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
http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/

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.

The power of a person

Being a front-line interpreter for over 20 years, I recognise the importance of personal interactions in our visitors’ experiences.  A live interpreter can provide a more powerful experience than any sign, exhibit, or app possibly can.  Unfortunately, as budgets grow ever tighter and technological possibilities more flashy, managers rely increasingly on non-personal interpretation.

A few weeks ago, my daughter and I took a day off work and school to go to Orana Park to learn more about big cats for a school project. Upon entering, we asked if there might be an opportunity to talk with one of the staff about the cats.  The woman at reception immediately arranged for us to meet their education manager, Toby, at the lion enclosure in

Toby sharing his enthusiasm with children during Conservation Week 2011

half an hour.  Unfortunately, Toby got tied up with a school group and missed our meeting.  We gave up waiting and headed to the café for a bit of a warm up.  Ten minutes later, Toby searched us out and sat down with us. We had a lovely discussion with him, learning all about the park’s cats, and answering all the questions my daughter needed to answer for her project.  Toby was personable, knowledgeable, and passionate about the animals and the work the park is doing to conserve them. He provided us with the information we wanted, while also clearly expressing the messages that support the park’s mission. His search for us after missing our appointment showed a real interest in our experience as visitors.

I have been to Orana Park many times, and have been reasonably impressed with their signage. But until this trip, I’d never felt any sort of emotional connection with the park. With his infectious enthusiasm, Toby made the emotional connections that made my visit memorable, and left me and my daughter wondering how we can support the park in its mission.  She is now baking and selling cookies (decorated to look like cat faces) in order to raise money to adopt a cheetah at the park.

How many opportunities to really connect with visitors do organisations miss because they rely entirely on non-personal interpretation?  Or because their interpretive staff are poorly trained?  How much more support (political, community, monetary) would heritage sites gain by having living, breathing, passionate interpreters spreading their messages, rather than static signage? I don’t have an answer to this, but as interpretive sites lean more and more on technology to deliver interpretation, we need to remember the incredible power of a person to communicate.

How does your interpretive site use personal interpretation to communicate your message?