interpretation n, 1. the act or the result of interpreting, 2. a particular adaptation or version of a work, method, or style, 3. a teaching technique that combines factual with stimulating explanatory information <natural history interpretation program> [from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary online]
Being a public history major, I have been learning about historical interpretation. I have a better understanding of how museums and historical sites interpret items or a site’s history for the general public to understand it. It is the sort of work that the average museum visitor may take for granted, especially if it is done right.
It takes research and good communication skills, written and oral, depending on the project, to interpret history correctly and in an understandable and enjoyable way. While presenting hard facts such as dates is okay, it can also be boring. You want to present concepts and ideas based on those facts and make your audience think.
I took an exhibit design class last spring where we had the opportunity to research and interpret historical items. It was challenging and rewarding all at the same time. My class designed an exhibit at the National Afro-American Museum in Wilburforce, OH. We used artifacts of African origins, such as baskets, masks and utensils. These are items that collectors today may use as art decorations in their home or office, but that would have had practical, everyday uses for the African tribes that crafted them. That was how we tried to connect visitors to the artifacts; we presented the historical story behind the art. Well-worded signage and labels that came out of our research were our method of communication to the public.
The feedback we received was positive and it was a great overall experience. Being able to interpret historical item this way and seeing, at the exhibit opening, that people enjoyed what we did and were learning from it was a wonderful feeling. Central State University is next door to the museum, and we were told at the exhibit opening that an instructor had already planned on bringing her Fall term class to see our exhibit. That was, perhaps, the greatest compliment of the day!