Monthly Archives: June 2015

Interpreting the Horrific

By Marisol Asselta Castro


The Book of Names, Auschwitz-Birkenau

Four weeks ago Interpret Europe started off their excellent conference on sensitive interpretation with a 12-hour trip to a place in southern Poland called Auschwitz. I don’t have to write much more than that to communicate that this was not a light-hearted, forgettable, or easily defined experience. Interpreters tend to have extremely well developed imaginations, and just the word “Auschwitz” is enough to evoke images and feelings difficult to handle even thousands of miles away from the site itself. This is going to be something I’ll be processing for the rest of my life, but there is one aspect of the visit that wants to be discussed now, whether or not I’m ready for it.

It was stated multiple times, by interpreters both guiding our group and attending as visitors, that it is impossible to interpret a place like Auschwitz; it’s too big, too horrific, too much. All you can do is present what happened and let people interpret it all for themselves. Not everyone agreed completely, but it wasn’t a belief that was overtly challenged. “Of course you can’t sit down and hold a workshop discussion after a visit there.”

Why not?

Actually walking through the concentration camp, this massive machine that efficiently, systematically, and profitably annihilated over 1.5 million people, was numbing in its own horror. It was, in fact, too big, too much. Almost immediately my brain rebelled, refusing to absorb what was all around me, failing to perform whatever calculations it needed to turn the onslaught of information and locational presence into something emotionally accessible. It was numbing, so I numbed out. I dutifully took in the information, aware on some level that this was going to cause permanent impact in ways I probably wouldn’t be able to foresee. Through some communication, or perhaps misunderstanding, our interpreter was lead to believe that we wanted a great deal more detailed information than what he normally presented. Almost every moment was filled with more data, more references: “Here we are about to enter the gas chambers, here are the standing cells, here is the pond where the ashes of the victims were dumped, here are the drawings of the children detained, here is the book of names, here is the linen made from their hair, here is the place where the medical experiments were performed, here here here, it was all here, where you’re walking in a tour group with your headphones and water bottles, where the sun shines in a blue sky and green grass grows around the crematoriums. Here we are.”

I think interpretation very often can get confused with telling people what they’re supposed to be feeling or learning. This isn’t surprising considering how often it involves influencing how people feel or what they know. That argument – whether interpretation is a form of manipulation or propaganda – isn’t something I’m going to get into right now, but to say that Auschwitz is beyond interpretation seems to follow that belief: that to interpret is to attempt to assert control and impose a definitive meaning over someone else’s experience. For me, interpretation at its best is a set of skills and tools used to help people find their own meaning and relevance to a site, a moment in time, a cultural or scientific concept, etc. When it was missing, we sought it almost desperately. There was one moment, hours into our tour, that we watched a short video of a survivor describe her experiences in the camp. After the minute was up, our guide attempted to get us to continue on to the next room. Nobody moved. Another story came on. In the middle of this machine, we had these stories to hold on to, this face, these people to help us see how to find the humanity here.

We as a group started talking to each other. “How are you doing?” “As a German, this is hard, this is very hard to see. This was our grandparents, our country”. “I didn’t realize that most of the Jews sent here were actually from my country”. “In Israel, we send all of our students to one of the camps with a survivor to tell them about what happened, what it means”. “So many other Americans don’t realize that we had Japanese internment camps holding US citizens as prisoners at the same time. It’s not nearly like this, but we were also stripping citizens of their rights.” “I don’t know how to feel…I’m just numb. What’s wrong with me?” Our mixed group had interpreters from many of the countries involved in World War II, and the open, respectful discussions that slowly came out gave us a safe place to talk about how we all factored into this, but many of us still came away feeling like we didn’t quite get out of that numb state. Sometimes we blamed the guide, saying he spoke too much, filled too many moments with information when we just needed time to absorb what was around us. I don’t. When asked what sort of support structure existed for the interpreters at Auschwitz, the response was short: “There is none.” Further pressed, he acknowledged that the interpreters try to look out for each other, or take care of themselves, but that there was fear in incorporating any more help in case it crippled their own ways of coping and left them with nothing to hold on to. There were moments it seemed where the very details we were given were infused with anger, the subtext being, “Listen to this, care about this, please let this fact get through to you, or this one, any of them, tell me that you are getting this.”

If we can’t interpret Auschwitz, how can we interpret slavery, ethnic cleansing, genocide, modern day issues of abuse, torture and imprisonment? If interpretation can create the space where people can find relevance between the worst acts of humanity and the people who either fought them to the end or survived to bear witness, then interpretation has a role beyond presenting the facts and stepping away from the hard questions and the despair that can follow. I absolutely agree that it takes a unique and demanding style of interpretation to help create relevance without directing it into the interpreter’s own concepts of a correct end point, but I also have a great deal of faith in our capacity to get there. It may take some showing of what that path looks like to ourselves, as difficult as that may be. I’m going to include a link here of a truly powerful moment in interpretation, written for the NAI blog site by John C. Luzader, and kindly shared with me by Ray Novotny. It’s a short, beautiful piece, but if you don’t read it all, read this part,

“Slowly the guide bent down and scooped up a handful of nondescript soil.

“ Do you know what this is?” he inquired. No one spoke.

“It is Utopia. It is the bone remains of over 180,000 people.” There was a distinct intake of breath from the tour group.

Slowly he let the handful of material sift through his hand and fall to the ground.  “It is the bone remains of thousands of people and as I watch it fall I can not tell you if it is the bones of a German, a Austrian, a Pole, a Hungarian, a Romani, a Protestant, a Catholic, an agnostic, or a Jew. I can not tell you if it is a male, female, old man, mother, or a young child. I can not tell you if it is a political  prisoner, or an undesirable, or just someone who was caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are all as one, blended together as one people, one entity, one soul. It is Utopia. As a boy when I was between the ages of fifteen and sixteen it was my job to grind up the bone remains from the crematorium and bring them here.” At this point he raised his sleeve and displayed the tattooed number on his arm.

“Here is where I realized that God existed because he made us all one people. It is my favorite spot in the camps. It is Utopia.”

It’s a strange thing. I spent hours and days thinking about this trip, talking about it, looking at the photos, trying to figure out how to get into the blocked off part of me that held this experience. It’s never going to come clear in one solid piece, and it shouldn’t. But that simple moment of second-hand interpretation gave me a perspective, an instance of clarity, that shifted everything inside just enough for me to find a way in and share this with you. That’s something worth believing in.Version 2

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by Ashley Bradt

Right now, at the South Carolina Aquarium, it is definitely intern-palooza! Every summer, we have a group of interns that take over the Aquarium floor with vibrant energy and youthful smiles. I manage a group of ten high school students and it is my favorite time of the year! This generation of millennials are so important and vital to our future. We are instilling values in them that will shape their future and impact their decisions for the rest of their lives.. how powerful. Our High School Internship Program is one of the most competitive and rigorous programs around, which I am proud to be a small part of. We usually receive over 100 applicants, interview 50, accept 20 into the 5 months of training classes, and then accept 10 of those to participate in a paid internship during the summer. We truly have the best of the best by the summertime.

Millennials are the next generation of people that have a real possibility of making positive changes in our world. It is refreshing and hopeful to see such passionate young adults, eager to learn and to educate all of our guests at the South Carolina Aquarium. It is vital, as their supervisor, that I instill the power of education in them and just how much of a difference they can make.

During their internship, the students are members of the Education Department. Their job is to help guests make connections with the animals and habitats of South Carolina in a way that they will remember… a.k.a. “interpretation.” They bring out animals for the guests to touch and get an up close look at, they bring out artifacts that the guests can hold in their hands and feel, they help guests touch marine animals in the touch tank, and help guests come “fingers to fins” with sharks in our new Shark Shallows exhibit. Two weeks into the program, they are already creating a positive experience for our guests with their presence on the floor. What they probably don’t realize yet is the impact that they are making from every moment they are interpreting with guests.

We teach the interns the art of interpretation and encourage them to be creative when communicating with guests. Giving them this freedom allows them to think outside of the box and make real connections with the guests. One of the interns, sharing his experience in a blog, wrote “Carlos and I had out the humpback whale rib and vertebrae and its baleen, showing them to guests just entering the aquarium. A small boy was checking them out and commenting on how huge they were when out of nowhere he mentioned that he had a pet gerbil. Carlos, his parents and I started to chuckle a little bit, and trying to work in a connection, I asked if his gerbil was as big as a whale to which he immediately responded that it was, with complete and total confidence. It was just a fun time talking to him and his parents and seeing how interested he was in the whale bones, especially since he made an instant connection to an animal he is familiar with, even if it wasn’t as big as he though it was, and clearly having a fun time.”

After I read that, I thought to myself.. “He gets it.” Although they are just high school students, they are beginning to understand the power of interpretation and how it can impact visitors’ in lasting ways. I am so proud to be able to teach these young minds their importance and the positive ways that they can change the world. =) What a rewarding summer this will be.

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A Place, a Name, a Reason

2015 mountain laurelby Cindy Carpenter

Every place has its story, its history. I enjoy knowing, though often can just imagine, what a place looked like in the past and what may have happened there. Place names often tell us. Sometimes they tell us what we’ve lost, such as a scene I long enjoyed while driving to town. A lovely, little stone house stood amid a tidy yard at the end of a long driveway flanked by wildflower fields. Now the house is gone, replaced by half a dozen new homes, the driveway now named “Stone House Road.” I expect everyone sees subdivisions or shopping centers named for what used to be there.

I’ve been thinking about the name of the valley where my interpretive center was built. It has quite a history as all places do, part known, part mystery. Archeologists found evidence of hearths, arrowheads and spearheads that span 5,000 years of human history. Records document settlers living in this relatively flat place in North Carolina’s mountains since the late 1700’s. They grazed cattle and raised families on subsistence farms dotting the 4-mile long valley, depending on its timber, soil and streams. They built a little schoolhouse on its southwest end.  A century later the valley was owned by George W. Vanderbilt and part of the over 100,000-acre Biltmore Estate. From 1898 to 1909 it was the outdoor practical classroom of America’s first forestry school.  So how did it get the name “Pink Beds?”

Visitors often ask this question. My answer is sometimes simple. According to a historian, “pink” is a general Anglo-Saxon word for flowers, and the valley was settled by folks of this ancestry. I don’t always stop there though, because the answer is really more complicated.

In their memoirs Vanderbilt’s two foresters wrote the name came from the abundant mountain laurel and rhododendron blooms. They likely learned this from locals in the 1890s, but maybe they both deduced that by observing the landscape. They must have not been aware of an earlier writing that credits a wildflower, downy phlox, said to have bloomed in such profusion people ventured from surrounding towns to enjoy their beauty during an era when travel was challenging. An expert on Southern Appalachian ecology and flora trusts the phlox story. He would even argue against the mountain laurel and rhododendron- “they don’t grow in beds….” Since I respect him greatly, I trust the phlox story, too, even though today I see only patches along roadsides since the forest has long reclaimed the farms.

These past few weeks though I believe the foresters’ accounts. The mountain laurel blooms have been so abundant, so full, so unbelievably beautiful that I can see how they could have inspired the name “Pink Beds.” I have been walking around in awe, snapping photo after photo, not being able to get enough of a flowery phenomenon I have never experienced, and neither have locals living here longer than my 25 plus years.

So flowers it is, despite a geologist who told me “Pink Beds” comes from the rosy quartz found here (I haven’t seen it here) and the hydrologist who claimed the name is actually from the numerous bogs the settlers called “sinks” where a rare lily, the swamp pink, blooms. Ahh…another flower.

No matter what the true origin, Pink Beds is an old romantic name for a beautiful place that captures the imagination today. Maybe where you live or work names do the same. Places with family names and land features long recognized all enrich our stories. Now if I can learn how a gap in a ridge above the Pink Beds changed from Chubb Gap shown on old maps to today’s Club Gap…

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Beneficial Weed…

No, no—not that kind! Now that I have your attention, let me introduce to you this beautiful plant. It grows 3-4 feet tall with clusters of tiny white flowers grouped in umbels. (What a fun word to say aloud! – I bet you just did too, didn’t you?) This tall plant grows in arid poor soil and is famous for growing in ditches, along roadsides and in pastures. As a child, I remember my Mom picking the flowers and bringing them in the house to show us how they magically changed color when she put them in water and placed them on the table. It always amazed me how this worked. Eventually she let us in on her secret of adding food coloring to the water and then she would let us pick our own and dye them whatever color we wanted. This simple act of picking a wild flower and adding it to the kitchen table was one of the first “science experiments” that captivated me. It made me want to try “dying” other flowers and through trial and error figure out that this weed was certainly special. My Mom was a genius! She let us discover the magic of the umbels turning colors and smell the sweet leaves and roots when they were crushed, but I must say that the fascination with that plant never really ended. Every time I see the umbels swaying in the wind, it brings back sweet childhood memories.
How often do kids these days have these simple experiences, experiences that might open a child’s eyes to science, botany, insect behavior and ecosystems? How often do we overlook the very minute part of science to get to the “BIG PICTURE”? We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but we were rich because we were surrounded by nature. We were allowed to explore and play in our backyards and parks. We were casually shown different plants to eat or avoid and we all sure knew the rhyme, leaves of three—let it be.
But wait —there’s more! This plant has been around for ages, it is native to temperate regions of Europe and Southwest Asia. It has many uses especially to help with ailments of the bladder and kidney. Romans ate the root as a vegetable. It is only second to beets in the amount of sugar it contains in the root vegetable group. It was used as a sweetener by Irish, Hindus and Jewish cultures in puddings and other foods. In North America this was boiled into wines and used to sweeten coffee.
Some added the dried seeds to foods to help prevent flatulence. (Boy I know some people that could sure use a dose of that!) The dried seeds were also eaten as a form of contraceptive. Boiled root made a wonderful tea, new leaves can be added to salad and flower heads were picked battered and fried. Flower heads picked and steeped in water not only made a tea, but add a little lemon juice, sugar and pectin and you have yourself a nice jelly.
If I told you it is also known as Bishop’s lace, bird’s nest and wild carrot, you might know this plant right off. Some might know it better by its Latin name Daucus carota (yes, you just tried pronouncing this out loud too), and you might even have linked this back to the common name of the wild carrot. If you guessed Queen Anne’s lace, then you are right. 20150602_183924
As interpreters, let’s not forget to encourage our audiences to go back to the basics and become familiar with the plants growing all around them. Who knows, they might spark an interest into the field of science, botany and interdependence in nature. Their child might be so fascinated that they will continue research on a plant to find a cure for a strain of flu or one of the many diseases that are out there. Me, I will continue to photograph the insects that visit the umbels and stems while I harvest some of the umbels for my next batch of jelly. And if you have never picked Queen Anne’s lace and put it in dye, pamper yourself and spruce up you dining room with a little fragrance and color. The little flutter of joy it will bring to you, is priceless!

Helena Uber-Wamble

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Is your program a “full” experience?

© 2015 Daniel Suarez  - weeks ago my parents were in town visiting and we took them to a few places. We visited the Western North Carolina Nature Center, the Schiele Museum, and the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center. My parents seemed excited just to spend time with their grand daughter that they only see a few times every year.

When I suggested my father to go to his first NASCAR experience he seemed indifferent. He has never liked auto racing, in his mind there was nothing exciting about cars running in circles. I decided to take him to the race and let him experience it and leave if he seemed bored. The only information that seemed to relate to him is that a Mexican driver was racing on the number 18 car.

When we arrived to the race track he was impressed with the size of the speedway. A 1.5 mile-long track does not seem as big on TV. When they gave the command “start your engines” and 40+ cars with 700 Horse power engines start up you can hear and feel it. My dad’s face went from this is kinda cool to “WOW”!.

For the next two hours he did not say much other than pointing at the number 18 car, got really excited when he passed other cars and did not even take a “Maslow break”.

When we got home he kept telling my mom about how big the place was, how loud it was and how skilled the drivers had to be to drive 160+mph and keep the cars under control as they bump each other.

This is exactly what an experience where all your senses does to a participant. Whenever possible let your program participants listen, smell, taste, and touch as much as you can. The more you do so, the more memorable the experience will be.

As for my dad, he already asked me about the next race in Charlotte.


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