Interpreting Duplicity: A Postcard from Gitchi-Gami

My wife and I spent a couple of weeks this summer exploring Minnesota’s North Shore, the narrow sliver portion of the state between the Sawtooth Mountains and Lake Superior, or Gitchi-Gami, as it is known to the Ojibwe who have lived in the northwoods for generations.


Lake Superior at Split Rock

View of Lake Superior from the beach at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. Chance N. Finegan photo.

One particular day – the sort when the sun is a cheery, lemon-colored dab of frosting in the heavens – we found ourselves at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park.  Standing on the beach at the picnic area with our feet in Lake Superior, we were moved by the serenity of the landscape.  Sunshine pierced the water straight to the bottom as far off the beach as one could see, illuminating turquoise cobblestones reminiscent of robin eggs.  The only movement was the gentle rocking of Gitchi-Gami as the tide receded.


Just the day before, however, Kate and I were in downtown Duluth, reading a museum exhibit about the legions of Lake Superior shipwrecks.  As Kate later pointed out, the caption on nearly every model ship in the museum ended with some form of “the ship was lost after encountering terrifyingly large waves…”


The duplicity of Gitchi-Gami is stunning.  Lake Superior is profoundly majestic; even the shortest respite on her shores will renew the spirits.  Lake Superior is also among the deadliest, most capricious bodies of water in the world.  This duplicity – peace and wrath – is one we can all relate to; everyone has experienced great calm and great anger.  It is one of the most fundamental universal concepts.


To my disappointment, none of the museums we visited directly interpreted Gitchi-Gami’s duplicity.  Some interpreted the violent deaths of scores of sailors.  Other museums celebrated Lake Superior’s more mundane qualities – her depth, her clarity, her fish, and her scenic shores.


I challenge you to examine your site’s exhibits and programming.  Are you interpreting only one side of your site’s story?  Are there unexplored universal concepts at your site?  Interpretation, just as it should appeal to the whole person, should present the whole story.  Both horrific shipwrecks and magical days where the water is a glass table on which to build dreams are worth our attention.

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