During one of my first weeks working at President Lincoln’s Cottage I had an encounter that many historic site interpreters dread — the illusive foreign visitor. Luckily, although the guest was a Frenchmen he understood/spoke fluent English, therefore translation was not an issue. However, the mere presence of this “foreigner” added an unexpected yet provocative dynamic to the tour itself.
I have crafted my tour to be as interactive and thought-provoking as possible. I have thoughtfully designed specific questions for each space in the Cottage that will help visitors make present-day connections to the past as well as think historically. During one of my tours, after entering the drawing room, I engaged visitors with a story about an Englishman named George Borritt who visited the President unexpectedly at the Cottage one day in 1863. After playing a sound clip of the President asking Borrit his thoughts on “our great country” I proceeded to ask the audience how they would describe what is great about America to a foreign visitor. By happenstance the visitor who decided to answer my question was the man from France. He told the group that he was an immigrant practicing medicine in the States and raising his children here. Specifically, he noted that “the opportunity of America that Lincoln saw” is what he would describe as one of the country’s best tenets and something that he was glad his children were afforded.
I found this to be a very telling admission. Not only was this visitor drawing connections between himself and Borritt (both as visitors in America) but also between his vision of America and Lincoln’s vision (as a land of immense opportunity). By mentioning his children and the fact that they can enjoy the privilege of boundless opportunities it was made clear that the guest was employing a type of connecting talk, known as a “life connection.” In Learning Conversations in Museums, Sue Allen invokes this term in her analysis of a visitor observation that she conducted at California’s Exploratorium Museum. She defines connecting talk as, “explicit connections between something in the exhibition and some other knowledge or experience beyond it.” By offering up this personal association the French guest was unknowingly signalling that the content of the tour was triggering some type of historical stimulus.
In Public History Seminar (a required course at AU) we talked extensively about the importance of history and why/how some people connect to it better than others. This “strangeness of the past”, as Sam Wineburg calls it, sometimes causes people discomfort when interacting with history. In his book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts Wineburg argues that thinking within a historic context detached from the past is abnormal. Thus, thinking within this framework meant that discussions about history’s relevance were recurrent throughout the course. The concept of historical thinking as “unnatural” may also be applied to my experience with the French guest. He was able to relate his own experience to what he presumed were Lincoln’s ideas about America due to “presentism–the act of viewing the past through the lens of the present.” While the visitor was analyzing and making connections he was not necessarily interpreting the information historically. However, if the tours were longer more time could be devoted to making those cognitive leaps that historians normally employ.
While it may seem small, interacting with this visitor greatly enhanced, if not validated, my thoughts about public history practice. If done correctly tours can truly elicit meaningful conversations that impact all parties involved. This small act of linking the experience of Lincoln to that of this man from another country demonstrates, not only the temporal relevance that history has, but geographic and/or spatial relevance. Through our brief conversation about Lincoln and his life the visitor was able to analyze his own native experiences in France and how they compare to that of Lincoln and to those of his children who are being raised in America. I found this moment to be particularly cool because it clearly showed that the past is very much so present, relevant and relatable.
Allen,Sue. “Looking for Learning in Visitor Talk: A Methodological Exploration.” Learning Conversations in Museums.Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002.
Wineburg, Sam. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.