Theory, practice, and wet dog smell

“Focused, nuanced, and useful” is a bit sunshine and puppy dogs, and we can’t have that….

Tilden’s principles are fairly theoretical. I say “fairly” because they did not spring fully-formed from his head; they were created after observation of actual practice. But still. Despite his research and chapters peppered with examples of effective (or ineffective) interpretation in various media, Tilden’s principles were in the realm of theory.

Not so Hurley. He deals mainly in specific case studies. And the situations with which he dealt—communities harmed by historic preservation policies that functioned as a “mechanism of disinheritance”—can be read as the natural, dark consequence of Tilden’s principles. A city’s golden era, a few generations removed, clearly engaged an audience* and provoked a response: a desire to physically restore or recreate relics of that time.

So no matter how universal and aspirational the principles, their implementation will be complicated and the results may not be those expected or desired (never mind cases where the desired end is less than warm-and-fuzzy). Sometimes the puppy dogs get caught out in the rain.


* Which audience is a very good rhetorical question; the answer can be inferred by examining the policies enacted.

Weekly readings: interpretation and its costs

This week’s readings all explore aspects of collaboration. Tilden emphasizes the importance of an interpretation’s relevance to the audience: that is the only way to keep their attention, instill information and, most importantly, provoke them. An interpreter must develop a presentation he or she believes will resonate with audiences; this can then be tweaked based upon the needs and reactions of a specific group. By tailoring content for the audience, the interpreter engages a collaborative process; and the audience’s use of the interpreter’s presentation (e.g. never ever taking a lit cigarette into the woods again) is in a sense a result of their processing (another layer of interpretation, reactive and collaborative) of the interpreter’s message. Frisch explores issues of shared authorship of oral histories. The person interviewed does not simply regurgitate information, and public historians should not simply redistribute facts. The democratized historical consciousness Frisch champions would emerge from precisely the sort of provocation Tilden advocates. Hurley’s case studies involve collaboration between community organizations and public historians and archaeologists. The historians and archaeologists are useful resources, providing expertise, personnel, and funding, facilitating community engagement, and producing tangible deliverables…but they work toward community-defined goals, with constant input from members of the communities in which they work. In these three texts, one cost of interpretation is control. The benefit is a more focused, nuanced, and useful product.

The perils of leapfrog

In Beyond Preservation, Hurley discusses some of the problematic aspects of historic preservation laws: “A landscape shorn of recent history became a mechanism of disinheritance.” By privileging earlier eras—comfortably distant and/or mythologized nineteenth century golden ages and the like—more recent communities are (rhetorically and practically) sidelined. The eras leapfrogged over include, for example, the years of the Great Migration. It’s a good example of systemic racism: the intent need not be explicitly or consciously related to race, but the effect is not race neutral.