View Full Version : Interpretation techniques

Delia Godric
02-13-2006, 01:50 PM
I would like to see a good discussion on interpretation techniques for events that have a visitor education basis. This could include general interpretation to visitors, demonstration techniques, encouraging visitor participation, interpreting to children and the like.
What techniques have worked well for you in the past?
What has not been successful?
Do you implement techniques from museums or historic sites you work or have worked at?
When presenting to or working with students do you pre-plan to address state learning standards or curriculum?
In instances where you are not in a historic structure (or replica) how do create an educational environment that is as historically accurate as possible?

Anna Worden

02-13-2006, 08:35 PM

If you are asking about when I am at an event, obviously my impression and interpretation are geared towards that particular event.

Now when I visit a classroom, I usually speak with the teacher ahead of time to see what is currently being studied and see what he or she would like for me to talk about. If it is a particular event shuch as Gettysburg, Manassas, etc; I do my research on that event and try to find some piece of information that wouldn't be found in a textbook but would grab the attention of the students. Perhaps the letters of a soldier or civilian involved or witnessing the event. Obviously I discuss the "funny clothes" and what life would have been like for the soldier at that time.

I also visit Scout units with a similar preparation style. If the visit is to promote a living history event or enactment I concentrate on that event and then it becomes much like what I do for a classroom visit.

02-14-2006, 08:40 PM
Hi Anna-
First of all I want to say "thank you" for your great shawl article in the latest Citizen's Companion. Yours and Elizabeth Clark's articles save the magazine for me!

Whenever we pick up a new venue our first question for the site coordinator is "What do you want your visitors to know?" Even though we may show generic demonstrations- substitutions, soap making, candle making, dyeing, spinning, etc.- we are also prepared to speak specifically on the citizens in the area and what they were doing during the War. A program we may devise for Stones River NMP in Murfreesboro will be different from the one we may present for Burritt on the Mountain in Huntsville. To generically lump the citizens in one bunch does a disservice to the public and shortchanges our opportunity to learn something new. For instance, at Burritt we will be residing in the Chandler House, an 1845 structure. When I inquired about background info on the Chandlers from the volunteer coordinator, I was bequeathed a huge packet of information on not only the Chandlers but the citizens of the area as well! This was a treasure trove of census info, copies of wills and court documents, and ultimately a copy of an Oath of Allegiance! Having this info in our hands has helped us plan our program even better and we're proud to be "portraying" the Chandler clan, even if for one weekend.

One of the growing trends we've observed at the National and state parks is the demand for written programs. It's in my opinion that the Parks believe it helps draw people to the Park if they know we'll be doing XYZ at XX hour. Or that we're willing to do a narrated program on an item that is easier "done than said." A lot of our girls do NOT like this as they like to work on projects as the mood hits them and prefer an informal setting for interpretation. Even though we've proved in part that this forced scheduling doesn't always work as planned, we feel compelled to go along with their wishes. Again, it's all about meeting the needs of the site and not necessarily what works best for us.

At sites such as Burritt and Ft. Donelson we have use of their structures for our living history. It helps to explain why we are there. When we are at sites such as Stones River, we have to provide an explanation as to why we are camped along the battlefield. Of course we are very quick to point out that citizens did NOT camp at the battlefield or amongst the soldiers except in very rare instances. We simply explain it is a camp of convenience and we are nutty enough to enjoy sleeping on the ground! Because a couple of us only use shebangs or nothing at all for shelter, this also gives us the opportunity to talk about the small faction of refugees who sometimes had to live on the run for short periods of time.

I hope this helps...sorry to be so rambling!!!

Delia Godric
02-15-2006, 09:25 AM
Hi Candace,
Thank you for your thank you. Researching shawls has been great fun and fascinating.

I would like to know more about what the National and State parks are looking for in written programs. I haven't had this request yet. I do see some of the advantages of having a written program for visitors when topic specific demonstrations or presentations are being done. I can also see how a written program would not fit a daily life interpretation. Are they looking for narration only programs or hands-on programs as well?

When you do your demonstrations, do you encourage visitor participation? If so, do you encourage both school groups and families or individuals? When I first started reenacting, visitor hands-on participation in this area was encouraged. This is less frequent now. Visitors were welcome to try crafts in demonstration areas such as rug hooking, quilting, piecing, tin-punch and so on. (I should say, to me, a demonstration/teaching area is very different than a living area.) Some activities aren't good for visitor participation such as anything involving fire or original artifacts. I am wondering what level of participation there is else-where.

Anna Worden
(thinking it would be wonderful to be handed such a great packet of information)

02-15-2006, 11:21 AM
Oops, sorry Anna, I looked at your screen name instead of your signature line when I adressed my correspondence. My humblest apologies.

Delia Godric
02-15-2006, 12:26 PM
Don't worry about the name. I answer to either one.

Do you have scout groups that come to events (or you go to them) to work on specific badges? I hadn't thought about badge work when I first posted.

Anna Worden

02-15-2006, 09:34 PM
So far the crafts we demo are not conducive to hands on experiences. We may let folks handle a thoroughly cured bar of lye soap or Confederate candle but we would never let a visitor dip a candle or handle the soap before its time. Of course, we have little control if they sneak behind our backs, which happened at our May Stones River LH. I was telling the folks just how caustic lye soap can be once it's poured up, how long it takes to cure, etc. After my safety speech, a child of about 8 reaches out and digs his finger right in middle of the the freshly poured soap mold. He loudly exclaims "DADDY, it burns" and then his his dad did the same thing!!! DUH!! We offered a vinegar bath to both father and son but they declined. One could tell that apple didn't fall far from the tree!!! One of the crafts we are debuting this year is a patchwork soldier's quilt so we can offer a chair to a visitor who might be so inclined to help. We also try to keep fully cured soap and Confederate candles on hand to give to kids who meekly come up to us for an "interview" for their school project. We can talk all we want but what matters most to the kids is tangible evidence of their visit.

I believe the Parks are looking for both narrative and demonstrative programs. When Shelly Langley isn't present I'm the main soap person. It is VERY difficult to pay attention to what you're doing AND entertain a pre-assembled crowd of 25 people who are all asking questions. It was much easier to point at our camps and talk about what types of refugees migrated to and from Murfreesboro, how they might have lived, things they might have taken with them, etc. Again, we found it difficult to do both at the same time but the Park thought it was easier to handle the visitors in small clumps rather than strung out throughout the day. We were also challenged during our last visit to provide short, first person interpretations of famous Murfreesboro residents. Trish Hasenmueller and I were kept very busy that weekend wearing many different hats at the Park's request. We believe it is due to the Park's decrease in federal funding that they look to volunteer reenacting groups to fill the need for interactive programs with visitors rather than paying Park staff to provide these programs. We don't mind at all and consider it a privilege to volunteer within our national, state and local park systems!!

02-16-2006, 11:55 AM
One thing you might consider is working up a proposal to the site on how you feel your group can best meet the site's overall goals through X, Y, and Z--not necessarily so heavily scripted.

Keep in mind that many folks are coming from a very formal training background, and may not understand the free-flowing nature of many living history scenarios, or how folks who do LH are used to interacting with the public. If the site admin is not familiar with it, then they won't understand how effective it can be, or how over-scripted exchanges end up feeling like "signposts" instead of interactive discussions. It never hurts to give them alternatives, as it's very rarely an "either or" situation... a careful blend can meet the needs of all concerned.

Too, it's nice to get a chance to stretch interpretive wings... some scripting is helpful in keeping things very focused, quick and on-track, with lots of sponteneous options based on patron remarks.

I saw a good example of this at This is the Place Historic Park in Utah last summer (it's a fully functioning historic village, and I want to move in and live there permanently.) We approached a boarding house on the site, and were greeted by a little boy beating a rug out back. He hollered, "Mama, boarders coming!" and then invited our kids to whack a rug with him, helping with the chores. The woman of the house came out onto the porch, having been alerted by the boy, and started into a minimally scripted speech along the lines of "Welcome to X House; Mrs. X started keeping boarders in 1850, after her husband was called to serve a mission in England, etc...." She moved us through the various rooms, describing what each was used for, how many boarders might stay at one time, that sort of thing--but didn't get flustered by interruptions or questions.

I think the entire thing could have been improved if she'd BEEN the woman of the house, and done it in first person (I started, I work, etc), but the scripting was not too burdensome or complex, and didn't feel intrusive to the experience on either side of it. Overall, she had about 10 "talking points" to share during the house visit (about 15 minutes), and she did a great job getting the majority across in an easy manner... I'm sure our questions, and then our children's distraction and need to move to the ox barn, precluded about 3 points. :)

02-16-2006, 02:10 PM
Like lye soap, most of my demos are *not safe* for inquistive hands, nor wandering minds.

For any program where I expect groups in which children outnumber the adults , I've gone to 'roping off' the demo area.

This is accomplished by using some iron work posts about 3 feet high, driven in to the ground, with a rope through an opening in the top of the posts. Not authentic, certainly, but at least not glaring. This doesn't mean kids will stay behind the rope, but it will slow them down a good bit. And, I can keep the panic out of my voice while saying "Please don't swing on my ropes" rather than screaming "Get that child out of the fire".

I also never do a chemical process of any sort without 2 of us there. There's too much measuring, timeing, and temperature control in dyes for me to be able to work consistently while talking and watching for wild children. As a result, we usually park Sister in a chair right by the rope line, knitting in hand, to give formal or informal talks. This leaves me free to stir, measure mordants, control fire, without being distracted or appearing rude for not speaking. Sister either gives a standard speech in first person, or I alert her that I'm about to do something remarkable with a particular dyebath, giving her time for the verbal set up, before I pull the indigo pot and colors start changing before their eyes.