As a park ranger, I have always loved questions. I love using questions to engage visitors to think deeply about a park theme. I enjoy the look that comes over a visitor’s eyes when you have prompted them with a rhetorical question to dig into the story and to test their assumptions. As much as I enjoy asking the questions, however, I also try to remind myself that there is much value in listening to the questions that our visitors ask.
The old saw is that the number one question asked of a park ranger is “Where is the restroom?” That is probably accurate. I know in the current set- up of the visitor orientation area in the Visitor Center that is a fairly common question. You have to let them know that they passed the restrooms when they entered the building. Of course, after the remodel of the bathrooms with the new entrances, this question might decrease.
Beyond the necessary question about necessities, I really like when people ask questions that stump me. One of the first phrases that I teach new park interpreters is “I don’t know.” It is absolutely acceptable to not know everything. Those times that I have to give that answer thrills me because it guides an area of research that I had not touched on before. Plus, I like getting the answer to a visitor, even if it takes a week and has to be via e-mail.
It would be easy to laugh at some of the questions that I have been asked in my career. I have been asked if the fire in the kitchen cooking area at Fort Vancouver was ‘real’ fire. I was asked if Johnny Horton was at the Battle of New Orleans while at Chalmette Battlefield. At Fort Frederica, I was asked how many people that we don’t know of were buried in the colonial cemetery. There is always a bigger truth that the visitor is exploring when they ask those questions. For an interpreter, any question can be a springboard towards exploring bigger truths that help visitors find their place in history.
St. Louis, Jan’y 4, 1804. Sir: I have taken the liberty to add to this, additional questions of a mixed nature relating to Upper Louisiana, your answers to which will be extremely gratifying, and gratefully acknowledged.
Your friend and Ob’t Servant,
Capt. 1st U.S. Regt. Infy.
(This note from Capt. Lewis to fur trader and merchant Rene Auguste Chouteau included a list of 13 questions. Chouteau was one of the founders of St. Louis. Chouteau’s answers are unknown.)
Jon Burpee is Lewis and Clark National Historical Park Superintendent