The teachable moments in interpretation

Thanks to Tom DeWolf, I saw that The Washington Post recently did a story on Colonial Williamsburg and its historic interpretation. The article was written by Rachel Manteuffel and it described her experience visiting what some consider the mecca of historic sites. I’m utterly fascinated because Colonial Williamsburg was a place I visited as a child, a case study in my Masters Thesis and just as an interpreter, a cool place. So it doesn’t take much for me to get into her story.

She gives a brief history of how the Williamsburg you experience today came about but most telling, which was something I did not discover (nor really delve into with my thesis) was that in the 40s, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation was employing African Americans to represent the slaves. Immediately I’m thinking, “wow, thought that just came about in the 1970s”. Then I read further and she states, “Through the 50s, the costumed employees lived in segregated dorms, and black visitors had only one designated day a week to tour the historic area.” This completely blew my mind.

For all the Civil Rights commemorations I worked on the past year, you would think that my mind would automatically register, this is the 50s, and life wasn’t so sweet for African Americans. NEVER CROSSED MY MIND. Somehow, and I don’t know why, I never thought of historic sites as places that would well, conform to the norms of society and participate in such activities. Nevertheless I thought it was interesting. Didn’t change my opinion of the place, I still think it’s great. But as a public historian, and an interpreter of the enslaved experience, kind of boggled my mind.

So I get out of my moment of ‘ignorance is bliss’ and get to the heart of Rachel’s experience. Before I get there though, let me point out that the mission of CW is to provoke people to think about citizenship, and really, that’s what all historic sites who cover slavery should strive to do. You really want your visitor to think about the quest for independence and freedom and how IRONIC that while one group is fighting for freedom, they in turn are denying another group that same right. Anyway….

So her experience outlines what I think a lot of people feel when going to a site where first person is the favored interpretive method. With first person interpretation, you are essentially acting a role. You become one with the character, you ARE the character and nothing can break you of that identity. The visitor however may not be aware that as an interpreter, you cannot break your role. It may kill the experience for them.  So when she encounters Wil , a slave, portrayed by interpreter Greg James, she becomes an unknowing 2nd person interpreter and is drawn into his interpretation. Needless to say he leaves her wanting to help him and really feeling for this particular slave.

The beauty that I found in this whole exchange that she has with him is that there was a teachable moment there. Rachel stated that “somehow…I had imagined that if I had lived here in the 1700s, being nice, being me, having the conviction that slavery was wrong would make a friendship with someone like Wil possible”. There is the “Aha!” moment that interpreters like me strive for with visitors. Especially when interpreting slavery.

You don’t want your visitor to walk away and say what a shame it is that this person is portraying a slave or how awful this happened now and then forget. As an interpreter, you want your audience to walk away thinking about what they just saw, heard or experienced. You want them to put themselves into the historical context of the moment and realize what it was like. To have a visitor walk away and say, I would have helped the slave escape or I would have been nice and bought slaves so I could free them (true comment I had from a student, bless them), their mind is working. But then to have the thought, even if I did those things, would it truly make a difference? Would I risk my own freedom? Would I possibly risk my life or the lives of my family to help this individual out? be brought to their consciousness you really begin to see what interpretation is about.

It’s not so much about the edutainment of it all, which Williamsburg does provide with the theatrical performances, but it’s about the thought provoking experience and the knowledge that you made someone think about what you said or did. To me, that’s what it’s really like to be an interpreter.

To read Rachel Manteuffel’s article, click here. To see corresponding NPR interview with Ms. Manteuffel and Greg James click here


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