Journal of Interpretation Research
Volume 23, Number 2

The Professor, the Anteater, and the Spellbound Boys

The Case for Spontaneous Interpretation

Brett Bannor
Manager of Animal Collections
Atlanta History Center
130 West Paces Ferry Road, NW
Atlanta, Georgia 30305
404 814-4148

An anecdote is presented involving an anteater skin, some boys, and Samuel Latham Mitchill, an early American statesman and scientist. The story is a reminder that spontaneous interpretation can be effective because it reminds the audience of their immediate experience.

interpretation, spontaneous, interaction, museums, Samuel Latham Mitchill

The Professor, the Anteater, and the Spellbound Boys
While Samuel Latham Mitchill was well-known at the time of George Washington and James Madison, he is largely forgotten today. (The unusual spelling of his last name is a particular objection to the spell-check programs on modern computers.) Mitchill, a native of New York City, had a prominent political career; he served in the New York legislature and later in the United States Congress as both a member of the House of Representatives and as a Senator (Hall, 1962). He was a close ally of President Thomas Jefferson; it was Mitchill who was instrumental in securing congressional support for Jefferson’s pet project, the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Diller, 1951).

In those years it wasn’t considered appropriate for a man’s career to be entirely devoted to politics, so Mitchill had other pots in the fire. He was a respected professor of science at Columbia University who wrote articles and books on zoology. His most prominent work was a treatise entitled Fishes of New York with descriptions and plates of 166 different species (Hall, 1962; Smallwood, 1967). In addition, Mitchill was the founder and senior editor of The Medical Repository, a quarterly journal of medicine and natural sciences. This publication, which started in 1797, was the first scientific periodical in the United States. Initially it sold like a bestselling book—the first two volumes went through three editions. (Hall, 1962).

Given the breadth and depth of Mitchill’s knowledge, it is no wonder Thomas Jefferson referred to him as “The Congressional Dictionary” (Hall, 1962). For all his accomplishments and distinctions, however, it seems the character of Samuel Latham Mitchill can best be summarized by his encounter with some boys who were carrying an anteater skin. Here is how Courtney Robert Hall, author of a biography of Mitchill, tells it:

There is an amusing tale of an anteater’s skin, which had long lain in the Mitchill garret, and had finally become so objectionable as to cause Mrs. Mitchill to order it thrown out. The work of disposal was not well done, for it was soon found by some boys, who carried it into the street and were gathered about it in some excitement, when along came the good Doctor himself. He enquired the cause of the gathering, and soon made himself the center of it, giving the lads a short history of the life and habits of the animal. Finally, he said, that though he had such a skin at home, he would be glad to have another, and would give them fifty cents for it. The bargain was soon struck, and the learned gentleman proudly bore home his find. Mrs. Mitchill, it is said, made no further attempts to get rid of the skin (Hall, 1962:10).

This anecdote has all that one could want, doesn’t it? It’s short and funny, and there is a moral to the story, sort of—sometimes things you despise are hard to get rid of, as Mrs. Mitchill experienced.

I think the story is probably true, or at least there isn’t a good reason to think otherwise. But there is one aspect to it I can’t accept. I don’t believe for one minute that Samuel Mitchill thought he was buying a second anteater skin to add to his collection—it seems far more likely he knew that it was his specimen the boys were playing with. New York City may have changed a great deal in over 200 years, but one thing is certain in Mitchill’s time and ours—there are not many people in Gotham who happen to keep an anteater skin at their house. How in the world could Dr. Mitchill see the boys, not far from his place, playing with the specimen, and not immediately think to himself, “Hey that’s got to be my anteater skin!”? 

Probably his wife had complained to him about the skin. Maybe at some point she exclaimed, “Samuel Latham Mitchill, I’ve a good mind to toss that ugly, smelly thing into the trash!” (This would explain why, if Mitchill recognized the skin, he apparently did not consider the possibility that the boys had secured it from ransacking his place.) Encountering this unusual scene in his neighborhood, it’s easy to see Mitchill quickly putting it all together in his head, realizing his wife made good on her threat, and figuring it was only fair to give the boys 50 cents—not as a purchase of new goods, but as a finder’s fee for recovering his lost possession. Such benevolence wouldn’t be unusual for Mitchill. He once helped a colleague during a rough period, leading that man to write, “(When) I could find no relief in the selfish world… The generous Mitchill, whose name I feel bound ever to speak with respect, first dared to give me his name, regardless of the power of my enemies” (Smallwood, 1967:259). 

What museum professionals should take from the anteater story is that in addition to all his other attributes, Samuel Latham Mitchill would have made a splendid interpreter. In his encounter with the boys, he provided a classic example of spontaneous interpretation. Look again at this key element of the anecdote: “He… [gave] the lads a short history of the life and habits of the animal.”

Imagine the conversations the boys must have had about their unusual find before Mitchill arrived. They knew this was from some type of animal, but what kind? It certainly didn’t look like anything from their neighborhood. If it was a complete skin with the prominent long snout, no doubt the boys speculated about this appendage. Maybe they hang from tree branches using that thing, one boy might have opined. Another might have suggested the animal brandished it as a sword to fight others of its kind. Still another boy might have wondered if the creature lived in water and this was used as a breathing tube for when it was submerged. The creative imaginations of children being what they are, a lot of ideas were probably passed back and forth.

And then here comes Dr. Mitchill. He knows he has an audience that will be transfixed to hear all about the anteater, because they were in the process of looking at one and perhaps guessing about its natural history. So he told them that the snout contained a long sticky tongue, and this arrangement comes in handy for eating insects, particularly termites. The anteater’s claws, Mitchill might have added, are incomparable for digging into termite mounds. The boys must have listened, fascinated to learn about this exotic creature suddenly thrust into their midst. It’s the kind of story those boys might have shared with their children and grandchildren years later.

Isn’t this what any interpreter strives to do? Take advantage of what he or she observes visitors wondering about, chatting about, and then giving them some information they would like to have at that particular moment? I wonder if sometimes we are so caught up in thinking that we need to interpret this particular thing at this set time, as if following a script, that we miss opportunities for spontaneity in our interactions with the public. But perhaps spontaneous interpretation—talking about what visitors happen to be focused on even if it wasn’t what we had intended to discuss—has the most impact of anything we could do.

The Atlanta History Center where I work includes the Smith Family Farm, an authentic mid-19th-century Georgia farmstead. One day I happened to overhear parents with children standing next to the barnyard where the sheep reside. “See those sheep?” asked one of the parents. The children nodded, and then the adult declared, “That’s where we get cotton from!” It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this confusion, since wool and cotton both are used for textiles. But what would be a good way to interpret this moment, and gently set the record straight? 

And like Dr. Mitchill with his anteater, the answer struck me in a flash. I walked up with a smile and said, “Hey, I couldn’t help overhearing you mention the cotton. I’m just about to go over to the field where we grow it to see how it’s doing. Would you like to come?” They did, and shortly afterwards we stood in the cotton field. There is nothing like actually looking at bolls of cotton a minute after gazing at sheep chomping down on hay to reinforce in the minds of young and old that cotton is from a plant and wool is from an animal. And it was all spontaneous; I hadn’t planned this, or given any thought to the most effective way for interpreting cotton versus wool.

Then there was the day our turkey, Tallulah, laid an egg for the first time. I wasn’t expecting this to happen; I thought she was still a little young. But the unexpected inspired a spontaneous act. I knew this was something that would interest our visitors, so I carefully took the egg from the brooder box and showed it to guests who had gathered in front of the poultry pen. They marveled at how much larger a turkey egg was than a chicken egg. Someone mentioned he didn’t know that turkey eggs had spots. Someone else was astonished to learn that Tallulah laid the egg even though we had no male turkey. There were other questions and comments, and those visitors left knowing more about turkeys than they—or I—had ever planned.

Whatever type of facility you interpret at—whether it is one focusing on human history, natural history, or fine art—there must be ways to incorporate spontaneity into your work. Things you overhear from visitors—or objects or exhibits you observe them inspecting and discussing—should be your key, so just talk about that. When you see visitors probing an anteater skin—figuratively speaking—taking advantage of that spontaneous moment is probably the best way to reach them.

Literature Cited
Diller, A. (1951). An early account of the Missouri River. Missouri Historical Review 45, (1) 150–157.

Hall, C.R. (1962). A Scientist in the Early Republic: Samuel Latham Mitchill, 1764–1831. New York: Russell & Russell.

Smallwood, W. M. & Smallwood, M.S.C. (1967). Natural History and the American Mind. New York: AMS Press.