Putting Politics Aside
Is that even possible? I ask that question because I am watching how the improper use of politics can harm historical organizations and assassinate morale. Some would say…you dare go there? Aren’t you worried about your job? And I say, Yes, I go there, No, I’m not worried.
But first the political. I’ll say this much. Politics for the sake of personal vendetta do not tend to mix well and those who are the intended targets are often missed and the ones at the bottom actually get hit. But with politics come change. Some changes are for the better in some cases, other changes can be detrimental to a site. What I’m seeing is changes that could be detrimental. Especially when you are basing changes on personalities but don’t realize, or fail to realize that there are histories involved as well as family legacies. As an interpreter, it is my job to give these histories and share these legacies, yet I find it hard to do in the midst of political upheaval.
While personalities clash and others long for the “good, ol’ days”, you miss a very important aspect. You miss the site itself and the stories that are told there. In short, you miss what makes historic sites unique. There is nothing wrong with looking back in time (it is the nature of things historic), but if you only want to look back and not look at the present or look at your future, you will miss the opportunity for extreme growth and the chance to capture new audiences and keep your old one. Visitors don’t want to come to the same site over and over again and get the same programming or the programming that they had as a child. They want to see that while a particular place may be 200 years old, how has modern technology or modern research assisted in telling me MORE about what happened 200 years ago?
You miss this when you focus solely on politics and you endanger your interpretation. And here’s where I get nervous/angry. There is a stability in interpretation. You may be scratching your head to figure out how is that possible but buildings are just that. They are buildings. True, the buildings are artifacts and probably the most important a site can have (original structures) but they can only tell so much of their story. Didactic boards, pieces of furniture, photographs…they all tell great stories as well. But if you were to ask the building a question, would it answer back? Would the picture tell you it is a reproduction or would it tell you how it ended up mounted where it is? No. Inanimate objects have a tendency to NOT give you all the answers.
What can give you most, if not all the answers? A person. Perhaps a crafty interpreter. One who is knowledgeable about the particular site and as a bonus one who has a background in history and can often expound beyond the elements of the artifact in question. You know what can trip an interpreter up? It’s not NOT knowing an answer because a great interpreter will be willing to admit that they don’t know the answer but will look it up and can get back to you if you’d like. What can trip up an interpreter is politics. Because like any other employed human being, they look for security. But they don’t just look at what will happen to them. Interpreters tend to look at what will happen to the history that they share if something were to happen.
As an interpreter and especially one who talks mostly about the enslaved experience, I am protective of how the story is told. Not in the sense that I’m not willing to share, because I am. But I am protective in how the story is being told and that all families are being equally respected in the narrative I present. (So I know somewhere someone rolled their eyes, got extra militant and said “How can you respect the slaveholder?” Simple. There are descendants, both black and white, who are still out there and you want to respect their family history, good or bad. That’s just how I feel.) When giving a narrative about people in an already sensitive time and place, you have to be protective. And the interesting part is that you are not only protecting the history of the place and the family, you are also protecting your visitors. THIS DOES NOT MEAN SUGARCOAT. You just need to be sensitive to how your visitor is reacting to the information you give them. Case in point. Had visitors this weekend from up north. They were self proclaimed “yanks” and their kids had not been exposed to all that slavery was. To prevent these kids from shock, as they were already a little shell shocked seeing me dressed up, I told them that slaves were people who were owned by slave owners and did all the work for them. Just in this simple explaination, the daughter’s eyes became the size of saucers and started to well up. Since we were outside, I started talking about food and how the slaves could have had gardens that would have supplemented their diets of mainly pork and cornmeal. I know with kids when the concept of slavery gets to be too much, I talk about food. It is a tangible that everybody can relate to. But that is how you protect the story, the site and your visitor all in one.
When you’re focused on just the politics and getting your agenda out there and NOT the actual interactions that are happening with your visitors and staff, you can cause harm to your site and how it is being presented to the public. In times like these, the face to face interactions that are happening on the front lines need to be a focus more than whom likes who and any other high school like drama that could exist. Politics will always be a part of any organization, but there are times where you have to put them aside and actually see what it is that makes your place so special. What stories are being told? What is the take away your guests have? Is the experience a good one? THAT should be part of your focus, and your politics should revolve around how you can make that experience even better. Not by reverting back to how it used to be in those “good ol’ days”, but to how you can use your past and present to build a strong future for your site.