In this already interminable election year, as we search for any sort of precedent that might provide even a glimmer of hope, I’ve been thinking about the challenge of interpreting history. If past is truly prologue, as is so often said, how can we make that prologue accessible and meaningful for audiences with short attention spans and frames of reference that extend back only a few years?
The trouble with most historical interpretation is that it focuses on the past, when what’s actually more interesting is the present-tense experience of participants in the events. What’s valuable about studying history is the insight it offers us into how people confronted by circumstances they couldn’t understand coped, as best they could, with the tools and capabilities they had at hand. Retrospective analysis can clarify what really happened in the past, but it seldom reveals much about what it felt like to be there. Living history museums labor valiantly to create a sense of context, but the theatricality required can be difficult to ignore. (At a South Carolina plantation I once stumbled upon a handful of interpreters on break, in full Colonial garb, smoking and working their cell phones.)
About thirty years ago, as a freshly minted exhibit developer, I worked on a new state history museum in South Dakota. For obvious reasons we were eager to celebrate the 19th Century homesteaders who’d settled that state. Their stories were deeply moving, and our designers were taken with the images we found of solitary weather-beaten cabins surrounded by open prairie. To us these humble structures seemed a perfect metaphor for the settlers’ struggle and determination, but when we presented our concept for an immersive environment – a replicated claim shack fashioned from wind-worn silvered wood – the curators squirmed uncomfortably in their chairs, trying to be polite. Finally they explained that we’d gotten it all wrong. The rusticated images we found so attractive weren’t anything like what the homesteaders actually lived in. Those would have been built of bright yellow newly sawn pine boards and tar paper still redolent of pitch. There was nothing remotely nostalgic about the claim shack experience. It was all about survival.
So how do we convey the true lessons of history? How can we cut through the fog of places, people and events to access deeper meaning? How, for example, could we convey the loneliness of the homesteader’s existence, or the extraordinary ingenuity required to manage the logistics of the Continental Army’s encampment at Valley Forge during the brutal winter of 1778, with thousands of men and animals milling about in the snow and mud, when the site where our guests are now standing is occupied instead by acres of neatly mowed lawn? Arguably, an Outward Bound solo on an isolated ridgetop might be a more effective immersion into the pioneer experience than any exhibit or reenactment. How can we make the past present?
The late Dan Appleman, an eminent geologist who served as director of the Cranbrook Institute of Science, used to grouse about how hard it was to get visitors as excited as he was about his chosen field. “The trouble is, they think it’s over,” he’d complain. “But it’s not! It’s not over! It’s still going on! It’s happening right now, right outside!”