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Weaving Together Past and Present
Historic interpretation must contextualize the past within the present so Americans can become both informed and inspired
By Allison Wickens
The act of historic preservation is to ascribe meaning, but not define it. An individual may save something—a grandfather’s watch, their mother’s wedding dress—because it connects them to personal memories or family lineage that helps them tell stories about their life. It has meaning because of the way the individual interprets it—how the individual applies the object to a sense of meaning in their own life. Likewise, a community may save something or name something because it helps to tell that community’s story and values: a statue in the center of the town square, a historic house where someone famous grew up or even a street bearing the name of someone to be remembered.
But who ascribes that meaning in a community, and who is responsible for explaining that meaning? As someone who works in education for a historic site, I often think about these questions—and the answers show how complicated historic interpretation can be. At historic sites, meaning is explained via interpretation provided by the staff, some working directly with visitors as guides and others working behind the scenes writing exhibitions and signage. Historic interpretation happens at the intersection of the historic site, the visitors who come to it and the staff who ascribe meaning based on their scholarship and the society in which their institution exists.
Furthermore, it’s important to remember that the meaning of a historic site isn’t static: The interpretation of history shifts and changes, just as an individual’s life or a community’s story can change—and it shifts based on when the interpretation is happening, and of course, based on who is ascribing meaning to the history and deciding its significance. As a result, interpreters at historic sites walk quite a tightrope—to inform and inspire, to be intellectually engaging without proselytizing and to provide a window to the past that reflects its importance in the present.
Finding the Present in the Past
Each historic site has a point of view, derived from its mission, and it brings material culture, scholarly research, visitor curiosity and interpretation techniques together to create a meaningful experience for visitors. George Washington’s Mount Vernon, where I work, has been committed to historic preservation for the purpose of education since its founding in the 1850s.
The first historic preservation organization in the United States, the women who created the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association connected the preservation of George Washington’s house to the preservation of the nation—which was particularly precarious in that decade immediately before the Civil War. These women saw a nation in need of a site that could help tell the story of the Union and recognized that greater attention to George Washington, who saw unity as paramount to the nation’s survival, could perhaps heal the challenges facing the nation. Preserving Mount Vernon held meaning because the board interpreted George Washington’s vital role in the creation of a unified United States—during a time in which the country was barreling toward disunion.
Each generation of leaders at Mount Vernon must interpret the historic site in a way that gives the site its greatest value to society. Mount Vernon’s current interpretation reflects the social and cultural history that has resonance with visitors today, who respond well to learning about the everyday experiences of George Washington and other people in the 18th century. We can see this impact on visitor interest and perspective when interpreting Washington’s military achievements. If the interpretation only considered his reports and correspondence, visitors would learn the details of troop strength, battle outcomes and the ultimate victory of the Americans over British forces.
When we expand our sources to the journals of the soldiers on the lines, or their letters to and from family members, we can reveal the emotional impact of the past. We can see how Washington’s leadership was viewed through the lens of his troops—a leader who boosted morale, garnering respect that reached far beyond his tactical decisions. We can see how Washington and his soldiers operated in a world without a predetermined historical outcome. With each decision, Washington and his troops faced fear, uncertainty and anxiety—and then, when they were victorious, they experienced pride, joy and euphoria. These were all very real and raw emotions that today’s visitors can feel, thanks to this social history approach.
While we can often agree on events that occurred in the past, our understanding of how they happened varies depending on our perspective, our access to historical sources and the social context of where we share the information. Historic sites must make the effort to discuss the past with context to provide visitors with a complete and accurate picture of history, but it makes it more likely that they’ll emotionally and intellectually relate to what they see and learn when they visit.
Not Just the Facts
Every visitor who comes to a historic site brings their own life experience, and the job of the site’s education staff is to provide interpretations that prioritize intersecting connections with visitors. For example, at Mount Vernon, broad themes of patriotism, service, family, governing, trust, entrepreneurship and enslavement help people see the confluence between George Washington’s world and theirs.
But some people ask why we can’t just share “the facts” of Washington’s life—isn’t that the best way to tell history?
Besides the fact that a well-documented life of more than six decades is a vast amount of information to cover, solely listing facts does not invite sensory, emotional or spiritual connection to historical figures like Washington, and excludes those not already familiar with the context of his life. It hinders visitors’ ability to connect even intellectually with the meaning of his life, because overwhelming people with facts limits their ability to connect personally with that information.
By contrast, an interpretation prioritizes and chooses pieces of his life and weaves them together with broader context into a narrative suitable to the audience and their perspective that gets them excited to learn more, rather than feel satisfied that they now know all the George Washington information out there. The best thing an interpreter can do is provoke questions and stoke curiosity, and the best way to do this is to interpret based on the audience: A group of second graders and a group of elected government representatives receive tours built from the same set of facts, but the breadth and depth of the interpretation changes—their curiosity is piqued at different points in the story. Different interpretations provoke their thinking and feel resonant and relevant.
At a historic site, we have the wonderful opportunity to use multiple methods of interpretation. The buildings, objects and landscape themselves provide the first layer of sensory interpretation—what does, say, the sight of the Potomac River, the same view Washington held—tell you about your visit? Sensory experiences grow with the demonstrations by historic trades interpreters—the sights and smells of a working outdoor kitchen, the feel of rough textiles made on an 18th-century loom.
Beyond sensory experiences, interpretation allows us to bring in multiple intellectual and emotional perspectives through questions such as “Did George Washington appear the same to Thomas Jefferson as he did to Alexander Hamilton?” or “Were his agriculture experiments viewed with the same curiosity by his European visitors and his enslaved individuals whose work assignments included conducting them?”
More perspectives encourage us to raise more questions, a sign that we are truly engaging with the most meaningful and relevant connecting points of history, rather than just being passive purveyors and receivers of information.
Confronting the Past Today
Historic interpretation today combines rich historical research and public curiosity that shape the stories we interpret. As historic interpreters seek to bring together the past with the present, and as we urge visitors to engage with history, we must also face the problem of how we discuss parts of the past that are often left unconfronted.
While it is not acceptable to perpetuate the erasure of some parts of our history, long-standing historic sites, like Mount Vernon, also shouldn’t shift interpretation at every news story; they should be aware of the broader societal shifts that impact their visitors’ lives to best connect them to the history of George Washington through shifts in interpretation. Today, the topic that most visitor questions revolve around is George Washington and enslavement. The fact that Washington was a slaveholder or enslaver is not the reason that we preserve Mount Vernon, but it is one of the primary ways people think about him today, so our interpretation shifts to more directly engage in that topic and provide our visitors with the answers they seek.
Historic preservation of the story of slavery, and the lives of those enslaved, is not new. Rather, preservation choices made over 150 years ago make today’s interpretations possible—they shape the stories we are able to tell for decades to come. The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association’s long-ago choice to preserve spaces of enslavement (because they are indeed a part of the history of George Washington) now enables us to provide rich interpretative opportunities that share the history of individuals enslaved at Mount Vernon.
A visit to George Washington’s Mount Vernon is a visit to a plantation site that tells the history of enslavement and a visit to the home of the man whose choices ensured the reality of a self-determining government by and for the citizens. Our interpretive approach helps people make sense of how Washington navigated and embodied this injustice and represents the rights and freedoms all are awarded today. This conflict provides an opportunity to build new understanding of 18th-century figures that are too often limited to one-dimensional interpretations of the present and helps us understand the ways in which slavery as an institution still shapes our society today.
Of course, slavery isn’t the only topic related to Washington that people are thinking about in today’s world. One of the biggest critiques of our current political system in the United States is how fractured and entrenched political parties have become. Most Americans are frustrated with their representative government because they feel like elected officials from both political parties represent extremes that don’t allow for any sense of the shared interests of real people.
Building off George Washington’s “Farewell Address,” which newspapers printed nationwide upon his startling decision to resign from the presidency after just two terms, Mount Vernon’s interpretation works to share his reasoning behind the dangers of political parties to the health of the United States. The entirety of the “Farewell Address” is a prescription for national unity, and we provide an interpretation that brings focus to Washington’s prescience on this issue that seems at once both a cautionary tale and a hopeful vision for a possible future.
While other aspects of Washington’s leadership are vital to his story and relevance, the advice in his “Farewell Address” resonates with visitors because, indeed, Washington’s concerns sound very familiar to people frustrated with political parties today. As a result, Mount Vernon shifted its interpretive work to increase this aspect of civic education framing that Washington identified as imperative for the survival of democracy.
Interpretation Prepares Us for the Future
The simple act of connecting a person today with a past that informs the world in which they live can be empowering. Historical thinking helps people find meaning in their lives and sharpens their views of the present. At Mount Vernon, our focus on George Washington as a powerful civic actor, if interpreted with effective connections to people’s lives today, can be an inspiration for individuals’ responsibilities to their own communities.
As a historic interpretive site, we work every day to better understand the past, but we also work to understand our audiences and highlight how the past matters in their own lives today. The modern audience coming to Mount Vernon is far more diverse than ever: It is, therefore, important to use multiple interpretive methods and strategies to offer a broad interpretation. Failure to do so runs the risk of interpreting nostalgia (instead of scholarly history), where we just repeat what people want to hear or think they know without getting into the reality of the humans inside the history.
The tightrope that historical interpreters walk can be a definite challenge, but it is a necessary walk. Successful historic interpretation allows us to see ourselves in the past, but it also energizes us to be involved in the world around us today while also looking ahead. At Mount Vernon, engaging visitors in Washington’s life story builds their capacity to engage in local, national and even global discussions. It can inspire them to take on a leadership role, like Washington did, to envision a world in which a self-governing democracy thrives when informed citizens participate. The staff who interpret at Mount Vernon are not alone in this quest, and I hope that a significant number of the visitors who come to our site each year leave with a desire to be more willing to participate in and value their representative government in the future—a desire that embodies what Washington’s choices helped to create and sustain in the past.