Murder your darlings

“The artist ruthlessly cuts away all the material that is not vital to his story.”

Tilden’s advice (admittedly interdisciplinary) is addressed to interpreters (a rather interdisciplinary occupation, now that I think of it). But it has other parallels. Writers of fiction, seeking clarity and (perhaps) brevity, are urged to cut words. They have the luxury (well, I see it as a luxury; interpreters and performance artists might disagree) of murdering their darlings in private, not while performing for and interacting directly with an audience, but the principle is the same. And I can’t help but think of appraisal. I imagine Mr. Tilden would approve of weeding one’s newly accessioned collection.

Professional status and status as profession

I liked reading Tilden (and it sounds like at least Gail did, too). But this post provides a useful counterpoint. There are foundational texts, and then there is current work. Interpreting Our Heritage is definitely in the first camp. From my introduction to it thusfar, interpretation seems akin to the archival profession, in its practitioners’ desire to make it a professionalized field (even Tilden’s thoughts on how to achieve adequacy, since not everyone is capable of genius, point in this direction). Deufel’s call for more research echoes those from the archival profession. I cannot tell to what extent those arguments are motivated by practical concerns (research leads to more/better/current information, which allows practitioners to work more effectively) versus status (“no, I’m not filing these papers, I’m processing them”). Of course, status concerns have practical implications, and vice versa…. Mostly I’m just sort of curious about other people’s headspace, as I work on mapping out my own.

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.

Show, don’t tell

Freeman Tilden, discussing an evocative New York Sun account of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake: “I imagine Mr. Ochs of the Times enjoyed this Irwin tour de force as much as anyone…”

This is a nice line. It illustrates, in show-don’t-tell fashion, one of Tilden’s principles (also illustrated in tell-don’t-show fashion, as with his description of Darwin’s writing in Beagle). Tilden couldn’t know what was in Ochs’s mind upon reading the piece, whether he enjoyed it or would have printed it. But he can imagine, can tell the reader outright that information is unavailable and then present a plausible scenario to fill in a small historical blank. And by painting this imagined picture, with just a few strokes, we can picture Ochs at his breakfast table, or perhaps office, scanning the pages of the competition. Tilden puts us there, without drawing any particular attention his use of the trick he urges interpreters to employ.