A Lifetime of Revealing Forgotten Perspectives

Steve Boyd-Smith, Creative Director at 106 Group, is the recipient of the NAI Heartland Region’s 2018 Master Interpretive Manager Award. Steve’s decades of interpretive experience have enriched 106 Group’s work around the country. In this interview with Michael Swearingen, Communication Associate at 106 Group, he shares his thoughts on his long career and what interpretation might look like in the future.

This interview was edited for clarity purposes.

Michael: Describe your job in a sentence or two.

Steve: I tell stories. Actually, I help reveal stories through whatever variety of media is most effective at meeting the goals of a project.

Michael: How long have you been working in interpretation?

Steve: Since 1989, so nearly 30 years.

Michael: A long time. Where did it all begin? How has interpretation changed throughout your career?

Steve: I was a historian in college who did a lot of theater. I thought that maybe I wanted to be a diplomat so I did an internship at the State Department. I very quickly realized that I did not want to be a diplomat, but I was stuck in D.C. for the summer so I spent time at the museums. There was one particular day when I was at the National Museum of American History and I saw two exhibits there: “Farm to Factory” and “A More Perfect Union.” They both used sets and dramatic effects to tell significant stories and make them personal. I saw theater and history together and I said “that’s what I want to do”.

It turns out that those were really groundbreaking exhibits, so they represented a change in how exhibits were being done that I didn’t really see. Essentially what I understood to be just the standard in the field and what I understood interpretation to be was really, really cutting edge. And I didn’t recognize that until much more recently…

Michael: So, you got into interpretation right at the cusp…

Steve: Yeah, of something. And that’s in terms of sort of the media side of it, but also about understanding how to convey ideas to an audience.

More recently, what I would say has changed is our recognition—a broader recognition of the fact that there are significant stories that have been buried. You could say erased in some cases. And those erasures therefore cause us to have a slanted view of our stories: a view that is focused on a limited perspective. So I still follow along a path that has to do with how to convey stories, but I am becoming much more aware of and focused on really revealing those stories that have been buried. I no longer see myself as only a story teller but now as a story revealer. Which means that I must be a good listener.

Michael: What’s one of the most meaningful projects you’ve been a part of?

Steve: Right now, I am working with a client geographically located on the border of New York and Canada and I am finding that to be very personally moving. A couple of years before that and sort of continuing today is Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, which has a similar aspect to it. I’m finding it personally challenging and therefore really interesting.

Michael: What, if anything, has influenced you the most along the way? Could be a person, a book, a thing, a place….

Steve: Well, I would go back to those two exhibits that I mentioned. I’m always inspired when I see exhibits or places that convey not just information but a feeling or experience. However, it’s usually the people I’m working with that inspire me. When I see people’s excitement, or their sense of the importance of this, whatever this is. That inspires me and gives me a sense of the responsibility that I hold.

Michael: What has been the most challenging moment in your interpretive career?  And what inspired you to find a solution to that challenge?

Steve: What comes to mind is an example of a positive challenge. A couple of years ago, working on Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, we were doing some planning with the site’s African American Advisory Committee. I did not understand the objections of several people to one particular idea. I was asking for more information and there was a woman who was sitting right in front of me, you know, she’s four feet away. Sort of exasperated with my not getting it, she just gave me a very blunt and honest answer that was like a slap in the head. I immediately understood what she was saying, what she was trying to get across. It was a profound moment of awakening for me and led to much better interpretation. I’m deeply grateful for her giving me that slap.

Michael: Looking into the next 30 years of your career in interpretation, what excites you the most?

Steve: The best thing about this career for me is that I’m always learning. I expect for the next 30 years to continue to learn new things. I can’t predict what they will be because they’ll be surprises, but I want more of those slaps in the face and I want more moments of wonder and awe.

Michael: For anyone who’s entering the field of interpretation, what is a piece of advice that you’d give them? Or do you have any thoughts on the industry as a whole?

Steve: It’s useful to be humble, aware that you don’t know everything because then you can ask the right questions and learn something. It’s having patience that is most valuable as opposed to just reading about interpretation in books or in classes.