Journal of Interpretation Research
Volume 22, Number 2

Mind the Gap: Academics, Interpreters, and Historical Interpretation

Eugene R.H. Tesdahl, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of History
University of Wisconsin-Platteville
UW-Platteville – History
1 University Plaza
Platteville, WI 53818

This call to arms reminds interpreters and academics to cooperate and collaborate. Historic interpreters and historians often misunderstand and resent each other. Tesdahl suggests that each group aims to inform and inspire the public and misses out if they do not work together to accomplish this. The author harkens back to an earlier definition of the term amateur suggesting that professional interpreters and historians should meet their standards but should do history passionately because they love it. If they do, a more informative, engaging, and collaborative history that includes all audiences will emerge.

historic interpretation, historian, amateur, professionalism

Mind the Gap
The thing that I love most about history is that it’s full of amateurs! Before you take this as insulting, consider this. Like a growing number of public history professionals I tread a difficult path. I have participated in living history events of the Seven Years’ War Era for over twenty years. I have worked in public history for over a decade at archives, museums, historic sites, and national parks. I am also an academic historian. I teach and study indigenous histories, American women’s history, and early America. There is a gap between these communities. Each community feels it has the best grip on the past and these communities are all too often unwilling to work together. The gap between us is as noticeable as it is avoidable. Historical interpreters, historians, and museum professionals each seek to provide the public with the most accurate image of the past. History becomes relevant to students of all ages when historical interpreters, historians, and museum professionals collaborate and use their strengths to inform and inspire.

Many historical interpreters, practitioners of living history, history workers, or re-enactors feel that academics are snooty snobs living in ivory towers. Most academics feel that re-enactors are self-made historians who often dispense an ill-informed brand of history with little effort or filter. Sadly, both sides of this argument are a little bit right. Ironically, both groups are also wrong. At times the public disregards both groups as standoffish know-it-alls. The confusion must stop. Historians and re-enactors are on the same side. Each aims to give the public, the most accurate, interesting, and hopefully entertaining glimpse at the past that they possibly can. Each can spark debate, inspire research, and further historical awareness (Cronon, 2012; Pace, 2004). Whether or not you present interpretation in period attire your offering must be carefully researched and engaging for all (Magelssen and Justice-Malloy, 2011).

First we must dismantle this incendiary word: amateur. The Oxford English Dictionary offers two definitions for amateur. The first is “One who loves or is fond of; one who has a taste for anything (Amateur, 1 (n.d.), The Oxford English Dictionary).” The second states, “One who cultivates anything as a pastime, as distinguished from one who prosecutes it professionally; hence, sometimes used disparagingly, as = dabbler, or superficial student or worker (Amateur, 2 (n.d.), The Oxford English Dictionary).” The second definition evokes bristling images of ill-informed performances and is too often used as a disparaging epithet for someone who does not know their history. This is akin to the insult, “farb (Horwitz, 1998, p. 10–11).” This derogatory term for someone who does not do an accurate portrayal within historical interpretation has cross-pollinated many circles from Civil War re-enacting from whence it began. Tony Horwitz explains, “The word’s etymology was obscure; Young guessed that ‘farb’ was short for ‘far-be-it-from-authentic,’ or possibly a respelling of ‘barf (Horwitz, 1998, p.10-11).’” Such name calling develops between historical interpreters, museum professionals, and scholars, but they are unhelpful as they are avoidable.

The more meaningful definition and the one with the original intent is the first, someone who does something out of sheer love of it, from the French root amour. Amateur then can be a very helpful term, even a badge of honor. There is no need for a professional interpreter or historian to apologize for still being in love with the discipline that brought her into the field in the first place. In fact the craft of history needs more people like this.

Inspiring generations of interpreters, Freeman Tilden even mused over the significance of the term amateur in his Interpreting Our Heritage. In his fourteenth chapter, titled “The Happy Amateur (Tilden, 1957, 138–147),” he suggested interpreters could transform visitors into amateurs. “It seems to me that in this circumstance the great hope for aiding people in the direction of a happy and fruitful use of leisure is to be found in the national parks, the state and local parks, the museums and other cultural preserves.” Adding to this timeless suggestion, professional interpreters, academics, museum professionals, and public historians must not forget the passion of amateurs themselves.

Formal organizations often laud the professional standards their entity helped create. Part of this is helpful. The American Historical Association has offered training and rigorous standards for its members since 1884. The National Association for Interpretation has done the same since 1988 when it grew from the Association of Interpretive Naturalists (1954) and the Western Interpreters Association (1965). Among other things this professionalization fought the previous elitism and welcomed more voices into each field (Novick, 1988, p. 182–183). The routines of professional membership can also rob historians and interpreters of something each still sorely needs: passion.

Sites, parks, and museums already collaborate with universities (Krugler, 2013, 200–203). Visitors, researchers, and interpreters benefit from this exchange. Historic sites, museums, universities, state historical societies, blogs, and others are already working together more than ever before to interpret, even the disquieting lessons, of the past with urgency today (Rose, 2016, 126–131; Mast, Vogel, and Lopez, 2014, 44–45). When they do they are reminded what history and culture are, why we should love them, and why we must welcome others to embrace them.

Reclaim the “amateur” label. Restore its passion. This may seem like a Herculean task. It need not be. Together interpreters, teachers, museum professionals, and historians have talent and can close the gap between them. Combining forces will burnish understanding of the American past and enhance how the public engages it. Historians can improve their presentation skills. Interpreters can strengthen their research skills. Most significantly this cooperation will remind all that being an amateur, a passionate professional, wields the power to welcome all into the conversation about history.

Amateur, 1, (n.d.). In Oxford English Dictionary Online, retrieved from

Amateur, 2, (n.d.). In Oxford English Dictionary Online, retrieved from

Cronon, W. (April 2012) Loving History, Perspectives on History. Retrieved from

Horwitz, T. (1998). Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. New York: Pantheon Books.

Krugler, J. (2013). Creating Old World Wisconsin: The Struggle to Build an Outdoor History Museum of Ethnic Architecture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Magelssen, S., & Justice-Malloy, R. (2011). Enacting History. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Mast, E., Vogel, M., & Lopez, L. (Summer 2014). The Period of Significance is Now. Forum Journal, 28.4, 43–51.

Novick, P. That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pace, D. (October 2004). The Amateur in the Operating Room: History and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. American Historical Review, 109.4, 1171–1192.

Rose, J. Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

Tilden, F. (1957). Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.