A Few Thoughts On Interpretation

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum in Texas. It was such a stunning and moving experience that I’ve been using it as a lens to think about other areas of historical interpretation. The museum presented history and artifacts (like most museums), but it successfully took another step to engage the visitor and challenge them to make a difference. A reminder that history is a lesson, and we are not always learning well if we can’t see the signs of the next tragedy starting or unfolding.

In the very first room and introductory video that starts this museum experience, the visitor is presented with some terms: victim, perpetrator, bystander, upstander. These categories of people and their actions in the midst of atrocities and human rights violation are highlighted as the galleries wind through a history of Jewish people, the rise of Nazi ideology in the 1930s, the experiences of the Jewish communities in each occupied country, and the responses of the locals and global leaders to the genocide. The historical galleries introduce the Nuremberg Trials and the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights. Using this as a bridge, the museum experience turns to explaining the 10 stages of persecution that leads to genocide, using recent or current examples. Then, moving from the global discussion about violation of human rights, the final large gallery brings the focus home, with a look at the struggle for human and civil rights in the United States. This particular gallery took the time to recognize the “upstanders” in America’s past who spoke out and led movements for freedom and equality. At the end of this gallery, visitors are offered resources to explore to learn more about human rights causes that might be of particular interest to them and are presented with the challenge to go be an upstander. Presented with this challenge, the visitor walks into the memorial room—a quiet place with candle light, memorial stones, a rescued Torah, and names on the wall. The sadness for the millions who died in the Holocaust mixes with a very real challenge to make a difference to stop suffering and persecution in this era, giving a deeper meaning to the entire experience.

Why am I writing about this on a Civil War blog? Because the journey through this museum has been inspiring me to think deeper about how history is presented. I don’t mean presented on written panels, audio, or video. I mean the way a learner is taken through historical facts from the past, a bridge to the modern era, the modern global issue, a look at the challenges (and triumphs) in our own past, and a strong challenge for change. And how all of that gets layered into the experience or discussion so that it flows naturally. It was an accurate, emotional, and effective learning experience. And to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever left a museum with that feeling of challenge. The museum actually guided the visitor through the feelings of sorrow and horror, but rather than leaving the visitor vaguely feeling “this shouldn’t happen again” the galleries showed that it is happening, but what can we do even at home to help stop human rights violations.

Since the museum visit, I’ve been thinking about some Civil War tours or presentations that have shared this type of “history, now go do something” type of pattern. Maybe it’s for battlefield preservation. Maybe it’s for a discussion about civil rights. Maybe it’s about leadership. But often times — I know in my own experience of giving talks or tours — it’s easy to struggle to the end of the battle explanation program, talk about the loss and the historic conclusions, and leave it all there. Now, I’m seeing there is a way to go deeper, to hit some topics that would really answer the question “why does history matter?” A “why” that is more than thousands of casualties and thousands of empty chairs.

Sacrifice or memory or historiography can be good ways to end a presentation. And certainly a traditional way. But for the listener who is moderately interested in history, does it still feel disconnected? A conclusion stuck in the past? What could be some appropriate ways to bring the discussion into relevancy?

I am NOT suggesting the Civil War or other history should be turned into a tool for political aims. (Example: This happened because of the bad [you fill in political party] so remember that when you vote.) No, no, no. But seriously, I have heard people use that as the call to action.

But are there some valid points to draw? Absolutely. One area that I’ve been particularly thinking about is the lines of the divisiveness of rhetoric during the Civil War and how that tended to fall apart in the soldiers’ minds when they saw their enemy. Are there areas of Civil War history that might be appropriate to use to draw this parallel or lesson into our own era? I think so. Will it work on every battlefield or every presentation? Doubtful. Interpretation will feel and sound forced if it is. But that’s why there isn’t a one-size fits all answer or blanket conclusion.

I have about one month before my next group of traveling family members arrive in Virginia. I already know which battlefields they have picked to visit. So, I’m challenging myself that while I’m brushing up on my historic notes and tour plans, I’m also thinking of some ways to better guide them through the history and the horror of one man falling every second (Chancellorsville, Day 3) to a larger discussion about something directly relevant to our own era.

I’m sure many of the blog readers are already considering or doing this in their interpretation. This isn’t anything new, per se. However, maybe it’s worth considering the deeper historical whys and figuring out ways to present them that keep history worth hearing and sharing. How can we take the feelings of loss or horror often used to end Civil War presentations and bring the discussion to another level? To use the museum as an analogy, I think that I often stop the program at the gallery where the Holocaust ends…without getting to the impactful modern issues.

Yes, every program and every presentation has different goals. Sometimes the objective is simple: give the 1863 history, nothing more, nothing less. But with programs or tours where there is more room to explore, what’s the point and what’s the takeaway for the listeners through the experience? Personally, I am looking forward to exploring this. History is a lesson, and we are not always learning well if we can’t see the pattern of problems that led to a soldier falling every second on May 3, 1863.

6 Responses to A Few Thoughts On Interpretation

  1. Sarah, of your many, many posts this is my favorite. History is not static and bringing current relevancy to our writing and museum interpretation will do much to help broaden interest in history among the general populace. Bravo! So well done!

  2. This is an excellent post Sarah Kay! It is one that I will re-read again and again. Having been to Court Room 600 in Nuremberg and Dachau outside of Munich, your post has struck a chord with me. With regards to the Civil War, I have always been reluctant to read books on the Andersonville prison or any of the prisons of that era, mainly because of the brutality and conditions that existed. After reading your post, I will approach future subjects looking at the lessons that can be learned. When one enters those museums mentioned in your post and my comment, we are immersed in that experience while in the building or grounds. However, once we walk out the door or leave the grounds, we are thrust back into reality and, much like a dream, the lesson seems to fade and blend back with our surroundings. Thanks for your excellent post!

  3. Very well done, What is the lesson that we should be learning from the removal of historical statues from streets and town squares?

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