The sewing pattern is yellowing, and bears the distinct aura of being from the late 1970s. Its envelope is wrinkled and torn. It is a pattern for a set of four unremarkable stuffed animals—a bear, a dog, a cat and a seal. It is the sort of thing I would get rid of, now my kids are growing out of that sort of thing.
But there is more to this pattern than meets the eye.
One day, when my siblings and I were all quite young, my mother bundled us into the car, probably to go to the dentist or something. It was an ordinary day—not a holiday or anyone’s birthday. On our seats in the car, we each found a stuffed animal. A dog for my brother, a seal for my sister, and a cat for me. Tied onto a ribbon around each animal’s neck was a note—a love note, from our mother, telling each of us how much she loved us and appreciated us.
Many years later, my mother passed the pattern for those very animals on to me, and my children were bundled into the car one day to find their mother’s love sitting in the back seat.
One day, I will offer the pattern to one of my children to carry on the tradition.
Who would have thought so much could be contained in a tatty old envelope filled with tissue paper? The tangible object is something you wouldn’t look at twice, but the intangible concepts contained in that flimsy envelope resonate with us all in fundamental ways.
As interpreters, it is our job to find and reveal these intangible concepts—the ideas and emotions that give meaning to the objects, events, and processes we interpret. It is our job to turn that outdated sewing pattern into a tender recollection of a visitor’s own mother, children, or family traditions. If we do our job well, it won’t matter that our visitor has never used a sewing machine, or never heard of a seam allowance. If we do our job well, we will show the visitor that the importance of this ordinary object lies in its story, and that it’s story has much in common with the visitor’s own story. If we do our job well, we provoke—thoughts, memories, emotions, ideas.
By connecting things we interpret to intangible concepts, we make them relevant to more than a small number of enthusiasts. And by connecting them to universal intangible concepts—concepts that everyone can relate to, like love, friendship, home, safety—we make them relevant to everyone, regardless of age, gender, or cultural background.
Will everyone have the same reaction to the concepts we link to our resource? No. Their reaction might be the opposite of what we intend (guilt, perhaps, because you’ve never given your children homemade gifts with love notes attached?), but regardless, they will react in a fundamental way. They will think, feel, and be changed. And isn’t that what we want? To make a difference to our visitors? To leave our visitors somehow enriched for having come?
What stories do you tell, connecting tangible objects with intangible concepts? How do these concepts enrich and change your visitors?