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Many Characters, Many Voices: Using First-Person Interpretation to Present Varied Perspectives

Posted by Caitlin Tracey-...
31 October 2012 - 10:08am


It is rare to hear two people tell a story the same way, even when both of them were present when it happened. People have varied perspectives, memories, and experiences, and may find different parts of the same story the most exciting or important. While relating a story, I've known friends or relatives jump in with phrases like, “You left out the best part!” or “that's not quite what they said,” or “you may not have known at the time, but...”. When we have conversations, we are often negotiating our  perspectives, and I believe that the presentation of history often creates a similar situation.


 Museum visitors come from diverse backgrounds, interests, and experiences, and may not all respond to the same narrative. Providing a range of viewpoints is important, but it can also be challenging. What story should the museum tell? From what point of view? Are there right and wrong interpretations? Where should the story begin? Where should it end? What details should be included or left out? When multiple perspectives are done in a clunky way, the narrative can become jumbled and difficult to follow, but if they are not included, the narrative can be stale and one-sided.


One way that museums can provide a variety of conflicting narratives is through the use of first-person interpretation. Characters can see the world differently from one another, and even disagree or argue. For example, in an historic house that belonged to a wealthy family, the interpreter playing the role of the wealthy owner could share a very different story from the one playing the role of  the cook. Some visitors might be interested in how food was prepared and the long hours servants worked, while others might want to know about the owner's writings or about the beautiful objects in the parlor.


One historic site that provides a range of perspectives in a compelling way is Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Visitors walk through the town, and can stop to experience what interests them the most. Some visitors spend all their time watching people make things, including wigs, barrels, and silver spoons. Others enjoy hearing the "Founding Fathers" speak or taking a stroll through the gardens.


This summer, I attended a  program called “The Revolutionary City” during my time at Colonial Williamsburg.  Interpreters wearing microphones acted out scenes from specific days in history, and engaged in heated arguments. It was easy to get swept up in the storyline. Actors rushed up on horseback, soldiers marched by, and at one point, we saw the Governor on the roof of his palace,  looking over the town with trepidation.


In addition to being entertaining, this program presents a range of perspectives that challenge visitors to think about history in a critical way. There were people playing loyalists who did not believe separation from England was the answer. There was people playing African-American slaves who were concerned about what the upheaval meant for them-- if it might lead to their freedom. There were people playing rebels who disagreed on tactics, and others who found the rebels irresponsible and dangerous. There were those who were concerned about their businesses and the price of trade, and others who were skeptical about motivations on both sides. All of these voices combined to present a more complete picture than the visitor would get from any one voice.


What are some other ways that a museum might provide multiple perspectives?