Hooked on history | AspenTimes.com

Hooked on history

Tony Vagneur
Aspen CO, Colorado

About a month ago, Georgia Hanson of the Aspen Historical Society mentioned an upcoming workshop on “interpreting history” she thought I might be interested in. There wasn’t time to ask questions, so my mind began posing pointless queries to my own imagination, wondering what Ms. Hanson meant by “interpretation.”

Weren’t despots, dictators and “touchy-feely” sorts the only ones interested in historical interpretation? I mean, history is history and it should be left to speak for itself. Right? Who am I to be arrogant enough to give an interpretation to something that happened in the past, most likely without my participation? But, before you agree, or decide to kick me in the shin, let me confess that I was incredibly ignorant of the entire subject.

Last summer, while at one of those highway rest stops, I witnessed a unique display of two versions of the same event. A car with Midwestern plates pulled up to the curb and a middle-aged woman got out, accompanied by a small, excited dog on the end of a leash. The woman was smiling and talking to the dog, while her pet was jumping up and down, running around and sniffing everything in sight. A couple of minutes later, a man exited the car and, after a few words, the woman handed the leash to the man and went inside the building. The dog stopped his excited mannerisms and sat down, looking like he’d lost his best friend. For his part, the man stood in one place ” possibly breathing, nothing else ” with the lease stretched securely between him and the dog. They made the most disinterested pair one could imagine.

The way our natural or historical world is presented to interested persons can be somewhat like the above scenario. If we have interpretive guides who are motivated, intelligent and excited to be presenting their subject matter, it becomes an enjoyable learning experience. If no one takes the time to interpret or inject enthusiasm into the presentation, studying history becomes about as colorful as your last attempt at it, usually from a teacher or professor who was about as interesting as watching mud dry.

As with any good seminar, this wasn’t so much about the subject matter as it was about the people, and, by the end of the week, our group had developed a personality that seemed to mirror the individual characteristics of the participants. Now, if we all manage to pass the final exam, the 14 of us will be considered select “professional interpretive guides,” members of the National Association for Interpretation.

The Aspen Historical Society and the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies were well represented at the workshop, and the city of Aspen showed up in the guise of one participant. I was ostensibly an unattached accomplice, unsure of my presence for anything more than levity, but as the week progressed, I carved out a niche for myself, such was the importance of this practicum. When it ended, most of us were ready to sign up for another round, just to keep the thought processes flowing.

For a guy like me, who has been practicing to be a hermit in later life, it required a certain amount of forced concentration to keep up with the intensity of our instructor while trying to at least appear qualified to be included in such a spontaneous group. We toiled eight hours a day, with what could generously be called a “working lunch,” and had homework.

My purpose is not to tell you how great we all were in class, but to let you know there are some incredibly talented and dedicated people in Aspen who can interpret our natural and cultural history for you in ways you will find informative and enjoyable. Give the organizations mentioned above a chance to demonstrate their spirits to you and your guests.