Hard to tell…

Years ago as a relatively new interpreter, I worked at an outdoor education centre in Ohio that did living history programmes. The most popular programme was an Underground Railroad programme where school kids played the part of escaping slaves. As they travelled north toward Canada, they met a variety of characters, some nice and some not so nice to them. During our staff training, I was uncomfortable with the programme. We were expected to threaten the children with guns, lock them in a shed, and treat them roughly. I thought it was going too far—these were kids, after all! Living history or not, was it really necessary to rough them up for the sake of interpretation? I had a talk with the director, and though he was quite comfortable with the programme, he agreed to allow me to play characters that were not required to threaten the children with firearms.

African American slaves picking cotton in Alabama

What I didn’t count on was our audience. These little children arrived with no understanding of the history of slavery in America, and often with a wall of inherited prejudices against African Americans. Within a month, I was one of the most ruthless slave hunters on the programme, luring the children into my confidence, then turning on them as I pulled a pistol from my skirts.

For me, slavery was one of those “hard to tell” subjects—a subject that for me was too emotional, too inflammatory, too…well…shameful to tell in graphic detail. But for my audience it wasn’t a difficult subject at all. In fact, it wasn’t nearly difficult enough for them. I realised that my job was to turn my nation’s history of slavery into an emotional, inflammatory, and shameful subject for these children. To these kids, slavery was dates and names to be memorised—dry and unemotional. My job as an interpreter was to make it emotional for them; make it personal.

As interpreters, we need to tell the hard stories. They are often the most important ones to tell. And sometimes those stories will necessarily evoke negative emotions. We can’t shy away from that. There is power in those emotions. A power we can harness.

Next month interpreters will gather in Christchurch to spend a weekend sharing our triumphs and troubles as we search for powerful and positive ways to tell difficult stories. I encourage you to join us, whether you’re a war-scarred veteran of “hard to tell” stories, or a fresh recruit facing your first “hard to tell” story. You’ll find more information about the weekend, plus a registration form on the INNZ website.


Sheltering the stories – Whakamarumaru te kōrero paki

Interpreting cultural and heritage values in a modern world

We are only a week away from gathering in ‘Te Maru’ (Timaru) – The place of shelter- and for those of you not joining us here’s a taste on what you’ll be missing!

Whether it’s in a museum, visitor centre or the very landscape we walk within, stories of people – of life and loss, love and family, exploration and settlement – are sheltered. Protected and kept alive via memory and artifact, memorials and landmarks – and most importantly by interactions between people.

Our annual workshop this year is being co-hosted by Te Ana: Ngāi Tahu Rock Art Centre, which officially opened on December 10, 2010 at the historic Lands and Services Building in Timaru.

Te Ana Ngai Tahu Rock Art Centre

Photo courtesy Te Ana Ngai Tahu Rock Art Centre

Eight years in the making, the centre is a place to discover the local Ngāi Tahu stories of food-gathering, of whakapapa, of rohe (land boundaries), of wahi tapu, of rest and rituals in cave shelters nearby.  As you enter the centre, you are invited to follow in the footsteps of the ancestors, to explore the place of Māori rock art in the world, both past and present.

Te Ana Ngai Tahu Rock Art Centre

Photo courtesy Te Ana Ngai Tahu Rock Art Centre

Its development is a story in itself, and we are privileged at our workshop to have the tale presented from two sides:  Amanda Symons curator, and Ashley and Faith of Story Inc

You can see more images of Te Ana on both the Te Ana Rock Art Centre and Story Inc websites.

Māori heritage is not only of the past – it is a continuum of life that continues to unfold today. The most recent tangata whenua exhibition to open at Waikato Museum “Ngaa Pouwhenua – the Land, the People, the Dreams” aims to to bridge the gap between historical ‘Māori’ exhibitions and current Iwi practice. Ngaa Pouwhenua asks Iwi members of all ages what it means to be Tainui today.

Ngaa Pouwhenua exhibition, Waikato Museum.

Ngaa Pouwhenua exhibition, photo courtesy Waikato Museum.

Moana Davey, Tangata Whenua Concept Leader at Waikato Museum, will be sharing with us her experiences with developing Ngaa Pouwhenua, which tested the true meaning and value of partnerships between museum and Iwi.

Ngaa Pouwhenua exhibition, Waikato Museum

Ngaa Pouwhenua exhibition, photo courtesy Waikato Museum

She will be just one of the hosts on our ‘World Café’ panel, talking about the challenges of ‘Interpreting cultural and heritage values in a modern world’. Our other confirmed hosts are Kate Woodhall of Te Papa, and Mandy Home, of Arowhenua Runaka.

Aoraki / Mt Cook.

Aoraki / Mt Cook photo S Webb.

Ko Aoraki te maunga
Ko Waitaki te awa
Ko Waitaha, ko Kati Mamoe
ko Rapuwai, ko Kāi Tahu nga iwi
Ko Te Hapa o Niu Tireni te wharenui
Ko Arowhenua te marae

We would have no workshop without the willingness of people to share their stories with us. And we look forward to hearing from you, our network members as part of the weekend’s show and tell session on Sunday.

For those of you who can’t make it to Timaru due to time, geography or other commitments, we’d love you to still share with us your own experiences with cultural story-telling. Go to our Facebook page to upload a photo, video, link or status report on our wall.

Ka kite anō au i a koutou.

Postscript:  Māori heritage is foundational and central to all New Zealand heritage

Recently the Treaty Tribunal released its report on the Wai 262 claim. Lodged in October 1991, the Wai 262 claim is about the place of Māori culture, identity and traditional knowledge in New Zealand’s laws, and in government policies and practices. It marks a new more positive phase of partnership between Crown and Maori,beyond grevience and into a future-focused relationship.

It also concerns the place in contemporary New Zealand life of core Māori cultural values such as the obligation of iwi and hapū to act as kaitiaki (cultural guardians) towards taonga (treasured things) such as traditional knowledge, artistic and cultural works, important places, and flora and fauna that are significant to iwi or hapū identity.

For more info go to: http://www.waitangi-tribunal.govt.nz/news/media/wai262.asp

Interpreting cultures—insider or outsider?

Who has the “right” to interpret a culture?  Can a good interpreter sensitively interpret other cultures?

I am an American.  More specifically, I am Pennsylvania Dutch.  My German and Swiss ancestors arrived in the New World in the 1700s. My own cultural experiences growing up centred on typical

The Pennsylvania Dutch cultural landscape includes aspects that are considered unusual, even by other Americans. (photo: Eric Weiss Photography)

Pennsylvania Dutch food (homemade pickles, whoopie pies, schnitz un knepp, corn pie, soft pretzels) and crafts (quilts, rag rugs, baskets, corn husk dolls).  I assumed everyone in the world had bright hex signs on their red tobacco-drying barns.  Horse-drawn buggies filled with bonneted Amish women were a common sight, and my Mennonite friends with their hair coverings were just normal.

What a shock it was, then, as a teen to begin to discover that the entire world wasn’t the same.  Since those innocent childhood days, I’ve lived in numerous places in the US, Costa Rica, Panama, and now New Zealand.  I’ve learned that my “normal” Pennsylvania Dutch upbringing is actually quite foreign to many people…even other Americans. I’ve learned that human culture is extremely diverse, even within what we consider individual cultures.

As an interpreter, I am often in a position of interpreting cultural heritage. Sometimes I am interpreting my own heritage, but more often I am asked to interpret someone else’s heritage.  This puts me in a difficult and potentially uncomfortable situation. How can I, as an American, interpret Maori cultural values? Or even Pakeha culture?

In recent years, there has been a refreshing acknowledgement in interpretation that cultures should be interpreted by those within the culture. In the US, this means that more Native Americans are interpreting their own history, rather than their history being told by those of European descent. I strongly support this trend, particularly in the case of cultures that have been historically steamrolled by more dominating cultures.

But what qualifies someone as a member of a culture? How do you “classify” my friend who is 1/8thMaori and was raised as a Pakeha? Or the friend with a Brazilian mother, South African father, raised in New Zealand? With my Pennsylvania Dutch upbringing am I really “American” enough to interpret popular American culture? If we are too picky, we may find that there are few interpreters qualified to interpret any culture.  Indeed, more often than not, interpreters are asked to interpret a culture that is not necessarily their own.  What can an interpreter do in this case?

Staff at the Landis Valley Museum interpret traditional Pennsylvania Dutch culture

Here are some guidelines I work by. They help me navigate the challenging process of effectively and sensitively interpreting “foreign” cultures.

1. Listen and be guided by the culture.  Suspend your own cultural beliefs to be able to fully hear and understand the culture you are interpreting. Let members of that culture tell you what is important and what they’d like to share. Listen, also, to how the culture shares its stories. Consider not just content, but also delivery method.  A culturally appropriate delivery method can be powerful and provocative.

2. Learn what issues are contentious. Are there topics that are culturally sensitive? Things people don’t necessarily want to talk about? Regardless of how interesting some bit of cultural information is, it may not be appropriate to share with visitors.

3. Know your information source. Get your information from members of the culture you are interpreting. This may require extra work, as the culture you’re interpreting may not have extensive written records. You may need to do more interviewing and less library or internet research.

4. Find common ground.  Help visitors understand the culture you’re interpreting by finding similarities with the dominant culture(s) of your visitors. This may require learning more about your visitors’ cultures, too!

5. Get feedback. Once you’ve developed your interpretation, and before producing it, get feedback from members of the culture you are interpreting.  Get feedback from as many different people as you can—remember that cultures are sometimes as internally diverse as they are different from one another.

6. Be prepared to make mistakes. You will get it wrong sometimes. Listen to the feedback, and be prepared to start over from the beginning if that’s what it takes.

In the end, none of us is fully qualified to speak even for our own culture (for example, though I grew up seeing hex signs, I’ve no idea what most of them mean). Our challenge as interpreters is to gather many stories, and through our interpretation reveal “something of the beauty and wonder, the inspiration and spiritual meaning that lie behind what the visitor can with his senses perceive.” (Tilden, 1957).