Interpretation for Archeologists   5. Personal and Professional Responsibilities   Distance Learning

Interpreting Controversy

Interpreting controversial topics is a vital responsibility for archeologists, because it addresses the multiple meanings of cultural resources to various audiences and shows the relevance of the stories preserved by national parks. Archeology provides factual evidence and ties ideas to real people and actual places, which can lead an audience to confront the impact of their beliefs on others in ways they hadn't considered before. The presence of controversy can stimulate dialogue among the audience members and with the interpreter, providing opportunities for audiences to form their own emotional and intellectual connections to resource meanings.

Controversy can be an inspiring and effective tool for connecting the hearts and minds of the audience to archeological resources. Scenarios where archeology contributes perspective to a controversial story might include:

  • Who “won” a battle, and why
  • Whether or not enslaved people or slaves were treated well
  • Evidence of climate change in deep time
  • Locating events preserved by Native American oral history

Interpreting controversy through archeology can be uncomfortable and challenging both for interpreters and their audiences. Interpreters, however, must respect their audiences' right to their beliefs and feelings. When a resource is controversial, it is also relevant – people care about it and may as a result care for it. Because controversial topics tend to be emotional ones, controversy can cultivate the emotional impetus for a stewardship ethic that is a desirable outcome of archeology interpretation.

Best practices for interpreting controversy:

  • Take training in interpreting controversial topics, personal bias, and diversity and inclusion.
  • Think broadly to connect multiple resource meanings to a diverse set of audience perspectives.
  • Gain knowledge of your audience by asking a few get-to-know-you questions.
  • Prepare your knowledge of the resource: know the data, the facts, the context. Be familiar with different ways that they have been interpreted.
  • Begin from the standpoint that you aim to add new perspectives to an audience's knowledge. Aim to build on or shape existing knowledge, rather than expect to replace the audience's existing views with new ones.
  • Try not to deliver new material that will encourage controversy in a way to offend or make audiences feel threatened or under attack.
  • Acknowledge diversity and opposing or different viewpoints.
  • Be aware of your biases, including your bias as an archeologist. Realize that you may inadvertently convey a position that turns off your audience from engaging with a perspective different from their own.
  • Treat each audience with respect by using appropriate verbal and body language, and offering moments for feedback and questions.

Worst practices for interpreting controversy:

  • Craft and test an interpretive product without training in interpreting controversy.
  • Single out an audience member or use them as an example.
  • Make assumptions about an audience member or group on the basis of their appearance, accent, or an isolated offhand comment.
  • Not know the bureau's position on a topic and instead promote your own view.
  • Interpret a controversial topic if you aren't confident in your subject matter expertise.
  • Finalize an interpretive product without having it reviewed by a diverse team of peers.

Case Study

Hot Interpretation of Controversial Topics at Batoche National Historic Site, Saskatchewan, Canada
Read about the interpretation of the armed resistance of 1885 at Batoche National Historic Site, Canada. Collaborative management approaches fostered an evolution in interpretation from the one-truth, to parallel narratives, and finally to the “many voices” approach within the hot interpretation framework.

For Your Information

Interpreting controversy and critical issues is complex and requires advanced skills. For even more resources, refer to Section 6: Issues of Sensitivity.

Teaching Notes: Interpreting Controversy (NPS Common Learning Portal)
Instructor Kim Sikoryak used these notes for his 2005 TEL Broadcast on Interpreting Controversy.

Embrace Controversy–Avoid Conflict (NPS Common Learning Portal)
This handout provides interpreters with useful skills to help them embrace interpreting controversy.

Interpretive Solutions: Harnessing the Power of Interpretation to Help Resolve Critical Resource Issues
Read about approaches to the interpretation to critical resource issues, from the perspective of natural resources interpretation.

Best Practices for Interpreting Critical Issues (NPS Common Learning Portal)
Use this list of practices as guidelines for communicating with the public about critical issues such as climate change, civil rights, or other politically charged and potentially controversial topics.

MJB/EJL