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Abraham Lincoln: park interpreter.

In the movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," Ben Stein plays a teacher who drones through class, oblivious to his students. He seems uninterested in his subject, and he doesn't try to tell his audience why they should find it interesting.

We've all seen "interpretation" like this. Highway markers are notorious for describing rather than explaining. Here is one. The Wyoming Historical Landmark Commission erected it in 1947, but it still stands along the Oregon Trail:
   Route of Lander Cut-off, first
   government financed road in
   Wyoming, officially called Ft.
   Kearney, South Pass and Honey
   Lake Road. Built in 1858 from
   Rocky Ridge to Ft. Hall to provide
   shorter route for emigrants.

These words lack not only grammar but basic context. Who were these emigrants, where were they going, and why? Where are these places the sign is talking about? Or, for the skeptics, if the Lander Cut-off was so great, why were they taking a longer route to begin with?

Historic houses also seem prone to this kind of interpretation. I've seen several examples in the last few years. Some guides refuse to leave their patter, even in response to questions. Some insist on talking about furniture, rugs, construction techniques, and table settings. All of those details belong in a talk about interior decorating but they leave out the basic fact of a historic house: Why is this place important? Many overlook the second big question: What caused the important events here?


In these places we don't learn about history, but we do learn about "This Old House."

As we know, it's possible to do much better. For example, a national park seasonal named Abraham Lincoln gave his audience a masterful bit of interpretation at Gettysburg Cemetery on November 19, 1863. His brief talk is notable for doing three things visitors should hear at a historic site--it explains the causes of the events, describes the context in which the events occurred, and concludes with the consequences that these events had for other events.

In his Gettysburg Address, Lincoln told us simply and powerfully, the causes of the Civil War:
   Four score and seven years ago
   our fathers brought forth on this
   continent a new nation, conceived
   in liberty, and dedicated to the
   proposition that all men are created
   equal. Now we are engaged in a
   great civil war, testing whether
   that nation, or any nation, so
   conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

Lincoln wasn't afraid to have a point of view. He could have talked about the principles of republican government, such as states' rights. His counterpart in Richmond would have done that. Instead, Lincoln lays out a strong statement that the war is about "the proposition that all men are created equal." In other words, slavery.

To provide the context for his interpretation, Lincoln referred to his own audience and to their motives:
   We are met on a great battlefield of
   that war. We have come to dedicate
   a portion of that field, as a final
   resting place for those who here gave
   their lives that that nation might live. It is
   altogether fitting and proper that we should
   do this.

In these words, Lincoln moves swiftly from the big picture to the specific place. Having told us what the war is about, he narrows his focus to a specific battlefield. Then he takes his audience to the piece of ground on which they all stand, ground that they will consecrate as a cemetery.

Having told us the causes of the war and provided us a context for this historic site, Lincoln now makes this site important to his audience in 1863:
   But, in a larger sense, we can not
   dedicate, we can not consecrate,
   we can not hallow this ground. The
   brave men, living and dead, who
   struggled here, have consecrated it,
   far above our poor power to
   add or detract.

Lincoln uses the long-standing notion of a battlefield as holy ground that honors the people who died on it. Lincoln knew this. And yet, he also knew that, ultimately, we consecrate the battlefield not for its dead but for the living:
   It is for us the living, rather, to be
   dedicated here to the unfinished
   work which they who fought here have
   thus far so nobly advanced ... that
   this nation, under God, shall have
   a new birth of freedom--and that
   government of the people, by the people, for the
   people, shall not perish from the earth.

That conclusion returns us to the big picture. He has explained the causes of the war and the context of his site. Now he gives us the consequences of this great struggle for our nation and for democratic government.

Lincoln goes still further by connecting that great project to his audience. There is unfinished work here, and his listeners must do it.

We consecrate not just the field, and not just the men who fell here, but ourselves.

Throughout his speech, Lincoln uses a powerful "hourglass" structure for his battlefield interpretation. He begins with the big picture before taking us to his specific historic site. After that, he takes us back to the big picture, which we now see differently as a result of his speech.

Thinking in terms of causes, context, and consequences provides an easy-to-remember guide to this hourglass structure of interpretation. Lincoln manages to do it all in under 300 words.

Robert Pahre is a professor of political science who writes on national parks, environmental policy, and interpretation. He is working on a book, Telling America's Stories, on how the national parks tell the stories of westward expansion from the Mississippi to the Rockies. Many of you will notice that his thinking about the Gettysburg Address has been shaped by Garry Wills's book, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America.
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Author:Pahre, Robert
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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