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Interpretation for Archeologists 7. Use What You Know


(photo) Hooe dependency site.

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

“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 (38:1). 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.

Evaluating Compelling Stories

This brief section provides an intensive set of questions to help you evaluate the strength of the compelling story. It’s difficult to know how the story affects an audience. Ideally, they move from not caring about a resource to finding personal relevance and the inspiration to find out more on their own. Interpretive success is measured in an audience by increased curiosity, not by some notion that they have gotten it all. Indeed, visitors may not process or realize their full connectivity with the resource and its meaning until later, after talking with family and friends about their experiences or applying the knowledge and ideas to new situations.

Use What You Know: Assess Your Knowledge (#8 of 10)

(icon) A ranger's hat.

Use these questions to evaluate the Compelling Story you wrote.

Guidelines for measuring the effect of compelling stories:

  • Does the story move the visitor?
  • Do visitors care more about the resource because of the story?
  • Are visitors moved to some action that supports the stewardship of the resource?
  • Is the story emblematic? Does it represent some larger concept or meaning?
  • How does it connect to that larger meaning?
  • Can visitors clearly understand the connection?
  • Does the compelling story touch on a universal concept that is relevant to the visitor?
  • Is the story at its very core something that people care about?

For Your Information

Using the Revised Framework

The 1994 revision of the NPS thematic framework helps interpreters as a conceptual tool to develop knowledge of the resources in order to evaluate what stories there are to be told about a particular NPS unit. Understanding the holistic and interconnected story of the resource contributes to the goal of telling compelling stories which represent the greater meaning or significance of the resources. The framework is not a cookbook, but an interpreter who works with it will find a tool there to promote good interpretation.

The thematic framework may also be helpful as an interpreter evaluates the stories that are available for telling. The key to successfully using the framework to organize knowledge of the resources is to start broadly and then narrow down the stories to the most compelling ones. The most compelling stories are those whose outcomes promote visitors' understanding of a park's purpose and significance. These often are holistic stories that lead the visitor to understanding a park's mission, purpose and the significance of park resources.

Use What You Know: Assess Your Knowledge (#9 of 10)

(icon) A ranger's hat.

We turn this section over to you. Use your answers to the Use What You Know sections, the case studies, and examples from your own park to work through the questions below.

  1. Name a place managed and preserved in your park for its archeological significance.
  2. Connect the place to its larger contexts, such as cultural systems or processes, ideas, values, historical and natural trends.
  3. Identify the story that emerges from the connection of site to context. Is the story representative of a larger or universal meaning? Can you identify places to emphasize emotional connections and relevance?

Use the story you have created as the case study for the questions that follow.

"Think of a story or 'set' of information that you interpret. Then reexamine Tilden's principles listed and consider the following questions:

  1. What is the revelation we seek for park visitors?
  2. What thoughts or actions do we hope to provoke?
  3. What whole are we trying to communicate to visitors?
  4. Why do we, as an agency, believe interpretation is important? What do we wish to accomplish?"

How can you link the archeological resources and interpretive themes to illuminate:

  • Conflict between people or cultures
  • Conflict between people and natural systems
  • Internal conflicts within individual with broader implications
  • Resolution of conflict
  • Non-resolution of conflict
  • Consequences of action
  • Consequences of inaction
  • Commitment to universals (courage, politics, religion, ethnicity, violence, family, sacrifice, love, hate)

What other universal concepts might the resources in your area discuss?


Portions of this chapter were adapted from:

Longfellow National Historic Site

Sukeek’s Cabin, Jefferson Patterson Park Museum

Flanagan, Joseph
1999 Imagining Lowry: A Puebloan Village Rises in Cyberspace. The Future of Public Archeology, Common Ground, Winter.
Fudge, Robert
What’s the Big Idea? Thematic Interpretation.
Haynie, Michael Katharine
2003 Archeologists on Display, Delivered at the Society for Historical Archaeology Conference.
Lewis, Ann-Eliza H. and Brona G. Simon
1999 Mining the Big Dig: Tapping the Education Potential of Boston's Central Artery Project. The Future of Public Archeology, Common Ground, Winter.
National Park Service
n.d. Compelling Stories Workbook. National Park Service, Department of the Interior.
McHargue, Georgess
1998 “Great Expectations: The Public Interpretation Program for the Central Artery/Tunnel Project.” Historical Archaeology, 32 (3): 19-23.
Schlereth, Thomas
1996 Artifacts and the American Past. AltaMira, Walnut Creek.
Uunila, Kirsti
2003 Sukeek’s Cabin: Archaeology, A Family’s Story, and Building Community. In Archaeologists and Local Communities: Partners in Exploring the Past, edited by Linda Derry and Maureen Malloy, pp.31-44. Society for American Archaeology, Washington D.C.

Additional Resources

Click here for more readings and links for Chapter 7: Use What You Know.