A portion of the Hooe Dependency Site (foreground) in Manassas National Battlefield Park before intersection improvements began. (Douglas Hembrey)
The interpretation of archeological materials and sites in the National Parks aims to communicate the transcendent meanings of these special resources in order to gather public support for their protection. Interpreters find that their methods work, and report seeing a deeper level of appreciation and care about resources.
Archeologists in their “interpreter hats” offer the public an authoritative guide to making emotional and mental connections to the resources. They reinforce the mission and ideals of the NPS for setting aside places under special protections for the fulfillment and use of the public. Interpretation can be a greatly rewarding experience for the archeologist and the visitor alike. But we’re not going to kid you – interpretation takes time, patience, and practice. It can feel daunting until you become comfortable with the process, are confident in your skills, and find the methods that work best for you.
So how will you “hook” your audience? How will you know when the interpretation is effective? Professional interpreters have spent a lot of time on figuring out methods to evaluate their programs. One of their methods is collaboration and sharing what works – and doesn’t – with each other. This section provides a variety of case studies and exercises to help you develop more fully compelling stories to make rewarding interpretive experiences at your site.
“Compelling Stories” is a way of thinking in interpretation that encourages personal relationships with park resources by engaging people’s hearts and minds. Interpreters use Compelling Stories to develop the essential and relevant stories of each park. They also apply the interpretive process -- tangible icons, intangible meanings, and universal concepts – to create the stories. People, as a result, learn to relate resources to larger contexts and concepts such as society, culture, and history.
The Compelling Story idea recognizes that not everyone will view or relate to NPS resources in the same way. The people who initially identified the National Parks or National Landmarks as places worthy of special consideration included historians, naturalists, politicians, and citizens’ groups. They saw them as significant to and representative of the values and interests of the American people because they talked about the contributions of “great men” or important places. The critical lens of interpretation, however, reveals in these same sites many more layers of storytelling opportunities that tap a wider range of people, their interests, beliefs, and feelings.
Stewardship is one favorable outcome that Compelling Stories foster. Stewardship is an important, key mission of archeologists as interpreters. Interpreters find that if people find personal relevance in the resources they are more likely to help archeologists and the NPS protect and preserve them. Archeological interpretations with compelling stories help to sensitize visitors as to why the legislative protections are in place and, ideally, the ways they can encourage further preservation and appropriate use of archeology.
For Your Information
The Society for Historical Archaeology published a special issue called “Archaeologists as Storytellers” in 1998 (32:1). It contains examples of the stories archeologists have put together to discuss the histories of sites across the United States. Take a look to gain inspiration for putting life and interest into your interpretations, even if you aren’t planning to speak in the historical first-person. Check out in particular the one-act play by Arian Praetzellis and Mary Praetzellis, a dialogue between an archeologist and a Gold-Rush era historical figure, as an example on discussing archeology with someone who knows nothing about it.
Use What You Know
Write a paragraph or create an outline for a compelling story about the archeological resources preserved in your park.