Interpretation for Archeologists   5. Personal and Professional Responsibilities   Distance Learning

Interpreting controversy

The interpretation of controversy can be an uncomfortable experience for the interpreter and the audience alike. But it is a vital technique for addressing the multiple meanings of cultural resources to various perspectives and discussing the rich diversity in the stories preserved by national parks. The presence of controversy can stimulate dialogue amongst the audience members and with the interpreter and can provide opportunities for audiences to form their own emotional and intellectual connections to resource meanings. Controversial topics in interpretation can enrich a program in important ways.

“Traditional” or safe, fact-based descriptions of park events may proscribe a particular viewpoint at the expense of others and discourage personal investment in the telling of a story. And no, you don’t want to incite a riot, but interpreters do have a responsibility to provoke audiences into thinking and feeling. Interpretation is not about re-enforcing or catering to a particular point of view or to what the audience may want to hear. Beware that you cannot impose new perspectives or meanings on visitors. You can, however, approach controversy as a means to provide opportunities for ways of considering resources that visitors may not have thought about before. As our nation changes, as the NPS shifts the focus of its work to reflect public interests and needs, so does interpretation need to adapt to incorporate newer ways of approaching factual and thematic material in reflection of the public interest.

Because controversial topics are practically by definition emotional ones, controversy can cultivate the stewardship ethic that is a desirable outcome of archeology interpretation. When a resource is controversial, it is also relevant – people care about it and may as a result care for it. But interpreting controversy takes planning and practice. Interpreters must respect and acknowledge the rights of audience members to hold and maintain their own beliefs. With experience you will learn how to effectively apply interpretive tools to disarm flareups and allow different perspectives to emerge.

Keep these parameters in mind for interpreting controversial topics through archeology:

  • Think broadly to connect multiple resource meanings to a diverse set of audience perspectives.
  • Gain a sense of your audience before interpreting controversy by asking a few get-to-know-you questions.
  • Try to apply what you know about your audience to the delivery of the presentation. Use any existing audience meanings or perspectives that you can to establish relevance and comfort before introducing new material. Begin from the standpoint of adding new perspectives, but do not attempt to replace existing audience 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.
  • Use accurate and respectful language that identifies the perspective from which information is presented.
  • Treat each audience perspectives with respect. Acknowledge diversity.

Use What You Know

Think about how to apply the Interpretive Equation to integrating controversy into an archeology interpretation program. The equation can help you anticipate situations and prepare to interpret controversy with effectiveness. Research all potential resource meanings (KR) and potential audience perspectives (KA). Identify specific ways to link multiple resource meanings with audience perspectives and convey them through appropriate interpretive opportunities (IO).

MJB/EJL