What You See is What You Get

In The Beholding Eye, D.W. Meinig wrote, a landscape is “composed of not only what lies before our eyes, but what lies within our heads.”

Colonial Williamsburg garden

This observation goes hand in hand with art historian David Lubin’s belief that  there is no such thing as an “innocent eye.” In other words, we bring our personal history and individual realities to scenic experiences.

What do people see in a museum environment or living history site? How do they relate to their surroundings, particularly before signage or interpretation enter in?

Landscapes are portals.  They can allow the viewer to respond intuitively, as a first stage in learning.

Surrender Field, Yorktown

A row of surrendered weapons on a battlefield may affect us differently than rows of garden plants, and engender much different questions as a response. If people visually filter through their hopes, fears, and beliefs as Meinig implies, understanding how they construct reality may be key to how they absorb information. 

Maybe educators and interpreters need to first ask, “What do you see?” before we direct someone’s gaze. In doing so, we—and they—may learn much more.


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