Posted by: Mysteries&Conundrums | April 8, 2013

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.


  1. I’m pretty sure my son is majoring in History right now at least in part due to some of the questions provoked during the many History at Sunset programs we attended together over the years.

    So that means you guys should be helping with the tuition, right?🙂

    • Another unfunded mandate imposed by your United States government! It is perhaps the only one we can be proud of. Tanks for sharing. Made my day. John H.

  2. John, do not sell yourself short. Your humility is a strong trait. I have been privileged to be on several of your tours. Your delivery and presentation style are superb. On your tours/walks I have had many questions answered, but even more questions brought to mind.

    • Thank you Joe. Very kind of you to say. John

  3. Our experience on a visit to Chancellorsville was a truly a “moment in time” for me when Frank O’Reilly as both interpreter and historian “walked” us through that day in 1863 when my great-great uncle, Andrew Franklin Paul, was killed. My husband and I talk about Frank O’Reilly and that experience to this day and could easily define that experience as combination of history and interpretation- the best of both worlds.

    • Thanks Susan. I will pass along your comment to Frank. These sorts of things make our days…. John H.

  4. Excellant point. I suppose that the really good shift roles as the circumstances and audience dictate.

  5. Great observations, John. Over the past 30+ years, the NPS has been fortunate to have its ranks of interpreters at eastern CW parks filled by serious historians who have not only expanded the themes of interpretive programs but also authored excellent books and articles about the war. Provoking thought and questions in the audience is a fine interpretive guideline but the audience has to understand the history of the event first before that thought process can even begin. The people you mention- (yourself included and there are several others I can think of)- do justice to the story and the people involved first before stepping into that difficult realm of challenging the audience, and it is a tough balance. I think it should be history first and questions later but that philosophy doesn’t migrate between parks or, obviously, park staff.

  6. I have had a lot of interaction with the historians/interpreters at the various NPS sites in VA, MD and elsewhere. (Sadly, not enough lately.) It constantly amazes me that the NPS is able to attract, and keep, such talented, intelligent and capable people. Especially considering the abysmal compensation. Good points John, and my hat is off to all the folks you mentioned, and more.

  7. If you are knowledgeable in the history of Fredericksburg Texas I would like to chat with you. Please contact me at your convenience.

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