We don’t need to endorse in order to interpret.

Over the course of my forty-year career (yikes!) I have made a long shift from natural history to cultural history interpretation. The transition has been… interesting.

See, when you interpret birds or rocks or stars, you generally don’t argue for those things’ moral goodness or purity. Yes, you might defend their place within their ecosystem and the things they provide to the living systems around them. Sure.

But I have never argued that a nuthatch was a moral example for us all to follow; I have never tried to convince visitors that bighorn sheep set an inspiring example for us all (which is probably a good thing because wow, bighorn sheep dynamics are like a seamy prison movie.)

Fawning moral portraits

In cultural interpretation, we have a long history of assigning moral superiority to our historic figures. We don’t just interpret them; we laud them. We gush over them. And when challenged, we defend them as if they were our own grandparents.

And that makes for some really bad interpretation.

We use the term hagiography to describe the biographies of saints, crafted to inspire young Catholics like me to admire and emulate all the St. Christophers and St. Josephs and all the rest. (And if you have never read a “Lives of the Saints” it is a genre, let me tell you.)

Generations of schoolchildren have been raised on biographies that border on hagiography: fatuous and simplistic life stories of the Good People of the World, like Helen Keller or Betsy Ross or Nellie McClung. You remember them.

I guess it’s natural that the places where the Good People lived or worked become historic sites—and it’s natural to interpret those sites through the same admiring lenses. Thus we offer guided tours extolling these people’s greatness; we enumerate all of the Good Things they did, and we become troubled and defensive when a visitor’s questioning mind digs a bit deeper than the official account permits. We even argue with visitors who dare to challenge the fawning official narrative. Why do we do this?

Inconvenient things tend to happen when you idolize and simplify historic figures. Halos tarnish. It’s embarrassing to make jarring new discoveries about a beloved historic figure; it hurts to learn, for example, that your hero John Muir—the godfather of conservation—was a racist

It’s even more embarrassing to discover that those damning facts about beloved historic figures often didn’t need to be discovered; they were lying in plain sight for decades, evident to anybody who cared to see them. Which we, of course, did not. 

Shifting the tone

But here’s the good news about all of those morally compelling and ultimately vapid tributes to historic figures, steeped as they are in colonialism, patriarchy, and the white gaze.

We don’t have to do that shit anymore. We don’t have to rationalize and cherry pick the actions of our historic figures. That’s not what interpretation is about now. In fact, good interpretation was never about mindless moral tributes. Good interpretation, like all good historical storytelling, is nuanced and provocative.

We can interpret our sites’ history without endorsing it. 

Lately I have been working with a new theming format called the interpretive stance. It’s part of the theme framework, and describes your organization’s position on your subject. It gives background to your principal theme (dare I say it can even replace a principal theme? Heresy!) Its purposes is to inform staff and visitors of why you are approaching your subject the way we are. 

Here’s a laudatory interpretive theme, straight out of 1970s interpretive plan:

“The story of Margaret Lillywhite and her family demonstrates how settlers to this region triumphed in the face of extreme adversity.”

Here’s one I would like to work with. Here’s an interpretive stance.

“The story of Margaret LIllywhite illustrates how settler colonialism in this region altered entire societies and ecosystems. It raises questions about how people behave when confronted with hardship and shortages, and exposes deep historical assumptions and entitlements about land, property, and inheritance—assumptions that still prevail today.”

See what I’m getting at here? A good interpretive stance shifts the tone from mindless paeans to readings of history that really make you think.

What’s your interpretive stance?

To get at an intelligent interpretive stance, you need to give some thought to:

  • What exactly happened in your historical event? Not just the names and dates, but the causes and effects. Where do they fit in the greater historical or societal trends of their day? What historical forces shaped your site’s history, and how are those forces still working today? 
  • What legacy did your historic event or personage leave us? How are we grappling with it today and what does it tell us about ourselves? 
  • What have we learned from it all? What do we still stand to learn by unpacking this story or this person and their actions? 
  • How can telling this history help us understand each other today? How can this interpretation help us work together to create a more intelligent, just, and inclusive society?

You’re not an apologist. You’re an interpreter.

So give up the notion that you need to justify your historic personage’s actions or words. You don’t. You’re not an apologist. You’re an interpreter; you are a facilitator of dialogue, a provocateur of thought, a purveyor of nuance.

Put that on your business card.

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