Losing Control of History: Site Research and Misinformation

The following article was published in the November/December 2018 issue of the National Association for Interpretation‘s Legacy magazine, aimed at professionals working in parks and museums. The content is the property of Legacy and was written by Barker Mansion heritage interpreter TJ Kalin.

 

Losing Control of History:

Site Research and Misinformation

 Anthony “TJ” Kalin CIG

Heritage Interpreter, Barker Mansion Museum and Civic Center

I have given visitors to my site false information. In my first year as an interpreter at the Barker Mansion, a Gilded Age house museum in Michigan City Indiana, I told guests everything that was in the tour script I was given. Today, after years of research, I smack myself in the forehead when I think about some of the things I repeated to guests. I once told guests that our “Three Graces” sculpture in the living room was an original by Antonio Canova (the original is in the Louvre…) or telling guests that the mansion was built in 1905 (it later turned out to be 1909). That original tour script was written when the museum had neither a research nor an interpretation orientation. I told visitors what I was instructed to say to visitors, my interpretation was in good faith, but visitors walked away with false information. Years of research and archiving later we have written an entirely new history of our site, but misinformation still crops up.

Research is a lot of fun, and with the technologies available today, it can be fast. The massive volume of digitized archives, newspapers, and literature available makes site research move quickly. Sometimes it goes too quick. New information pushes out the old information, but as a museum with limited resources, our ability to interpret new information quickly falls behind.

The pace of research outpaces the speed at which you can update tours, programs, and signage, not to mention materials that lie outside your site’s control. What do you do when you know information about your site is false, but you can not update it in time? Are we are misinforming our visitors in this case? How do we reign history back in when it gets away from us?

 

Old Habits

We have encountered many issues with false information at the Barker Mansion. Interpretive signage with some incorrect dates, put in long before we conducted extensive site research, are in front of the mansion and around the Haskell-Barker historic district in Michigan City. These signs are too expensive to change out. Similarly, a documentary was produced for our basement theatre to be shown before tours. This documentary was produced using our most up to date research at the time. Months after the documentary was produced, I found some documents in the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign archives that showed that a few dates and statements in the documentary were inaccurate.

Several local history books as well as many online resources, including some top Google, searches for our site, contain false information about the Barker Mansion. These are the sources the public goes to learn about our site before visiting. While the mistakes in signage and in the documentary were subtle inaccuracies, these resources had names wrong, spread urban legends, and contained egregiously false information that defamed the Barker family. Even worse, most of these resources are outside of our control.

Old habits are also hard to break. It is difficult to get everyone on staff on the same page about the history of the site. Historical sites handle massive, dynamic bodies of information that are difficult to update. When facts are updated quickly, it is quite a task to get everyone on the same page right away. Two interpreters can tell different accounts on tour, both are good faith interpreters, but they can still spread the wrong information.

Interpretation is revelation based upon information (Tilden’s 2nd Principle). The information sites’ interpret can be hard to deal with. Researching, updating, and conveying site information pushes interpreters into the bounds of misinformation. In this article am talking about museums but this definition can be used in any interpretive setting. The problems we had at the Barker Mansion led to some visitors gaining false information but does this qualify as misinformation?

 

Misinformation Defined

To understand whether the complicated cases above count as misinformation, let me start by describing a clear case of misinformation at our site. Twenty years ago, docents at our museum told several complete falsehoods to the public. For example, old tour programs talked about a dramatic assassination attempt in the dining room of the museum. This story did not have any sort of documentation to back up the stories, and basic site research would have proven it false. In this case, false information was spread without accountability. Guests were misinformed to sensationalize the site. This is a clear case of misinformation (as well as interpretainment over interpretation).

Apart from visitors learning false information, two key factors that make the assassination case a clear case of misinformation are (1) intention and (2) responsibility. Docents intentionally told a falsehood and also failed to fulfill their obligation to research and know their site.

The other cases of the signage, the documentary, inconsistency among staff, and resources outside our control fall into a grey zone. Visitors did receive incorrect information in all of these cases, but the other two factors (1) intention and (2) responsibility were absent. Barker Mansion heritage interpreters never intended to misinform in these cases nor did we fail to research our site, in fact, we researched too much.

The critical thing to remember is that interpretation is not just in the information. Recall Tilden’s second principle: “Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information.” We want to call guests to recognize the importance of preserving our site, not just learn a bunch of facts.

Also, recall Tilden’s fifth principle: “Interpretation presents a whole rather than a part.” A good interpretive plan should be able to convey an interpretive theme despite some small inaccuracies. If my guests get a slightly incorrect year for when the Barker Mansion was built, it will not affect my interpretive goals. I can still convey the role of the Barker family in making Michigan City and the need to preserve the heritage resources of the Haskell-Barker historic district.

The above cases are not ideal, but if interpreters make a good-faith effort to give the best program possible with the best information at hand, interpreters are not culpable for spreading misinformation. Still, interpreters are responsible for providing guests the most accurate information on their site, how do we get history back under our control?

 

Controlling History

One obvious solution is to research and update carefully. Do not be hasty in accepting new information. Our current director has a “5 Source” policy, for any change to signage or the tour script, there must be three primary sources filed. In the past, we may have been a bit hasty in updating and acting on new information, but our site hosts programs and tours every week and research goes on all the time. Each program and tour tried to incorporate out most up to date information, but that information was continually changing and improving. With these factors in mind, we came up with a few strategies to minimize misinformation at the Barker Mansion.

A great way to reevaluate site information is by having peer feedback. Every few months everyone on staff must follow everyone else’s tours. When we did peer feedback at Barker Mansion, we argued quite a bit, but in the end, everyone ended up on the same page. Update the tour script regularly and make sure all interpreters are aware of changes. This remedies the “old habits are hard to break” problem.

Also, think of creative ways to incorporate and spread new information. We try to offer several programs a year that include new archival sources at the mansion. This fall I am hosting a program that walks visitors through all our recently found blueprints for the Barker Mansion. Having interpreters regularly write about new stories and sources on a site blog can disseminate the latest information. Making your site a vibrant place relays to the visitor how dynamic history can be.

Being upfront and telling visitors about incorrect information on tour is a great way of interpreting the work that goes on at your site. At the end of our documentary, I head to the front of the room and point out a small date error and use that error to interpret the concept of a working museum. Small changes like this can also help with the harder-to-fix issues, like incorrect signage on site.

The worst issues to fix are the ones outside of your sites control like the books, online resources, and signs around Michigan City. Having false resources in the community can make on-site interpretation difficult, especially when guests research your site before visiting.

Approaching this daunting task can be as simple as updating your Wikipedia page or adding new research on your website. Write history columns for a local newspaper or appear on local radio to talk about the history of your site. To remedy the problem with local history books’ inaccuracies, I wrote a new history of Michigan City that includes all the latest information about the Barker family and much of Michigan City history. Writing a book is a big project but it can be great for promoting your site, and its publicity can raise awareness that other resources are out of date.

All these solutions helped us to reign history back in at Barker Mansion. History is never static, there is always more to learn about your site and your community. I have great respect for those who did the site research that gave us the foundation we work from in Michigan City. Guests may occasionally receive incorrect information but as long as we make a good-faith effort to meet our interpretive goals history can be controlled responsibly.

Sources:

Freeman Tilden. Interpreting Our Heritage (University of North Carolina Press, 1957)

 

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