term for that back in Harpers Ferry; it's called, "the firehose." You spray dumbfounded visitors with every single fact you know about this or that. They smile and nod, walking away neither having learned any of what you intended to teach them nor caring about the place any more than they did before.
Facts. They are not the goal. They should never be the goal. They are the building blocks toward a goal. If you're setting out on a program to educate the visitor, to teach them, to impart knowledge from on high as a human fount of pure factual sputum sprayed across an adoring mass of visitors, you're also setting out to fail.
Facts are simply a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. Facts lined up in a row, with intentional pacing, organization and choice can help visitors along to the real goal of interpretation. That's the goal that hasn't changed since the godfather of the craft Freeman Tilden penned it back in 1957:
"The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation."
55 years later and we're still screwing that one up royally.
Last week was "Elvis Week" in Memphis. I don't know that because I follow Elvis. In fact, I really can't stand Elvis Presley's music. About as far as I can go down that road is listening to "Suspicious Minds," every so often. Nothing else really speaks to me.
No, I know that last week was "Elvis Week" in Memphis because I have Sirius XM radio in my car and they were constantly playing advertisements for "Elvis Week."
I don't really care about Elvis. But I do remember a fond trip to Memphis, where I went out of my way to avoid Graceland. The man driving the shuttle to my Enterprise Rent-a-Car really appreciated that. "He's so overblown," I remember him saying.
Of course I don't take my stock in Elvis. My vote for the King of Rock 'n Roll must, by all accounts, be Chuck Berry. He's the true King of Rock 'n Roll. I know, I know, I'm going to raise a lot of ire by saying that. But it's important to me. He was an amazing singer-songwriter who wrote the music he performed and didn't just take blindly steal other folks' music and slap a pretty white face on it to market to middle America.
If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it 'Chuck Berry'." -John Lennon
My favorite song by Chuck Berry isn't anything you'd normally expect, although I love me some "Johnny B. Goode," some "You Can't Catch Me," (stolen by John Lennon) and some "Sweet Little Sixteen" (stolen by the Beach Boys). My favorite, though, is something you don't hear played very often by Berry when you tune your radio dial. It's "Memphis, Tennessee."
I grew up on the song. My mom and dad always listened to the local oldies radio station in the car. The Johnny Rivers version of "Memphis Tennessee" seemed to be a perennial mainstay. It would constantly be playing, nearly once every hour. It became a standard.
Chuck wrote the lyrics and music, though, and the first recording was his 1959 B-side cut on the back side of his peppy "Back in the U.S.A." Berry wrote an amazing story. And important for the interpreter looking for a bit of inspiration, he used one of the basic tools of drama to do it.
The original B-side Recording
of "Memphis, Tennessee."
Listen to Chuck's version of the song. Go on, I'll wait. Listen all the way through and pretend that you've never heard it before. Maybe you haven't. Just listen to the lyrics and listen close.
Who is this man? What does he want? And who is Marie? The story unfolds, bit by bit, piece by piece. Crucial tidbits of information fall into your lap as each line of the song rings out. "Her home is on the south side, high up on a ridge..."
The sorrow in his voice is clear and plain. You feel him; you feel his pain. It is the sorrow of lost true love.
We find out that her mother broke this pure love up, destroyed their "happy home in Memphis, Tennessee." And you feel the heartache of the singer, missing the woman he so desperately loves and cares about, her tear-stained cheeks wishing him goodbye and "hurry home."
But then at the end, the turn, and suddenly you realize this love affair you've discovered in the past two minutes wasn't a love between a man and a woman, but between a father and his daughter. It wasn't a deeply devoted sexual love, but a deeply devoted paternal love.
And with just one line - "Marie is only 6 years old, Information, please." - the whole song suddenly shifts and changes meaning again. The song first gives one meaning to you, a true white-hot passionate love, and then at the end gives another powerful meaning, true fatherly devoted love. Two simultaneous meanings, just from the choice to leave out one crucial piece of information until the songs final strains.
The technique isn't that hard. It's simply learning what not to include, what not to say and when not to say it. But then it is also the crucial skill of finding the exact moment to turn the wheel and reveal what you've withheld.
What if you thought Kirkland was simply
giving aid to South Carolinians until the
very last moment? / CC Jim Bowen
Where does this all fit into the world of interpretation? Try to think of that one story where leaving out a crucial piece of information until a key moment adds that extra layer of meaning. The story of Jack Hopkins, janitor of Pennsylvania College is one where I've been using this technique for years. The complicated tale of a beloved janitor, jokingly called the "Vice-President" of the college in student view-books, chided for missing his daily duty of ringing the college bell for prayers and class, and owner of fine imported carpet and fancy mantle clocks, takes on an added dimension when I finally reveal the fact to audiences that Jack Hopkins was black. Withheld to the end, suddenly the students' joke, the chiding and the fact he owned fine goods all take on added and different meanings.
Anyplace that there is inherent mystery in a story, where someone's identity is unknown, when the circumstances of their life make a moment even more meaningful, when someone turns out not to act as we might suspect, we don't need to throw the facts out right away. Even a famous case like Amos Humiston, Gettysburg's mystery soldier, can take on new magic by making sure that, when telling his tale, the first time the words, "Amos Humiston," escape your mouth they are the very last words of the story. Imagine the story of Richard Kirkland at Fredericksburg, but only finding out at the very end of the tale that he was not offering water to his friends and comrades, but to the enemy instead.
If all of this seems like a manufactured drama, yes, it is to some extent. But it's dramatic sentiment employed to help throw light on deep meaning. And that's the business that interpreters at Civil War sites are in: offering opportunities to gain meanings, not simply reciting cold, hard facts.
So take a cue from the King of Rock n' Roll. Maybe it's time to try Chuck-Berry-style Interpretation.
In the basement corridor of the Main Interior Building in Washington, D.C. is the most beautiful painting I've even seen. I've gotten the chance on a couple of occasions, while visiting the Department of the Interior Headquarters for meetings and whatnot for work to wander down outside of the cafeteria to see the mural. It is pure beauty, mostly forgotten and ignored by the folks who work in that building everyday. I get these weird looks while I stand in awe of the massive canvas, like I shouldn't stop and stare. I don't care. I take pictures. I gawk. My mouth hangs agape.
An Incident in Contemporary American Life by Mitchell Jamieson, installed in 1942, is my favorite painting. And true to form, my love has as much to do with the subject as the art. The floor-to-ceiling mural, so vivid you could step into it's muted colors, is an amazing window into the past. And that moment is a quintessentially American day in 1939 when Harold Ickes stood up for equality of opportunity. He offered up the Lincoln Memorial as an altar of freedom from which Marian Anderson would sing after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her use their stage because of the color of her skin.
The painting is about the act of listening, of observing. The painting is about the people, the ordinary people, who witness grand moments in history. They're white, they're black. Unlike the crowd at the dedication of that vast temple to liberty, the crowd Anderson's concert was integrated. And in each face, a story starts to bubble to the surface. This man looks on in hope, that one bows his head in sorrow. This woman eagerly listens to the wafting music, that gazes into the eyes of her child. Is she dreaming of a future? Or is she fearing that the world he grows up in won't be much different than the one she has?
History is made by people, not the ones on stages, but the ones in the crowds. And every member of that crowd has a story. A painting is not am image, it is only paint on canvas in coordinated brush strokes. The mural of history is exactly the same. If we pause to look at all those brush strokes at once, give them all their individual due in the grand larger picture, history becomes beautiful and complete.
And if we put our noses right up to that canvas, like I did last time I was in the basement outside of the cafeteria, and look at one of those simple brushstroke, it too speaks volumes.
I have written before of my intense love for Back to the Future III. Part of the reason that film resonates with my movie-going soul is my abiding love of the 19th century. Part of me wishes I could hop into a Stainless-Steel Delorian and visit the past for a short stint. I'm pretty sure I'm too much of a pansy to last very long in the world of latrines and muddy water, but I'd love to see the past for even just one fleeting moment.
Of course, I don't need a souped-up Delorian to take that fleeting glance into the past. Time travel is possible, and not simply the straight arrow, forward ho! style that Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity takes into account. I can break the laws of physics, bend the universe to my will and move backwards in time.
Hold up an historic photograph and line it up perfectly on the landscape and you can peer through a window in time, if only for a moment. Chant aloud the words of a vaunted or vilified historical character on the spot where he himself spoke those words and you can, just for a moment, hear an echo of their very voice. Close your eyes and look at the historical landscape in front of you and your mind will pull back the curtain of time, for just a split second, to reveal the gory or glorious past.
On the tour around Antietam I wrote about last week, Garry Adelman mentioned one of my favorite concepts: the fourth dimension. Although in the descriptions of the universe there's some arguments over what constitutes the fourth dimension (which we'll leave to the physicists, thank you very much), one useful way to visualize that construct is as the dilation of time. Garry mentioned that getting out on the physical resource and peeling back the layers of the past is the closest thing we have to time travel.
Sometimes we historians fixate on a particular target in that Fourth Dimension, unable to take our eyes off of it. It rushes at us like a horde of cartoon indians on the back wall of a derelict drive-in movie theatre:
Doc: "All you have to do is drive the time vehicle directly toward that screen accelerating to 88 miles an hour."
Marty McFly: "Wait a minute, Doc. If I drive straight towards the screen, I'm gonna crash into those Indians."
Young Doc: "Marty, you're not thinking fourth dimensionally. You'll instantly be transported back into 1885, and those Indians won't even be there."
"No wonder this circuit failed.
It says 'Made in Japan.'" / CC Adafruit
But one of the true amazing joys of the Delorean cum Time-Machine that Doctor Emmett Brown crafted is that it's completely programmable. If Doc wanted to, as he points out to Marty in a keen moment of exposition in the first film, see the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Birth of Christ or even the mundane 5th of November, 1955, all you need to do is punch in the time into the keypad, engage the circuits and accelerate to 88 mph. The whole of time is yours to observe. But the landscape (Hill Valley, California in Marty and Doc's case) remains the same. Three dimensions, the physical location, never shift or change. But the crucial fourth dimensions is eternally fluid thanks to a Flux Capacitor and a dream.
We historians can do the same thing. We have the choice of going anywhere within this landscape in the Fourth Dimension, leaping from time to time to help find deeper meanings. This is the prerogative of the present: we have the freedom to see the past with 20/20 hindsight, the ability to see the ripples in the pond and the stone that made them simultaneously.
This means we can stand in one place, be it the steps of the Montgomery State House or the base of the Peace Light in Gettysburg, and witness the entirety of the past. Furthermore, it is our solemn duty to allow those different points to dialogue, to interact and to live simultaneously on the landscape. Standing on the State House steps, Jefferson Davis gives Martin Luther King Jr. more meaning, and King's march gives Davis' act trajectory. At the Peace Light, FDR in 1938, the KKK in 1925 and bleeding young men for North Carolina commanded by a man named Iverson in 1863 all play on the landscape simultaneously in a symphony of meaning, each melody melting into the next to give that landscape the ultimate story.
Our time machines MUST be programmable. If we lock them into one date alone, we miss the broader world of meanings. If public historians refuse to think fourth dimensionally, history will never make sense to the public.
I went on a battlefield tour this weekend with Garry Adelman. It was an amazing experience, as any tour with Garry is, because he delves into how we conceptualize landscapes just as much as what happened on those landscapes 150 years ago. My mind was churning the entire time. Of anyone, both those who work for those places and those who just generally love those places, Garry (and his partner in crime Tim Smith) is tops on the list of most effective living time machines. Like always, Garry got me thinking on 15 different levels, and I'd wager that the next few weeks' posts will all be inspired by tidbits and nuggets he mentioned at Antietam this past Sunday.
Something began getting to me across the 5 hours of the program. Garry referred quite consistently to the soldiers dressed in blue uniforms as "Yankees."
This isn't to fault Garry in particular. This terminology oozes from every program, lecture, film, documentary and monograph on the war. Our culture on the whole refers to the soldiers who fought under the flag of the United States as "Yankees."
Why is this derisive colloquialism deemed OK by our profession and culture?
Imagine yourself at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., standing reading the book of names to find a particular person on those panels. For me, it's always my mom's friend's brother, James Sacco who died in 1968. That's about the closest the Vietnam War came to my family. My mom and her friend drove around Syracuse, NY in Jimmy's car after he had died. Even as distant as that echo, I still look up Jimmy's name each time I'm on that end of the wall. It reminds me of how close war came, and how close it can still come today.
Whatever the name you might be searching for, imagine yourself leafing through the book and overhearing a DC Licensed Tour Guide talking to a group of tourists nearby:
...The Tet Offensive was extremely destructive for the Round Eye forces. All told, by the end of its first phase alone, nearly 17,000 Round Eyes had been killed, with another 20,000 wounded. Viet Cong mowed down the Round Eyes like so-much wheat....
Think about that. Think about the rage that might rise in your stomach. Think about the punches that might get thrown by a man wearing a leather vest who came to "visit" a friend on that wall. I think about the cheers I would throw up to the heavens as he threw that punch. It's just not the right place to say something like that.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a sacred place, crafted by Chinese-American artist Maya Ying Lin. It is a cenotaph, a cemetery-in-absentia. It is not someplace anyone would even think to use a derogatory term like, "Round Eye."
Civil War battlefields are sacred places, forged through blood by thousands of soldiers. They are cemeteries in actuality, where remains still lay beneath the soil. So why denigrate the Federal soldier with the colloquialism "Yankee?" Doesn't consistent use of this term withdraw a modicum of respect due the defenders of our Nation?
Weren't the men fighting in that blue uniform United States Soldiers? Weren't they United States Volunteers fighting for the United States Volunteer Army? Wasn't it a Federal army tasked with preserving the Federal union known as the United States of America from annihilation?
What change in how we understand the whole war, the very atomic structure of the Civil War, would a simple shift in language provide? Imagine standing in the Bloody Lane or at Burnside's Bridge and saying, "the United States soldiers surged forward toward the Confederates," or, "after the smoke cleared, hundreds of Federal soldiers lay dead in this field."
It's interesting that only in the context of the American Civil War is open and flagrant derision of the United States army and the men who fought in it acceptable. Such a curious thing, this Civil War.