The grass does always look greener on the other side of the track.
When I train wildlife interpreters they frequently complain that historical interpretation is so much easier because of ‘all those stories and characters that you have to work with’. Well, yes, that’s true …
Whereas historical interpreters moan that the wildlife interpreters have the more appealing option because ‘everyone one loves nature and we just have boring old buildings and ruins’. Maybe that’s true too.
My trainer’s answer is, of course, to encourage folk to focus on the strengths of their own situation – and quit whingeing!
Nonetheless, as someone who works happily on both sides, I think they are different. Both are equally green and fertile with opportunity – but the opportunities bloom differently.
Here I am going to think about interpretelling at historical sites and in a later blog I will talk about natural and wildlife sites.
The idea of interpretelling applies easily to human heritage. The analogy and application of storytelling fits easily. When we are looking for examples of the power of narrative and narration, the examples we first think of are often from historical sites. History after all, seems intuitively to be about stories and how and why we tell them.
We can understand that storytelling is, and always has been, a means of transmitting knowledge and meaning from one generation to another. This becomes more and more important as our collective knowledge bank becomes ever larger and more complex.
Large businesses began to look closely at storytelling not because of its relevance to branding and identity but because of its potential in ‘knowledge management’. Corporations need to ensure that the legacy of learning remains within the company. It needs to be passed on, when teams disperse or individuals, so that each generation does not reinvent the wheel.
Historians emphasise the importance of their discipline for the same reasons; it gives us at least a chance of not repeating our mistakes. Telling the stories of the past, weaving history into our heritage, teasing out the meaning is a well-trodden path. The value and cultural importance of heritage interpretation is clear.
The challenge for the interpretive relater of history is to make all that rewarding to a visitor at a place. Or, more accurately, to a range of visitors at a place. Even more accurately, to a range of visitors with difference knowledge, interests, presumptions, biases and motivations. Often to do all that without being able to speak directly to the visitors.
I believe, the challenge for interpretelling history is in taking notice of that context and what it means. Which is simply that you cannot tell the whole story. That would take a book. Indeed, you will often find it already has. It may be a weighty highly researched academic tome or it may be a, possibly differently researched historical novel. You may well need to read them, but you cannot write them. You have to fillet them. Strip them back to the bare bones, to the main characters and incidents. To the nub of the drama, and significance, the tension and resolution, the conflict or the point of decision.
I understand that this is murder for many historians. It feels like ‘dumbing down’, watering down, impoverishing the tale. I sympathise to a point, but it is necessary. There are short, medium and long versions of all stories and good tellers will find them as needed. And at the heart of the history there are people doing remarkable, exotic, familiar, long lost, incomprehensible, understandable stuff. It makes a great short story.
Things may be trickier, subtler when communicating about our natural heritage.