Making Connections with History

The "Clark on the Yellowstone" bicentennial event came to a close today. Everyone involved considers it a success, event organizers told me that the 4 day event brought in more than 50,000 people. The event concluded with Bud Clark, the great-great-great grandson of William Clark, the guy who also happens to be leading the Discovery Expedition of St Charles, on hand to re-enact the carving of Captain Clark's name in a sand-stone slab just as had been done 200 years earlier. Bud was surprisingly efficient and accurate with his small knife as he quickly carved an authentic representation of his grandfather's cursive signature. And while this demonstration was performed in front of hundreds of people on the main stage, I was witness to a couple presentations made on a much smaller scale that created wonderful connections with the audience.

The first presentation happened in the morning when by chance I followed a volunteer with the BLM doing some impromptu roving interpretation. He was standing near William Clark's signature on Pompeys Pillar. Clark's signature is protected under glass today because there have been many other people which have illegally carved their own name near his. These other signatures have ruined original Indian petroglyphs which were in place before even Clark made his mark. The roving interpreter pointed this out, and gave his tiny audience a much greater appreciation for that spot. Later, this same rover now at the top of the pillar, re-told the words Clark had written in his journal to describe that exact view. Again, his audience was given a greater appreciation and connection with this earlier traveler as we learn that today we can see the very same landmarks that he did. You could argue that interpretive signs at the top of the pillar might have achieved the same connection, but I know that could not be true. This live interpreter was able to respond to his audience, add jokes, and tailor his talk to match the interest of the group. Everyone who heard his talk walked away feeling closer to the experience and the place.

Later in the day as I was walking through an area in which a group of reenactors had set up camp consistent with the ways of the Corps of Discovery, there was an interpreter dressed in period clothes playing the songs of 200 years ago on his fiddle. He was not playing for anyone in particular, no audience standing around. I walked up to listen for a bit, and as I did, a small girl maybe 8 years old came running up and stopped right in front to listen. The interpreter paused and talked to the girl. He knew to ask, "do you play the violin?" (yes); "how long have you played?" (a few years). He asked if she would like to play him a tune, but she said she didn't have any memorized. In this process as interpreter, he made a very direct connection with his audience of one and was able to shape his presentation in such a way that was meaningful to her. It wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that in 5 years from now that girl had retained the memory of the encounter and that she had a greater appreciation for this small piece of history.

This is really the power of interpretation, and it discourages me to know that the Park Service has been cutting the budgets for live interpersonal interpretation. Interpreters are not just educators. Their role is to make connections, to respond to an audience and build presentations which foster a process of discovery within this audience. Without these interpersonal connections, places like Pompeys Pillar become just a pile of rocks, and people like Lewis & Clark become just a couple of old soldiers.