To Tell or Not to Tell… what’s the question?

One of the common themes between the National Zoo and the Hillwood Estate (who knew there would be common themes between a zoo and a historic mansion?) was about the decision to tell some stories, not to tell some stories, or telling parts of the whole.


Interpretive text at the National Zoo, note how the information is secondary to the animal.

The National Zoo had the difficult position to straddle the line of education, conservation and their public image with their scientific efforts to learn as much about the animals as they could behind the scenes. It seemed difficult to expose the zoo visitor to important information about the conservation efforts at the zoo when they are going to there to just see the animals– which is only one of many story lines. When Devora, one of the exhibit curators, was talking about the way that the information flows, it reminded me of a movie– the animals on exhibit are the primary characters in the movie storyline, they are the ones that you pay attention to, and the “extra” information is sort of a cross between a secondary character and subtitles of the movie. It is there to support the main character but, depending on the person could be one of the best parts, or the most annoying parts, of the way the movie is presented.


A Room at Hillwood. note the limited physical interpretation that makes it still feel like a room that could be lived in.

Hillwood had a similar issue of wanting to both give the visitor as much information as possible, especially now that many of their visitors know the story of Marjorie Merriweather Post, the original owner of the estate, as well as the average visitor once did, and preserving the atmosphere of a “lived in” place, as mandated by Marjorie’s will. Angie Dodson, Director of Learning & Engagement, explained to us that their interpretive style was based on a tree style (which I am picturing as a hallway hat tree stand– it make the most sense in the style of mansion!) where there are three main “branches” that they are focusing on: Marjorie as a businesswoman, philanthropist and collector. While you many not get an immediate sense of this walking through the house and property, it is clear that each bit of information presented connects to one of these parts of Marjorie’s life.

The problem that I was having when walking through the estate was wondering if I was getting all the information, or if I was missing important bit by not using all of the interpretive media. There were audio guides available, a booklet of information and a few interpretive label panels in the rooms. My audio guide headphones refused to work for me so I relied heavily on the booklet and signage but I continually wondered what pieces of the story I wasn’t receiving because I didn’t have the audio– or if I wasn’t missing anything and the different medias were repetitive.

The presentation of the styles of interpretation between the zoo and the estate were vastly different, as was the information being presented, but I was impressed by the way that each place had similar issues to overcome– which makes me feel better about having problems with interpretation at the small historic house museum I work at– if the Smithsonian hasn’t perfected it yet, it must not be meant to be perfect 🙂


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