What Should Be Interpreted—Follow Up

Chris Mackowski’s Spotsylvania post from last week brought up a few questions as to what should be interpreted and how should it be interpreted. As I was walking to work this morning, I noticed a clump of interpretive signs in Pittsburgh’s Strip District.

The one that caught my attention is below. It is a sign interpreting a parking lot. Why is a parking lot important? Is it more important than a battlefield? Obviously the group who installed the sign thought it worth the $2,500-$3,000 to install the sign. I believe this is a great example of what Chris was getting at with his post: what is important and should be interpreted.

About Kristopher D White

Civil War historian.
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11 Responses to What Should Be Interpreted—Follow Up

  1. I don’t get it. Why do you have a problem with the interpretive sign? (besides the fact it’s dreadfully designed with way too much text, and no interpretation) You are right – obviously, a group found that place to be significant enough to them that they erected an interpretive sign remembering it. What makes you, or for that matter Chris, the authority on what should be interpreted?

    • I never actually said I had a problem with the sign. I posed a number of questions around the sign, to get people thinking about why places are important to them. In reality I like the sign. I think it is a great way to bring to light an overlooked area of an ever changing cityscape. Somebody saw past the obvious and took it a step further.

      The sign was a great way to build on what Chris had said about the Spotsylvania Battlefield last week. Where again I posed questions to the readers, while pointing out some of the first hand interactions I had there with actual visitors. One reader loved the place because his ancestor fought there. While the locals loved it because it was simply green space in an area turning into strip malls and parking lots.

      Chris and I are not authorities on what should be interpreted but we have a right to look at the subject. Though in reality Chris, myself, and many others authoring on the site have worked on battlefields for years, interpreting the story so that visitors can draw their own conclusions and better understand the resource.

      A quote from your site states, “As public historians, our job isn’t to achieve objectives, or to make sure people think a certain way about a particular event, place, or moment in history. Our job is to help them care, not to make them care, but to help them care about the historic resource.” Shouldn’t it be our objective to at least take a shot at interpreting the site and telling one story or another, if not all the stories involved? Chris pointed out that he would like to see more signs at Spotsylvania. That is one way to get the story out there if the battlefield is not manned year round, which it is not manned year round.

      Now take it a step further. When Dad drags mom and the kids from the car to a place they have never heard of and they are forced on your tour because of dad. Is it not your job as a GS 4 “Park Ranger”, to show why this place is important enough for the American people to invest time, tax dollars, and government salary into? If the resources spoke for themselves we would not need organizations like Central Virginia Battlefields Trust, Civil War Trust, or the National Park service. For that matter you would not need “Visitor Use Assistants.” So how do you make those people care that don’t? Should you try to make them care or should your just inflict history and interpretation on them? If there is not as much as a sign on the field why should they get out of the car and care?

      Most resources don’t speak for themselves. Many battlefields are not littered with monuments like Gettysburg. Most visitors who climb out of the car have never heard of the Battle of New Market Heights, many don’t realize that African-American troops engaged Lee’s Army at Spotsylvania Court House. Without even a sign about this at Spotsylvania most visitors would not know this fact.

      So without at least a sign, as Chris pointed out in his post, how are you to know what happened and why it may actually impact you as an American or as a visitor.
      I was asked more times than I could count so what is this place or what is this place all about? So as public historians it is our job to get the information out there in a usable and understandable form to the masses. Turning a blind eye to why and what we interpreted does no good to the visitors or the resources. Questioning why we are there is one way to open up new doors of thinking and maybe finding a new way to tell the story. That is what we are all attempting to accomplish on this site. Asking questions, discussing what works and doesn’t, while learning from people who worked or managed the resources.

      I will leave you with an adage from interpretation 101: No interpretation of a site is bad interpretation of a site.

      • Kristopher,
        Thanks for the response. I’m really enjoying how much discussion your post/my response has provoked. Do you feel that visitors must understand a place for them to care about it? Do you think that is a goal of interpretation? I agree that interpretation of a site is key for stewardship of the resource, but I don’t think we agree on necessarily what “interpretation” involves.

        As a park ranger/guide/VUA, I don’t feel it is my job to show why a “place is important enough for the American people to invest time, tax dollars, and government salary into.” Simply put, it has already happened. The place has already been preserved. The way to ensure it continues to be preserved, is to facilitate succeeding generations in caring for that resource. Ultimately, why a place was preserved doesn’t matter to visitors, only why they think it still should be preserved today does.

    • I know you give a lot of thought to these things, Jacob, based on what I’ve seen at your blog. I appreciate your attempts to wrestle with the issue. I ask this question with no disrespect, but have your read Tilden’s “Principles of Interpretation”? That might be a good primer on why interpretation is important in the first place.

      History, to me, is about good stories. The stories that resonate with me might be the same, or might be different, than the stories that resonate with a visitor. Relevance = importance, so if people don’t find relevance in a story or a landscape, they won’t find it important to preserve or visit. That’s a judgement value, I realize, but the marketplace of ideas demands we frame things that way as we compete for people’s attention and resources.

      So my “authority” to decide what gets interpreted comes from walking the ground at a particular spot, knowing the stories that the ground has to tell, and being in a position to share those stories with visitors and/or readers. At Spotsy, I happen to be aware of a missed opportunity–how ironic, from a history point of view, for that spot!–but at other places, I wouldn’t necessarily have a clue. I’m not qualified to know, for instance, whether Kris’s parking lot is worthy of interpretation or not, or what kind, or what approach.

      Don’t let job titles fool you. Interpreter, historian, writer, professor, etc.–they are all basically the same. They’re all different ways of presenting ideas and telling stories. They all make choices about what stories to tell and what information to include in those stories. In the end, though, every story needs a teller and an audience, so audience’s must find those stories interesting and relevant, or they just won’t pay attention—and the story dies.

      • Chris,
        Thanks for the response. I don’t let job titles fool me, but I think you do. Interpreter, historian, writer, professor – they all mean different things, have different tools, and have different goals/expectations. Lumping them all together under the big umbrella of “they all present ideas” does little good when you try to talk about your profession, whatever it may be. There is a reason I prefer to call myself an interpreter and a public historian. It conveys meaning on what I believe my role is, and how I go about achieving it.

      • I’m not sure whether your naivety is causing you to speak out of ignorance or arrogance, Jake, but your officious tone hardly seems an appropriate response to our attempts to show you courtesy. I suspect once you’re less green around the gills and have the chance to really engage in some of these activities as a professional, you’ll have a better understanding of the obvious commonalities I’m talking about.

        In the meantime, don’t let your own hubris get in the way of coming to understanding as you grapple with these issues. Call yourself “interpreter” if you want, kid, but giving yourself a blog and saying it doesn’t make it so. Put lipstick on a pig and it’s still a pig– especially if all it wants to do is oink.

    • Do you feel that visitors must understand a place for them to care about it? Simply put, if people don’t care/understand a place people won’t come. If people don’t come then why have a preserved site in the first place?

      “Ultimately, why a place was preserved doesn’t matter to visitors, only why they think it still should be preserved today does.” Why a place was preserved does matter to people. How many visitors come to those battlefields because of their ancestors role in the battle. The preservation of the site in the past now allows them to walk the ground and connect with history/their ancestors. Others without ancestors come there to understand and learn from the past. Why was Antietam preserved? Bloodiest day in American History, many are there to remember the battle that is why it was preserved. That past matters to them as does the past preservation. There are always people that come through the door that have no connection with the past they need to get that connection to ensure the site be there in the future. To get a better understanding of why people come to a place read Jim Weeks Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and American Shrine or Thomas Desjardin These Honored Dead. Or just ask a number of average visitors that come through the door why they are there. I think the answers will shock you. It has very little to do with what academia has teaches us it has more to do with perception of the resource.

      From the point of investing time, tax dollars, etc… If those people do not connect with the site where you are employed at they will not be prone to ask their representatives to help fund historic sites and historic preservation. Without that help and funding there would be a great many people in the history world without jobs. Sadly there is always the bottom line when it comes to money. Fredericksburg is now looking to a friends group to man two of its historic buildings with out the funding there are no paying jobs. Without the interest and connection their is no friends group.

      • Kristopher,
        No, I don’t think you need to understand a place to care about it. Case in point: I care about Old Faithful at Yellowstone, yet I have no idea the science behind it. I care about the Flight 93 crash site, yet I don’t understand the whole story and its implications. Care and understanding are not interchangeable terms.

        You said it yourself – “visitors come to…battlefields because of their ancestors role in the battle…” Why that battlefield was preserved really doesn’t matter to them now, only that it is preserved today. I agree many come for the reasons you mention, but I’d argue many who come want to feel something from the place first – whether it later turn into understanding, remembrance, relevance, etc feeling comes first, and that is what I feel all our interpretation needs to be directed towards.

        i really do appreciate the whole thing you guys got going recommending books, and the whole ‘lecture’ tone, but frankly, I’m trying to have a discussion with y’all. You don’t need to keep suggesting books that I should read or consult before discussing the concepts we’re grappling with.

        Thanks, I’ve really enjoyed our exchange.

  2. I think the sign is completely ironic. Whether it’s intended to be or not is another matter.

  3. Chuck S. says:

    Interesting discussion. I agree that if people don’t find relevance in a story or a landscape, they won’t find it important to preserve or visit. That then brings up the question if there is no relevance does it deserve interpretation or preservation. After all every historic house in Virginia has a story of some kind. It’s whether the story is relevant to anyone other than the those living there and why. Regarding the above sign: It’s actually interesting but is badly titled….it is not really the history of a parking lot….it’s the history of the spot the parking lot now occupies. What came before is what is relevant, not the Parking lot. The sign is also much to wordy….few probably read the whole thing.

    • Chuck,

      Outstanding observation. You can’t throw a rock in Virginia without hitting a historic home. They all have their different draws and time period but what makes one stand out from another. Even they don’t always agree on what time period to interpret. Montpelier was transformed to show the days of Madison instead of the life of the house itself. I had a few friends that this really upset because they lost so much by remodeling and taking it to one time period. One could argue it is the most important time period, since Madison was President. I have been in a few other homes that you moved room to room, time period to time period. I’m not sure one way of interp is better than another, but it makes a great contrast looking at the different homes and intrep styles.

      The sign…I think they were going with the shock value of them writing about a parking lot. I think they were trying to turn heads. You are right it has more to do with the past than the present. I applaud them for taking a shot at something different. Again you are right too much text.

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