Interpreting the History of Technology
Museums are generally considered as engaging in five primary functions for the public's instruction
and enjoyment: acquisition, preservation, research, exhibition and interpretation. Interpretation
is considered the instructional process best suited for museums.
Interpretation is different than typical classroom education. The concept of interpretation of museum objects is similar to interpreting
a foreign language. Interpreters figure out what is important about an object, relate it to other objects, persons or places. They convey
this information in a way that is honest, understandable and relevant to the people for which they are interpreting the objects.
Interpretation, as defined by Freeman Tilden in Interpreting Our Heritage,
is "an educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships
through the use of original objects, by firsthand experience, and by illustrative
media, rather than simply to communicate factual information". Freeman
adds two concepts to this definition, first, "interpretation is the
revelation of a larger truth that lies behind any statement of fact";
second, "interpretation should capitalize mere curiosity for the
enrichment of the human mind and spirit".
The Interpretive Management Associates define interpretation as "the
art of translating the language of nature and the voices of history into
stories and experiences everyone can understand and enjoy."
Objects Represent the Lives and Acts of People:
Tilden points out that historic buildings and places all point to representing
the life and acts of people. In places devoted to human history the objective
of interpretation is to bring to the eye and understanding of the visitor
real living people. Inventors created and improved the railways; engineers
and construction workers designed and built the railway lines, cars, etc.;
managers and workers made the railways function; customers traveled and
transported food, goods and materials on the railways; people, towns,
counties, states and regions benefited by the railways.
The ideal interpretation implies re-creation of the past and kinship
with it. Demonstration allows visitors to see and understand how the objects
and materials were used by people in the past. Showing historic machinery
in use demonstrates how it was used. Participation allows visitors to
physically experience use of the objects and to a varying degree experience
the pleasure of reverting to a period which is long gone. A carriage ride
from one location to another at Colonial Williamsburg, for example, provides
such an experience.
Means of Interpretation:
Docents and exhibit hosts are interpretive guides and translators.
The goal of docents and exhibit hosts is create understanding of the purposes, functions and
contributions of the rail transportation industry by revealing meanings and relationships, and
by relating the objects to the people who depended on them in the context of history. As a result,
interpretation aims to encourage visitors to learn more about the railways and to have a greater
appreciation for them.
The means of interpretation include:
- Use of original objects, including the railway cars, locomotives,
buildings, track, documents and other artifacts allows visitors to see
first hand what our ancestors created and used.
- Use first hand experiences, such as encouraging the visitors to see
and compare railway cars, to look at a row of cars through a caboose
cupola window, to step inside a Pullman sleeping car, watch track being
laid, watch a steam locomotive move, ride aboard a streetcar between
different parts of the museum, riding to town on a train allows visitors
to experience rail transportation “the way their ancestors did.”
- Use of illustrative media, including labels, maps, charts, photographs
and stories help put the objects and experiences into correct contexts.
Principles Upon Which the Interpretative Process is Based
Tilden identifies six principles upon which the interpretive process
- Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed
or described to something within the personality or experience of the
visitor will be sterile. Convey understanding to a visitor by relating
the information to their own experiences. For example, people can relate
to constructing a railroad by hand through their own prior experiences
such as digging ditches, etc.
- Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation
based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However,
all interpretation includes information. Encourage visitors to discover
information for themselves, including meanings and relationships, based
on basic information. Many steam locomotives burned coal to boil water
and create the steam needed to operate. What would it have been like
to spend five to ten hours using a shovel to shovel heavy coal into
a locomotive firebox?
- Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials
presented are scientific, historical or architectural. Any art is in
some degree teachable. Interpretation is a skill that can be learned
through study and practice that can be used to reach a person’s
emotions. Techniques can be developed, such as bringing to life the
railway workers and passengers through their stories and use of the
objects they used to humanize the history of the railways.
- The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.
As there is no way an exhibit host or docent can teach a visitor everything
there is to know about a subject, the primary aim of an interpreter
is to help, to create curiosity and encourage visitors to learn more
for themselves. For example, horse cars, exhibited next to the electric
railway vehicles which replaced them, have some obvious limitations.
Visitors can be encouraged to think of some of the limitations that
led to the development of the electric streetcars.
- Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part,
and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase. Railway
artifacts individually are only a part of a much bigger system. Likewise,
the railways did not exist in a vacuum, they were a part of society
as a whole. Interpretation should, for example, aim to use the artifacts
to illustrate the overall picture of a railway or group of similar railways,
and how the artifacts relate to the eras in which they were used.
- Interpretation addressed to children (say up to the age of twelve)
should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow
a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require
a separate program. To be effective for children, interpretation needs
to consider the personal experiences children have had, their maturity,
their interest. Children like to be involved and to learn by doing.
If they were living in the 1880s, and their parents didn't own a horse
or carriage, how would they get around? How might the horse cars have
helped them? How would the introduction of the electric cars, or the
trains stopping at their town made a difference to their lives?
Do's and Don'ts of Interpretation
Interpretation of historic cars, locomotives and buildings is often
ruined if interpreters ignore certain basic do's and don'ts, such as these,
which are taken from Interpretation of Historic Sites, by William T. Alderson
and Shirley Payne Low. (1985, American Association for State and Local
History, Nashville, TN).
- Make your talk short and to the point. If you must err, do it by
saying too little rather than too much.
- Change your interpretation a bit each time you speak to visitors.
If you memorize what you are going to say, like the salesman at the
door who has to start all over again if he is interrupted, you may be
painfully embarrassed if you "forget your lines."
- If you make a mistake, say so and laugh it off. Visitors identify
with the human qualities of an interpreter who is not infallible. Besides,
the heavens won't fall.
- Speak confidently, but never with an attitude of superiority. If
you are nervous speaking before the group, remember that you probably
know more about the subject than they do. After all, you have access
to information that they don't have.
- Don't preach: leave that to the pulpit. Say what you have to say
as well as you can and hope for the best.
- Keep some information for questions, rather than immediately telling
all you know. Visitors like to ask questions and are often likely to
come up with good ones.
- Speak in a natural, informal way, never in a singsong. Try to give
the impression that you just happened to think of a particular point
that visitors might enjoy hearing about it.
- Leave yourself and your personal opinions on controversial subjects
out of your interpretation. Visitors did not come to hear about you,
but about the site [Museum.]
- If visitors appear bored or indifferent, do evaluate what you are
saying and how you are saying it. Cut it short and bring in a few of
the most interesting points you've reserved for such occasions.
- Remember that you are the historic site [Museum], so far as visitors
are concerned -- the front line. You can make or break visitors' interest
in the site [Museum] and in what it has to say to the modern world.
- When interpreting for a foreign group, speak slowly and distinctly,
resisting the impulse to speak louder than usual.
- Give foreign groups extra time to ask the questions that will help
overcome language and cultural barriers.
- Try to link the culture of your site to that of foreign visitors,
One additional point needs to be included. Often visitors will comment or ask about other rail
transportation museums in the area, heritage railroads or the railroads themselves. OERM and almost all other museums
maintains a friendly relationship with each other and with the railroads, working together to
find better ways to preserve, research and interpret the history
of rail transportation throughout the region. Each of these museums offer different learning
experiences for visitors.
For more information about about museums, education and interpretation: recommended reading
|Tell me and I'll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I'll understand.
Photo and text by Richard Boehle
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