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Living History Museum Interpretation - Introduction



1. The purpose of Museums: collect and preserve; inform and educate; connect and entertain


  • who comes to museums and why? (diverse, but usually with a goal – educational, social, and enjoyable)


  • what do people bring with them to a museum? (schooling, personal history, experiences, popular culture)


  • what do we want them to take away? (key ideas and themes, appreciation for history, positive experience)



2. How do we make that happen?


  • good exhibits/well written labels and AV


  • the real things (“Mister, is that real?”)


  • immersion – recreating a different place and time (another kind of context)


  • interpretation – the focus on “Inform and Educate”



3. Why do we call it “interpretation?” Helping the audience to understand context, significance and meaning by providing:


  • identification and explanation (“what and so what”)


  • stories


  • details



4. Why use humans for interpretation?


“I'd rather have one live person than a hundred computers in our exhibits”

- Ellsworth Brown, Chicago Historical Society


  • limitations of exhibits


  • maintaining the immersion environment


  • adaptability and flexibility


  • person to person engagement


  • the fun factor – drama, humor and infectious enthusiasm


  • supervision of hands-on activities


  • security (“there are those for whom barbed wire barely qualifies as a psychological barrier”)



5. Types of Living History Interpretation


  • Third person (“they did it this way back then”)


  • First Person (“I do it this way”)


  • Second Person (if you were around back then you'd do this)



Which works better?


  • advantages of 3rd person – potentially more comfortable (for both audience and interpreter), more flexibility, fewer limitations on what you can say


  • disadvantages of 3rd person – potentially dry and routine, often less fun for interpreter and the audience, less of a theater element


  • advantages of 1st person – fires the imagination, adds to immersion, potentially more fun for interpreter and audience, adds element of theater


  • disadvantages of 1st person – needs more preparation for audience, doesn't work with everyone, can be uncomfortable for audience and administration


  • mixing second person with other styles (works best in combination with other styles)



6. What are the basic steps for all living history interpretation?


  • do your research, know your subject (but remember, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing – you can't tell the audience everything you know)


  • determine the key ideas or themes that you want the audience to take away with them (if you are part of an interpretive team make sure everyone agrees on these)


  • have a greeting and introduction ready; be accessible and approachable


  • be a storyteller to help convey and reinforce those key ideas (have a couple stories ready)


  • have objects to demonstrate and hand around


  • have a closing ready, usually directing the audience to next interpretive station



7. How do you make first person work?


  • decide who you are going to represent and why that person matters – identify the key themes that character will illustrate


  • do your research and understand your backstory (this applies for both real and composite characters)


  • make sure you have the correct clothing and personal equipment/accessories


  • select an appropriate setting


  • equip the setting with appropriate accessories and decorations if necessary, to help provide context and create a sense of place and time


  • have a plausible, simple, interruptible activity you are doing


  • decide if there is a scenario that you are part of – what the situation is as well as the time and place


  • have someone at the entrance to the exhibit area or historical environment to prepare the visitors and orient them to the time and place, and to let them if they will have a “role” or just be guests (handouts listing activities and characters they'll encounter are useful, but not always essential)


  • acknowledge and greet your visitors as they come up to your interpretive station


  • if the visitors have been assigned a role, ask them about that role and draw them into the scenario if you have one


  • explain what you are doing and why, and how it fits in with the rest of the activities on the site


  • illustrate your key themes with a story


  • ask if they have questions


  • thank them and direct them to the next interpretive station



8. Dealing with visitor issues in First Person interpretation


  • It doesn't work for everyone: if the visitors don't seem comfortable, don't push them or be too aggressive – just back off a bit and talk about what you are doing, ask if they have questions


  • “Breaking character:” if the visitors try to get you to talk about things that your character wouldn't know about (i.e., information from outside of your timeline or character's knowledge), you have the right to step out of first person and “break character” to deal with it


  • Breaking character “onstage:” if the people who are asking the questions regarding things your character wouldn't know about are the only ones present, go ahead and break character then and there; explain that to answer them you have to return to the present, and then proceed to answer the questions


  • Moving “offstage” to break character: if someone asks questions regarding things your character wouldn't know about there are other visitors present, and breaking character might ruin the experience for those other people, then take the person asking the questions aside and either answer “offstage” or ask them to wait until the other visitors have moved on


  • Questions you can't answer: if you don't know the answer to something, that's ok; tell them it's a great question, but you don't have that particular information; then try to direct them to someone else on duty or if necessary, a source they can look up on their own later


  • Some folks are just plain hopeless: if your visitors just don't “get” first person, don't try to force it on them – provided that no other visitors are present, go ahead and switch to 3rd person and try to help them to take something useful away from the experience


  • Remember the visitor is the focus, you want them to have a positive experience



9. Ways to enhance interpretation, especially in First Person


  • pair up with another interpreter and play off each other to help make it entertaining and to help introduce each other's characters; you can also help each out with difficult questions


  • give the visitor a role (a point of view and a reason to be there), such as, “Are you here to buy the flatboat?” or, “You all must be the new replacements...”


  • bring in Second Person elements which can work especially well with younger visitors: “Back then, you would have been old enough to be an apprentice and start learning this trade...”


  • ask the younger visitors to help you with a simple task; it should be something safe and simple – such as turning a crank on a piece of machinery, securing a hatch, laying out a section of hose for inspection, holding the dustpan while you sweep – so that they can be involved with the activity while you explain a process or piece of equipment (and Mom and Dad can take pictures while they do)


  • if you have younger visitors doing a simple task make sure they are always supervised while doing so, and that the nature of the task has limited potential for pinched fingers, poked eyes, etc.


  • when talking with a smaller child, it sometimes helps their comfort level if you to kneel or sit so you are at face level, rather than looming over them


  • introduce occasional appropriate elements of humor; just remember to not overdo it


  • be aware of your audience and their reactions: are they yawning, eyes wandering, or even slipping away while you talk; adjust your presentation accordingly, to their interest level




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