Telling Tough Stories

Our colleague Lynn Doggett Anderson, Collections Manager at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, attended the entire American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) conference in Richmond this year.  She conscientiously took notes on many of the sessions she attended and has generously shared them with us, in order to inform as many cultural heritage practitioners as possible about new ideas and recent trends in the field.  Two of the sessions she attended focused on site interpretations involving difficult subject matter.  (“Interpreting Divergent Voices and Challenging Narratives” on September 15th and “Challenges and Opportunities of Interpreting African American History at Historic Places” on September 17th) 

The challenging topics of interpretation discussed at these sessions included Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender (GLBT) history, Native American communities, slavery and domestic labor, and communities previously unrecognized by history.

Staff at the Mordecai House in Raleigh are currently strategizing ways to incorporate stories of abusive slave treatment into the site's interpretation.

  Leaders of the AASLH presentations recommended the following:

  •  Ground your story in solid research.
  • Include reference to the target communities in your institutional mission statement.
  • Seek out members of communities currently connected to stories your site needs to tell; when possible, hire them as staff members contributing to daily operations or appoint them as board members involved in decision making.
  • Consider working with trained psychologists to facilitate tough discussions between various interest groups.
  • Allow plenty of time to nurture the necessary relationships with target communities.

 The case of one New England historic site illustrates that seasoned docents/ tour guides can often be the interest group most invested in older interpretations and least enthusiastic about embracing new stories.  The director, board, and past owner’s descendants wanted to discuss the past owner’s gayness as part of the site’s interpretation.  With sound research supporting tour revisions, the guides were able to accept the new information and present it in a matter-of-fact way.  So far, the site has only received positive visitor responses. 

If this kind of interpretive challenge resonates with your site, you may want to consider tuning in for two FREE upcoming webinars that AASLH has organized.  Linda Norris will lead “Telling a Good Story,” on November 17th (2-3:15) and “Creating Historic House Interpretive Plans that Connect,” on December 8th (2-3:15) will feature Nancy Bryk’s work and wisdom.  Pre-registration is required.

What interpretive challenges does your site encounter?  What has worked well or not so well in your efforts to tell tough stories?


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This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on October 17, 2011, in historic houses, historic sites, museums, public programs and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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