Historians or interpreters?

From John Hennessy:

At the Gettysburg conference a couple weeks back, Dennis Frye and I got into a bit of a public conversation. By way of background, both of us entered the NPS at about the same time way back when, and while we have followed differing paths, we have ended up in the same place. He is the Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry NHP. I am the Chief Historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania NMP. Dennis possesses a brilliant mind. I have always considered him to be the rabbit this sorry hound is chasing.

Pfanz, Don - Clara Barton Program

Donald Pfanz presents a program in the shadows of the Catalpas at Chatham.

The exchange we had revolved around what should be our purpose when giving public programs. Dennis–who is a superlative interpreter and historian (and there is a difference)–offered that when giving public programs, his purpose is not to provide answers, but to provoke questions. I suggested that when I go on a tour with Dennis Frye, who knows as much about Harpers Ferry and Antietam as anyone on earth, I want to know what he thinks about the key questions that surround those places–what has he learned, and how does he use that information to ANSWER the great questions. I don’t want him merely to point out those questions to me.

Reflecting back on that exchange, it occurred to me that we were really talking about two different roles we play before the public, often obscured or merged. Historians seek answers to questions–help build our knowledge and understanding. Interpreters provoke questions, bidding others to further inquiry, to become historians themselves. And those who are both historians and interpreters–if they are any good–meander back and forth between the two roles with ease.

The NPS is full of fine historians–people who have done original work that has expanded our understanding of the Civil War. The staff at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania NMP, for example, has written something approaching a dozen books, some of them standards in the field. There is little doubt that some of our staff know more about the events around Fredericksburg and elsewhere than anyone on earth and can relate those events to the larger themes of history with ease. “Subject matter experts” get a bad rap in the NPS, for there is a presumption that immense knowledge equates to poor interpretation. Simply not true.

The NPS is also possessed of many outstanding interpreters–people who don’t just educate, but provoke people to question and learn. They are an incredibly valuable part of what we do. But not all interpreters (provokers of questions) also assume the role of historian (seekers of answers to those questions). And to be good at what they do, they don’t necessarily have to. Most park programs include a mix of pure interpreters and historian/interpreters.

But, the best historical interpreters I know are also historians. By that I mean they seek answers, they expand the world’s knowledge, AND they have the ability to engage the public in creative conversations about such things. Dennis Frye is such an animal. So are Frank O’Reilly and Donald Pfanz and Scott Hartwig and Peter Carmichael. Sometimes they act as pure interpreters. (Catch Dennis sometime talking about John Brown; it’s interpretive art). Sometimes they are historians, speaking to some of the great historical questions of the day, applying all that they have learned….and generally to the audience’s great benefit.

People like Dennis apply those varied skills to different audiences, in varying admixtures. The best historian/interpreters have an unerring instinct for recognizing the time and place for each and to move back and forth without anyone noticing. Not everyone can.