Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Piecing Together the Past

As with many Texas main streets, if you imagined the
cars gone and squinted while looking down the street,
 you can almost see the horse and
buggies and cowboys riding through. 
While I haven't fallen off the planet entirely, I did spend the past week visiting with family in the Lone Star State (even though I know some might consider Texas another planet). I have been doing a lot at home, traveling some, and overall trying to "regroup." During this past week, my grandmother, mother, and I trekked over to a quilt shop in Clyde. My grandmother could be considered a "regular" there and my mother's drug is fabric (in another lifetime, I was a fashion design major and still have a thing for textiles... it runs in the family). The excursion reminded me about the significance of place and how history is preserved.

The Feathered Star Quilt Shop is housed in a brick building along a main street. If you weren't looking for it, you would likely pass by and miss it. The building has a history as the town has a history. Fortunately, the owner of the shop took it upon herself to maintain many of the historical pieces of the place's history throughout her shop.

Among the fabrics and quilting machines are tucked historic
photographs and other memorabilia of Clyde.
Memorabilia includes an old stained glass window from a local church.
I especially appreciated the shop owner's passion infused with the place itself. Quilts and historical glimpses adorn the walls. The pictures would have little meaning without the stories attached to them. The brick and mortar would stand only as cold walls without the human history associated with them. Her attention to detail helped created a meaningful place. The business itself contributed to a historically-linked craft while the shop serves as a place for stories to be shared and preserved.

This USPS cancellation stamp had all the metal parts,
including dates from the first half of the twentieth century.
In some respects, the owner isn't that much different than an interpreter. Visitors to the shop can ask and learn about fabric lines, measurements of quilts, or "how-tos" of a variety of quilting-related tasks. If visitors express interest, they also have the opportunity to experience the history of the place. Threads of each story (no pun intended) can be pulled out to stand as its own or woven into a greater narrative about a small west Texas town. 

Isn't that what historians do? We find pieces from the past and fit them in with today's understanding? We make use of the "stuff" of the past (my fancy degree calls it "cultural resources" but "stuff" seemingly works, too) and piece it together to create a larger picture of the past. This place caught my by surprise, for I was expecting a quilt shop not necessarily an undercover museum. It reminded me that the definition of "historic sites" is much broader than how I often use it.

What good is history if people don't connect to it?

*I refrained from using too many quilting analogies and puns. You're welcome.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Symposiuming: Perspective of an Interpreter

I am sorry. I realize that it has been a solid two weeks since I promised my final installation of my Stones River symposium-ing. A friend of mine (who had attended the symposium, traveling from Maryland), emailed me yesterday to touch base after the symposium (unknowingly prompting me to list “finish post” on my to-do list today). So here I go…

I think I procrastinated this post because it seemed the most complex. I mean, I understand that this blog is, in fact, entitled “History and Interpretation.” I also understand that I want to use this place to sort out thoughts about both history and interpretation and where the two intersect. But I struggled with the idea of pulling out the interpretive aspects of a symposium.    

First of all, the name “symposium.” What does it even mean? Ask an average visitor and I am guessing the answers will vary from “an illness” to “a fair or festival.” Yes, some may know the definition (in this case, I am referring to “a formal meeting where specialists deliver addresses on a specific topic"), but if the goal is to encourage visitors who may not traditionally have an interest in this type of thing (or don’t know they have an interest because they haven’t been exposed before), maybe a word other than “symposium” would be preferable.  I’ve harped on this before and I have a feeling it will come up again. But if historic sites want to make the information accessible to a broader audience, thinking about how to market the information is crucial.

Early visitors to the battlefield, pre-symposium era. 
Additionally, I am finding that many events hosted by historic sites (specifically, Civil War sites, if for no other reason than because those are the sites I follow most consistently) are happy with attendance to programs, boasting of higher visitation than anticipated. “Hey, guys! We had over 300 people attend our event!” Great! Good for you! Question, though: who attended? Was it the same people that keep attending these types of events? Do you suppose it has something to do with the way the events were advertised (or named…)? I’ve said it before, but what good is quality programming if few attend? How can historic sites entice more people to visit? The Battle of Stones River 150th symposium was attended well enough (although, it certainly did not reach its attendance cap of 300) and overall, attendees expressed their satisfaction of the programming. In addition to the speakers, there was music and a performance by an actor who portrayed Andrew Johnson. The variety of events provided content that would appeal to a broader audience. If listening to lectures weren’t your thing, you could watch the performance or go on a ranger-led walk. Planners of the event wove pieces of interpretation throughout the weekend; some pieces proved easier to find than others.

I am operating with Freeman Tilden’s definition of interpretation here. One of his principles states, "Information, as such, is not interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information." The presentations themselves were not necessarily interpretive in nature (excluding Pitcaithley’s), although they were informative. To be fair, the presenters (excluding Pitcaithley and the park rangers) were scholars and not interpreters. They were engaging speakers, they had compelling arguments, but their talks informed. Interpretation is a craft, a skill set refined with practice and effort. However, I found provocation (the chief aim of interpretation) naturally happening between presentations and during the performances. The lectures unleashed all sorts of new ideas and attendees were forced to chew on these ideas. When attendees had a chance to process the information and talk among each other, they were able to pull meanings out of the information presented. I interacted with many attendees who expressed how they personally connected to the information presented, but they pulled those meanings out of the information, the meanings weren't explicitly presented. 

The music presentation did incorporate many aspects of interpretation, but rather than a presentation about history with facts, it was presentation of history with music. The performers told stories of where the songs originated while making connections to today. One song linked wounded soldiers coming home from wars before the American Civil War to wounded soldiers coming home during the American Civil War. The performers took it a step further to incorporate ideas of wounded soldiers returning today; they made the song meaningful and relevant (and hard not to cry).

Andrew Johnson conveying the difficulties
brought on by civil war.
I think the most interpretive piece was the performance by “Andrew Johnson.” Maybe theatrical performance naturally provides more room for interpretation because it is an art form within itself.  The actor portraying Andrew Johnson touched on “his” (Johnson’s) actions and possible motives behind decisions during early Reconstruction. He highlighted the personal agony of war. He ended with a tearful mention of his son’s death and how the death resonated through his whole family making day-to-day living difficult. The end of the presentation left the audience with heavy hearts and a reminder of the weight of war. The actor’s accent was quaint and his costume was splendid, and his performance breathed life into the facts and figures and arguments that scholars made earlier in the day. That’s what historic sites should be doing: tugging at more than just the brain.

The American Civil War was a personal experience for millions of people, although they experienced it in their own ways. “Death” and “destruction” and “devastation” are merely words: letters assembled together to express our ideas of assessing the past. For those involved at Murfreesboro (the soldiers who fought during the Battle of Stones River, the people who lived on the during the war, the “contraband” camps that followed the Union presence, the citizens who dealt with recovery for years following the war), heavy hearts may have been their only legacy. For those who attended the symposium, they were provided plenty of information that illuminated that legacy. While the interpretive aspects of the symposium were limited, there was enough to provoke attendees to make connections to the place and the stories. 

This symposium was deliberately held at a time to reflect upon the rounded "150"number- an anniversary year. The symposium itself is one of many opportunities the park has provided for the public to experience a deeper understanding of the past. The technical anniversary of the events is over the New Year's holiday. Stones River National Battlefield will have special events commemorating the anniversary between December 27th and January 2nd. These programs and events are a small portion of the many commemorative events happening nationwide during the four-year stretch of the sesquicentennial. There are still over two years-worth of sesquicentennial-ing the American Civil War. We learn from our experiences, from others, and most importantly, from our audiences (intended and actual). We keep asking "what works?" and more importantly, "what isn't working?" There are two more years-worth of utilizing that rounded "150" number and capturing the attention of a broader audience. Think of it! Potential! Potential rests within these upcoming years to provoke a broader audience's attention.  

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Symposiuming: Perspective of a Historian

Stones River National Cemetery is only one of the battle's many legacies.
As promised, I am writing on my reflections of the Stones River National Battlefield symposium from a variety of understandings. In this post, I want to approach the two-day event from the perspective of a historian. I have a hard time dwelling in just the history of things; I tend to think "how can one interpret that to a broader audience," or "how would this be received by the average visitor?" I am always considering how to take information "down from the top shelf." Even as the symposium progressed, the gears in my brain constantly turned about what seemed effective and well-received.

Again, I applaud the battlefield for hosting an excellent event. The planners of the symposium secured some talented and smart speakers. I anticipated both Larry Daniel's presentation as well as Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley's. Daniel recently published a new work out about the battle (and completely immersed in all-things-Stones-River), so I was excited to hear what new material he would bring to the table. I also wanted to see what Pitcaithley would say regarding sesquicentennial events in the midst of the sesquicentennial.

I am not sure what is the best way to approach evaluating the event through the eyes of a historian. What criteria do I use to assess the event? The speakers gave excellent presentations that included quality arguments, quality evidence, and in most cases, quality visual aids. The speakers presented ideas under new light and challenged some of the existing scholarship of the battle. The discussions flossed crevices in my mind that haven't seen the light of day in a long time. Overall, I walked away with some ideas that I want to investigate further regarding my knowledge of the Battle of Stones River. Talking with other attendees, I know that many others also appreciated the content and wanted to learn more about the battle, more about the Western Theater of the war. Based entirely on those things, the event was a success. However, I never stop pushing, I never stop asking questions, I never stop expecting less than the very best. There is more to the story.

While the symposium fed me new ideas, I still felt that the symposium did not reach its full potential. The symposium's title "The Legacy of Stones River: Why the Battle Matters 150 Years Later" suggested more of the discussion would address the legacy of the battle. The "About the Symposium" introductory paragraph of the program read:

"On the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Stones River, we turn our thoughts to the fighting that raged here from December 31st, 1862, throught January 2, 1863. The Battle of Stones River left thousands of dead and wounded and shaped local and national events during and after the Civil War. We will examine how this bloody fight in the heart of Tennessee helped shape a town, a nation, and a legacy that has lasted for 150 years." 

Park ranger Jim B. Lewis and historian Antoinette van Zelm co-presented a program called "The Local Reaction" that discussed some of the effects of the battle on the local population, stretching the story into Reconstruction a little bit (some of their discussion reached into the 1870s; most was about the impact of the battle immediately after the battle). But three of the four guest speakers focused on assessing the battle and choices made during the battle by those who were involved in the battle (Richard M. McMurry even discussed how Jefferson Davis made choices that impacted the battle from afar). We examined some of the "bloody fight" but little of how it specifically "helped shape a town, a nation, and a legacy."

As a historian, I operate with the mindset that societies view the past through the lens of their era, their culture, and their understandings. Throw events and memory of the events with the telling (and re-telling) of the events into a blender, add a dash of legend, and you have yourself some history. We use what we have (primary sources, secondary sources, etc) to help us understand the past, but our collective understanding will always be shifting. Seeing how we currently treat the American Civil War serves as a reflection of contemporary society as much as a reflection of the past. In this case, we have a hard time pushing ourselves to delve into the effects of the war or the legacies of the battle without diving into some pretty uncomfortable arenas. Even today, discussion about race, about economics, about class, and about regions prove difficult, so we often avoid those topics.

Dwight Pitcaithley was scheduled to be the last speaker (the remaining event included a variety of programs that did not include lecturing). His argument started with the idea that when we only dwell on the discussion of soldiers or battles or fighting without including discussions of meanings or causes or effects we trivialize the whole war. Pitcaithley stated those with the best intentions to honor the fallen soldiers do a disservice to those same soldiers by not engaging about the complex reasons the soldiers fought in the first place. I found his presentation an interesting way to end a symposium where the majority of the speakers focused on the battle and neglected to discuss much legacy.

Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley, former Chief Historian of the
National Park Service addressed symposium attendees,
challenging how many historians approach the American Civil War. 
During the "Questions and Discussion" session (before Pitcaithley's presentation), I served as photographer and quietly stood off to one side of the auditorium while processing the types of questions the audience asked. I lost my own nerve to ask "in a sentence, can one of the presenters please tell me WHY what you said was important?" Seriously, though: why should historians (or anybody) bother studying the maneuvers, the strategies, the tactics of battles if you don't bother understanding their larger significance or deeper meanings?  I leave that question out in the open and wonder who will be willing to take a shot at answering it?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Symposiuming: Perspective of an Attendee

Like I mentioned before, I want to write about last weekend's symposium at Stones River National Battlefield from a few different perspectives: one as attendee, one as a historian, and one as an interpreter. There will be some overlap in my discussion, but I am trying to assess the event thoroughly (and before I forget about it!). I think it is especially important to consider these sorts of events as they are happening. We still have two and a half years of utilizing that "150th" ring when announcing anniversary dates and events of the American Civil War! We also have room to improve! The symposium at Stones River National Battlefield is co-hosted by the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area and the MTSU Center for Historic Preservation (as well as the Heritage Center of Murfreesboro). This symposium was the seventh semi-annual event; each event has a different theme surrounding the Battle of Stones River.

As an attendee, I could not have been happier with the clearly well-planned and executed event. My basic "needs" were all met. The $20 registration fee included hors d'euorvers on Friday evening, a quality selection of danish, fruit, and coffee on Saturday morning, and a boxed lunch in the afternoon. The places where the event was held were comfortable (a historic church in downtown Murfreesboro and at a heated tent at the battlefield). Staff hosting the event were friendly and welcoming. I knew they had all been working long hours but they did not show it. Hosting an event for the public should meet basic needs so that attendees 1) don't have to worry and can focus on the content of the event, 2) attendees will want to return to the site or to other events, and 3) attendees feel valued.

I especially appreciate everything keeping to the scheduled times. The first evening program was delayed slightly, otherwise all programs, talks, breaks, etc., stayed within the timeframes established. This demonstrated quality planning and respect for attendees' times. It may have had something to do with Nashville Public Television being present the first night and C-SPAN being present the second day, but I will take it. Built into the schedule was time for breaks, engagements (Q&A sessions and book signings), and traveling between sites. Again, quality planning showed respect for attendees.

Superintendent Hazelwood's introductions infused
the symposium with a positive mood
(Stones River National Battlefield)
The new superintendent, Gayle Hazelwood, cast a particularly positive mood on the events with her various introductions. Her introductions set the audiences at ease, making a symposium not feel so stuffy and serious. I think easing the audience at the front end of the events helped the group receive the presented content better than if it was introduced as an entirely serious event. Every speaker did an outstanding job at presenting their material. I will admit: that part made me nervous. I dislike lectures (there, I said it). So while I was excited about the event itself, I dreaded the talking parts (especially talks from the wordy and often boring historian-types... I should know, I am one of them). I was pleasantly surprised! They presented interesting arguments, incorporated some humor, and kept the attention of the audience. I talked to several people throughout the program who expressed their appreciation for the presenters and content.

I can babble on about all of the positive, but if I want to be entirely honest, I will admit that the event had room for improvement. I found the content interesting and engaging, but I was also particularly familiar with the battle. When a speaker said a name of a commander, I knew of the commander. Several attendees admitted to being from out-of-state and just "here to learn more." I wonder how the the content was received by those who were not as familiar with the battle history? The introductory speaker on Friday night, Larry Daniels, recently published a new history on Stones River (and by "recently" I mean "it isn't officially available until November." I only bought my book last weekend, so I don't know everything he argues. I am familiar with one major fact changing: Daniels argues that the Union had nearly 10,000 more soldiers present than originally thought. Previous understandings weighted the Union forces and Confederate forces about equal; this research changes much about how the battle could be understood from a tactical, strategic, and military history understanding. For some visitors, however, this may be the first time they even were aware of the armies' strengths, so the news didn't really change much of their understanding of the battle.

I was also disappointed that the "scholarly" speakers focused on the Confederacy. I knew one would be presenting on Jefferson Davis's approach to the Western Theater, but the other ended up presenting a more human examination of Confederate General Braxton Bragg. While both presented interesting ideas and challenged some scholarship, very little ended up being discussed about the Union army, decisions, or participants. One presentation by a park ranger and local professor discussed the impact of the battle and the war on the local population. That was interesting and well done, but still left out discussion of the victorious army during the battle. The final speaking presentation by Dwight Pitcaithley focused on meaning and remembrances of the Civil War (a quality way to end the lectures, in my opinion). I made a comment about it to some of my former co-workers and one of the maintenance guys piped in, "Well, you live in the South, Elizabeth, what did you expect?" Good question. What did I expect?

They left a heckofalot of room for me
to play with my "title." Goofing off also
helped other attendees feel comfortable
enough to approach me. 
As aforementioned, I expected the lecture parts to be incredibly boring, in part because of the name of the event: symposium. What is a symposium, anyway? How many average citizens can identify the meaning of that word, much less want to go to one? I am glad the lectures were well-presented, even if I am slightly disappointed in the content. I think it would have been valuable for some more directed engagement with the audience. Many attendees had questions or wanted to talk out the ideas (I should know... word got out that I used to work at the battlefield and since I was not in uniform, I seemed like an approachable individual for attendees to come and talk to me during breaks. I didn't really get "breaks" like everybody else. The approachability factor may have been influenced by how I chose to identify myself on my nametag- it proved a valuable conversation starter as I clearly did consider myself a stuffy individual). Break-out sessions or more time for Q&A sessions could have helped. It would also prove helpful as a means to assess what content the attendees were truly walking away with.

Musicians discussed the origins of songs before playing
the songs during the symposium.
(Stones River National Battlefield)
Even with limited opportunities for directed engagements, the event's programs included opportunities for different types of engagements other than lectures. Music and a presentation of Andrew Johnson by a costumed interpreter provided attendees with different ways to experience or understand some of the history. The musicians and the costumed interpreter were professionals and added an extra dimension to the event.

As an attendee with a special interest in Civil War, especially the Civil War in the Western Theater, I found the event engaging and thought-provoking. I don't know how I would have appreciated the content if I did not have as much interest in the historical side of things. I know the music and the costumed performance might have caught my attention (as it did for several visitors to the battlefield that afternoon who were invited to come and listen). The symposium proved an excellent experience for me, attendee by choice. My next question will be "how do we provoke interest in more people to choose to attend these types of events?" What value is an amazing event if few attend?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Symposiuming: Preface

This past weekend, Stones River National Battlefield hosted its semi-annual symposium. This year's symposium's title "The Legacy of Stones River: Why the Battle Matters 150 Years Later," hinted that the event would seriously provoke thought about the idea of legacy and meaning. I went because I love that place, I did immense amount of research on some of the legacies, I love that place, I like seeing how historic sites address the question of "meaning," and I wanted to see what the symposium would include. Also, I love that place. Knowing my former advisor, Dwight Pitcaithley, would be speaking only sweetened the deal.

I had been to several of the symposiums over the past few years (in fact, I was the ranger who gave the ranger programs at the symposium over five years ago). But my experiences have always been working the symposiums. I helped set up the places, I helped direct traffic, I ensured technology worked. This was the first event hosted by the battlefield that I attended and technically had no responsibilities (I ended up volunteering to take photos, otherwise, I was a total participant).

If I want to be honest about my role as participant, however, I will admit that I knew of some of its planning from when I worked there over a year ago and know everybody involved with the planning (so I didn't walk into this program as most of the attendees did). I am also particularly versed in the battle's history, the memory of the battle in Civil War history, and the history of the landscape around the battlefield. The majority of the attendees (some who came from New Jersey, California, and Texas just to attend the symposium) would not have that sort of background.

The event itself ran smoothly, was well-received by those in attendance, and provided quality content for attendees. What I want to do, however is poke around a little at what we (historians, historic sites, event planners, etc.) can do better. What went especially well? What can use improvement? How well did we address the ideas of "legacy" and "meaning?" How much of the content "matters" during this sesquicentennial anniversary year of the American Civil War?

Over the next few days, I will take some time to provide my own assessment of the symposium. These will be from my own perspective as an attendee, as a historian trained to work with the public, and as an interpreter. C-SPAN filmed the presentations and I assume that means at some point in the future, you will be able to watch some of the content, too. In the meantime, you'll just have to bear with me as I attempt to sort out ideas about a two-day event in a verbose fashion.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Magic at Mammoth Cave

Yesterday I trekked my way out to Mammoth Cave National Park. It is one of my favorite places to visit, especially this time of year; the colors along the rolling hills of that karst topography are brilliant. And the idea of standing in the world's longest cave excites me every time I visit.

The view from inside the cave without lights.

The view from inside the cave with lights (National Geographic)

The park ranger leading the program offered a quality tour, full of humor, information, and heck, some interpretation. Tour groups in the cave tend to "accordion"as the different paces of visitors stretch out the group. During the times when the group stopped the park ranger provided brief "Q&A" sessions, asking if anybody had any questions he could answer. Prompted by his earlier introduction, one woman asked, "Since you have worked here for seventeen years, do you find this repetitive or the cave ever losing its magic?"

Without stopping to inhale, the ranger responded in a soft tone, "Oh, no ma'am, it never loses its magic." He paused, then repeated himself, "It never loses its magic." He quickly recovered from his emotional response with an explanation that views may make the cave look different, lights shining cast new shadows, and visitors are as much a part of the experience. He said that visitors may provide different ways to look at things, ask new questions, and insert their own creative perceptions about the place.

I love that idea. The visitors are a part of the experience. They connect to that place in their own way while impacting the park ranger. Indeed, with a more interactive experience, visitors have the chance to converse with each other or vocalize their viewpoints. The park ranger understood his role as facilitator to the experience, not be the experience. That feels easier when visitors literally get to be immersed in the resource (we were 260 feet below ground when she asked that question). But the park ranger pointed out things (sadly he didn't do a lot of pointing AT things, except with his flashlight). He maintained the idea that each one of us impacted the cave in one way or another, often unknowingly. He revealed ideas and let us absorb them.

Sometimes it is too easy to fall into the trap of telling, not revealing, especially at historic sites. Sometimes we know so much and want to share all the important details that we forget the significance of letting visitors immerse themselves in the resource. What happens when tours become more about engaging with visitors and less about the furniture? What happens when tour guides, park rangers, or interpretive staff spend more time interacting with visitors and less time telling about the battlefield (or house, or statues, or other historical feature). The visitors can provide new insights, ask new questions, provoke the interpreters' understanding, and cast all sorts of new light onto the stories of the past. Contemporary visitors expect to be a part of the experience and not just told facts. I bet those engaged visitors will better remember their visit to the site than those who were talked to the whole time, too.

History won't ever lose its magic to those actively studying it. Those presenting the past the public have a chance to expand and share that magic.

Friday, October 12, 2012

No bullets? Then it must not be a Civil War Site.

Melrose served as the "suburban villa" for the
plantation owner, who owned four working
plantations. (Courtesy Library of Congress)
On my way up from Louisiana, I spent the night in Natchez, Mississippi. Knowing of a nearby National Park Service site that I had yet to visit, I decided to stop by Natchez National Historical Park. Specifically, I stopped in at "Melrose," the antebellum estate managed by the park. Initially, I had planned on staying just long enough to see what was there and get my stamp (knowing I had another ten hours left in my sojourn back to Tennessee). Yes, I am one of those park visitors. I ended up landing myself an engaging conversation with the park ranger and a brief tour of the house.

The tour was outstanding; the park ranger did an amazing job at fueling the stories with his passion, making connections with his audience. I actually enjoyed the house tour because of his program (I've mentioned my dislike of historic home tours before). He discussed nuances associated with the site's history while relating many of the historic ideas to today. I love to see the green and grey shine like that.

What struck me the most, however, happened during a conversation I had with the park ranger before the tour. I saw that the park had some of the new "Civil War to Civil Rights" trading cards available and I asked if I could have some. I mentioned something along the lines of how parks like Natchez are often forgotten when people think "Civil War to Civil Rights" and he responded "well, this isn't really a Civil War park."

The reason Melrose existed: cotton  and slaves.
(Courtesy Library of Congress)

What defines a "Civil War" or "Civil Rights" park? His argument was that since the minor skirmish that happened was small and didn't affect the sites of the park, it wasn't really a "Civil War" park. I suppose that is one way to define a "Civil War" site: fighting had to take place or damage had to be caused by fighting. But that is how we have always tried to define these sites and as it turns out, it isn't always the most accurate. The estate's antebellum existence represents what the war was fought over. The estate's struggles reflect war's impact on even the "distant" places from battlefields. The estate's post-war existence represents devastation after war. The people associated with the estate echo the theme "From Civil War to Civil Rights" perfectly. Oh, but no shots were fired at the estate, so it must not be a "Civil War" park.

The story of the American Civil War existed well outside of the boundaries of battlefields. The story of the American Civil War impacted more than soldiers. The story of the American Civil War lasted beyond the four years assigned in text books. The National Park Service is trying and slowly moving in the direction of telling a broader story of the American Civil War. The park ranger who stated that Natchez was "not a Civil War park" clearly was read on the subject and familiar with the site, so I don't want to take away from his assessment. But at the same time, how do we define a "Civil War" site? Even better, how do we define "Civil Rights" site?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Imagined Liberties

I apologize for my absence. I had a lot happen in the past few weeks and have kept fairly busy.

The first major happening: I have voluntarily left the National Park Service to begin working for myself (no more individual disclaimers attached to the end of each post!).

Calm down! Calm down! For those who did not see that coming, I apologize. For those who did, I appreciate all of your recent support. And for those who had no clue that I was even a park ranger, now you know.

Whew! Now that I have got that off my chest, I can continue.

I debated whether or not I should announce that fairly major life transition or just ignore it and keep writing as if nothing has changed. I started this blog as a place for me to sort out my challenges I faced in my job as an interpretive park ranger for the National Park Service. Now that I no longer work for the National Park Services my challenges will certainly shift. However, even though I don't wear the flat hat anymore, I have not changed. I have the same background, education levels, and experience. I still like history, I still like traveling, my gears still constantly turn when I read about or see something connected to historical memory, and I still write. My goal of inspiring the interest of history for the general public remains and now I feel that I have more freedom to continue to do it.

In a recent email conversation, a friend of mine commented on my breaking away from the National Park Service by mentioning that I will now have the liberty to write about what I want, how I want. He mentioned that while working for the National Park Service, it was just an "imagined liberty." Being publicly associated with any organization creates varying forms of liberty when writing. Indeed, I will no longer have to post my disclaimers nor do I have to be concerned I might get a call from my supervisor about my writings (an event that may or may not have happened in my recent past). However, I do sense that my liberties will always be some form of imagined. But imagined liberties are a good thing. Imagined liberties spark innovation, drive creativity, and push ideas forward.

Writing for public consumption, especially through a dynamic and open medium like blogging, requires a degree of boldness and many imagined liberties. Recently, C-Span aired a session from last summer's Civil War Institute's Summer Conference at Gettysburg College entitled "Civil War Blogging." The blogging panelists discussed their approaches to blogging then answered questions, mostly from audience members. All three bloggers, Kevin Levin, Brooks Simpson, and Keith Harris wrote responses to the re-airing of the session. I appreciate their attitudes about blogging. Nobody is forcing them to write and they don't have any official "license" or "stamp of approval" to write. All three touch on the idea of blogging as a form of conversation. All three also touch on the idea of authority. And all three touch on audience. All three have created their virtual "space" to invite others to engage by imagining the liberty to do so.

Blogging serves as a method to engage with others; I write, I post, you read, you assess, maybe you respond. As it turns out, this same process happens in many forms of communication. Blogging is just one way to provide food for thought or to outline an opinion or even to stir up the dust a little. There are no official "rules" in blogging. This is a process; I will speak for myself that I learn a little more with each posting about what works, what doesn't, how I want to shift the direction of the content. As technology changes, so will these varying forms of communications. Who gives permission to write? Nobody. Who reads? Anybody who wants to read.

I also find that writing about things like history, memory, public awareness (or lack of awareness), and interpretation of these things also require levels of imagined liberty, often stirring up more dust than expected. I am not always ready for those little clouds I help create. But I see stirring up dust as a positive thing. In my mind, if I have stirred up dust, I have caused somebody to think a little differently (or just think). I am a fan of thinking. And I like to see potential in thinking. Potential revs up my possibility engine and gets me going. But then again, I have created this possibility by imagining my liberty to do so.

I am currently looking at an entire horizon of possibility now I am not wearing the green and grey. I will still write about history and interpretation (you know, since that is the name of this blog and all), I will just have a different type of imagined liberty. The world is my oyster! I will start by imagining it, first.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Visitor Identity (is a Vital Thing)

The cultural center where I work recently launched a temporary exhibit about Spanish influences on culture in the region. A portion of the exhibit looked at the historical connections and the rest of the exhibit featured the diversity of contemporary culture and its connections to the region. Staff at the center worked with members of the Latin American community in the region.

The original challenge was the development of the exhibit. We wanted the members of the group to tell their story and share what they wanted to share. We also needed to make sure the exhibit fit into the park's interpretive objectives while remaining reasonably manageable. We also needed to develop the interpretation in a manner that would deliberately make the connections to these stories to that of the broader region's culture. That required several meetings and conversations. My biggest challenge was resisting the urge to take over. Community projects like this are dynamic, organic, and should be flexible. That was easier said than done. A friend of mine led a similar project (on a much bigger scale) and I found myself sharing some of the same frustrations, learning the same lessons.

The exhibit has now been up for over two weeks. I am finding that the biggest crowd that comes to visit the center because of the temporary exhibit are members from the community that helped put the exhibit together. Many have never been to the center before, even admitting how they did not know it existed. But these visitors almost always take the time to see the rest of the exhibits and watch the film. What I find the most interesting is how they are drawn to see the space they helped create, the stories that help build their identity. For some, the items on display are their own items from their own houses; seeing those items on display stirs up such excitement!

In fact, this happens with many locals who visit the center's permanent displays: they visit to find connections to their identity displayed in a museum. They remember using some of the tools, their grandmother owning that china, their family owned farming equipment, they've worked on some of the boats depicted on the walls. Many times, for locals who come to learn more about their "roots," they are happy to walk through and learn about whatever it is we have on display in our temporary exhibit space. In this case, locals who don't claim a Spanish heritage want to share stories about their connections to the exhibit or their knowledge of Spain's influence on the region.

Both types of visitors arrive seeking a connection to their identity. In fact, I would even argue those passport stamp-collecting visitors are looking for a connection to their identity. If the United States National Park Service deemed a site or a story worth preserving, then it must be a part of this nation's collective identity, right? Pack up those kids, tie the luggage to the top of the van, we have to see the places that mean "America!" Yet, sometimes, we (site managers/interpreters) struggle with making the types of meaningful connections to all Americans (hence the explanation of the average national park visitor not necessarily representing the diversity of this nation). It isn't that most people aren't willing to listen to the variety of stories found at historic sites, it is their lack of awareness beforehand.

I understand that I am mostly preaching to the choir (historic sites and national parks have been struggling with broadening audiences for a loooong time) and that these are not easy issues. I don't know what solutions exist or how other sites are attempting to open their doors wider to new audiences. I even fear that once this temporary exhibit goes away, so will some of the diversity of our current visitors. But understanding visitors' identity connections serves as one element that makes up the "knowing your audience" portion of good interpretation.

How do you see yourself in stories told at historic sites?

*Note: These thoughts are my own and do not officially represent those of the National Park Service.

*I like hearing others' perspectives. What kinds of solutions have you seen historic sites implement to broaden their audiences?

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Picture is Worth [Some Serious Thought]

I feel like in the past few days, all I have been hearing about is the upcoming 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. I've read posts about it. I've read articles. Heck, it is so big, it gets TWO re-enactment events! Doesn't everybody know that America's bloodiest one-day battle happened 150 years ago [on Monday]?!? But then I suppose I feel inundated with it because I immerse myself with readings about the American Civil War (and contemporary understandings of the war). I also suppose that I do not represent the "average" citizen in that respect. I also suppose "average" citizens will live out their Monday like any other Monday, maybe catching a headline or news clip about the anniversary of the battle. It doesn't stop me from trying.

While pulling together some of the park's social media content, I realized that one of the most famous pictures of the American Civil War is that of soldiers from Louisiana.

Antietam, Maryland. Bodies of dead, Louisiana regiment. (Library of Congress

The photograph shows splayed (most likely posed) bodies of Louisiana soldiers from the fields of Antietam. While the content we develop and post at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve includes all-things-natural-cultural-and-historical of Louisiana's Mississippi River Delta, anything related to 1) other National Park Service sites and 2) the American Civil War especially catch my eye.

Indeed, I plan on posting the image via the park's social media outlets on Monday. I think it will provide a little bit of relevancy, connecting both the anniversary of the battle with that day, as well as the region's connection to the American Civil War. In the meantime, I have been working what text I want to accompany the photograph. What should be the associated message? I have many tentative routes to convey some serious meaning! Do I just mention the fact that the Civil War impacted Louisiana? Do I focus on the soldiers? Do I bring up the "bloodiest battle" factor (over 23,000 killed, wounded, or captured in a day?)? Do I mention why they fought? Do I bring up Antietam's role in Lincoln's decision to announce the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation after the battle? Do I talk about homefront or battle? Soldiers or civilians? Complexities of Louisiana's role during the war or strict battle-talk? Do I mention Matthew Brady or photography during the war? Do I run with universals like loss, grief, or death? Do I let the photograph speak for itself?

Do people even care?

I haven't decided what I will post with the photograph. I have some draft notes at work (mostly scribblings of ideas accompanied by scratches of dissatisfaction, scrawls made in between visitors while waiting at the desk). It is likely I am overthinking this; I tend to do that (in many areas of my life). It is just one picture! How much thought seriously needs to go into this?

I have a feeling my Monday will play out no differently than my other Mondays regardless of what I choose to include with this photograph. That doesn't stop me from a'thinking.

*Note: These thoughts reflect mine only and do not necessarily represent that of the National Park Service.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Battlefield [in Technicolor]

While I have the battlefield on the brain, I thought I'd share some photos a friend did at Stones River National Battlefield a few days ago.

Every visitor comes to parks to experience them their own way. It behooves us historian-types to remember how different people connect to these places and its history in different ways.

Memories of Fighting for Home and Hearth

It's that time of year again! No, I'm not talking about the start of college football, nor the arrival of the Pumpkin Spice latte at Starbucks. I am talking about the Fighting for Home and Hearth living history program at Stones River National Battlefield! The media of social sorts reminded me of the weekend through posts, tweets, and photos.

I can smell the black powder from here.
(Courtesy of Stones River National Battlefield)
For the last three years, I planned and implemented this particular living history weekend. I had been given the opportunity for the experience. I also think my former coworker secretly liked to torment me, assigning me the Confederate-themed weekend every early September. Once upon a time, a visitor left a comment card about one ranger's "Yankee bias" after said ranger went so far as to talk about how slavery contributed to the causes of the American Civil War (gasp). That rootin'-tootin' Yankee ranger was me. That rootin'-tootin' Yankee ranger had no problems with engaging with those who wanted to deny slavery's role in the war's causes.

My first year planning the program was a complete struggle, for I feared I would mess up. This was a big deal, after all! What if I misspoke?! What if I spaced out?! I did not want to appear the dummy! What if I shamed the arrowhead?! Nerves wracked my body for weeks as I freaked out about all that was bound to go horribly wrong. I chickened out and had the experienced ranger do the talking about the infantry shooting part while I did the storytelling part. I think I operated from an outline that had been prepared before my arrival, adding a few tweaks. If I recall correctly, the few tweaks included some extra sappy quotes from soldiers to tug at the audience's heartstrings. Yes, I had an outline on a paper that I read from. Shameful.

A recruiting poster for the Confederate Army.
I like playing with the idea of freedom's meaning.
I never ended up using this in my program, though.
My second year, I struggled, too. Oh, I grew up a little and decided that I was a big girl and could talk about the steps involved in the physical act of shooting and the maneuvers of infantry units. This time I struggled for different reasons. I knew that I was not comfortable telling just the Confederate side of the story. I also knew that the program allowed me to talk about things beyond the battle (life on the homefront, complexities behind soldiers' reasons to fight, etc.). A large portion of the interpretation included talk about the Rutherford Rifles. Seeing as only 11 of the 150 who marched off to fight returned after the war, I tried to focus on what devastation meant after the Civil War. I tried to focus on what the battle physically did (to the men fighting and to the surroundings). It becomes easier to evoke visitor emotion when you focus on those ideas, telling the stories of the soldiers who died on lands where they grew up.

But then, I knew that if I talked about the reasons why these soldiers were fighting, I would have to delve into more than just the difficulties of battle. Soldiers' definitions of home or property would often include enslaved laborers. In fact, nearly half of Rutherford County's population was enslaved at the outbreak of the war. So those "fighting for home and hearth" from Rutherford County were defending slavery. They wanted "freedom" from their perceived oppressors. One soldier wrote of fighting "the implacable enemy who seeks to destroy our liberty and enslave us." I decided to include more than just soldiers' experiences in my program this time, including causes and effects (though, not delving too deeply beyond what related to the soldiers). Once the weekend arrived, I dealt with a whole other set of problems as I delivered the program. I survived, but knew I still shrugged off taking on the bigger challenge.

Last year was the last time I planned the weekend. By that time, I had finished my thesis and graduated. My thesis was about using place to tell a story. Specifically, it was about using landscapes to tell difficult histories. Specifically, specifically, it was about using the battlefield environs now managed by the National Park Service at Stones River National Battlefield to tell the fuller story of the American Civil War by broadening the interpretation of the place and its history. So it only made sense to me that I include these larger ideas, presenting the conflicting ideas of freedom to varying groups of people. This was the academic topic I had been nesting on for years and now was the time for those ideas to hatch.

AND YET. I still struggled. I even had a meeting with my supervisor about it. People were expecting to come see a program about the local Confederate soldiers. How do I tell the stories of the men and women who were literally enslaved  by those in grey when I have a group of guys ready to shoot, acting like they were those who were fighting for this version of home? Visitors just come for the "boom!" anyway! Maybe I should not push so hard. Maybe I should just give visitors what they want. Talking about all this war stuff makes people uncomfortable, anyway. What if people leave unhappy?

Ding ding ding ding! 

Exactly! I am talking about a war! I am talking about battle! I am talking about major inhumanities! These are not "happy" thing! Yes, I want visitors to leave with a positive experience, but I also want people to take away more than a ringing eardrum with they leave the program. The soldiers represented by the living history volunteers play only a small part of a larger story! I took that and ran with it. I centered my theme on "freedom" and did less talking, more asking. I presented one idea of soldiers fighting for freedom (since that is what the visitors came to see and indeed could visualize with the help of the volunteers dressed in grey). I also presented another idea of what the definition of "home" might look like in the area during the 1850s and 1860s. I did not necessarily go full throttle with the contrast of the ideas, but neither did I neglect to tell the fuller story, neither.

And then I let those muskets go "boom."

I can't say I was fully satisfied that program, though I know I did better than in previous years. We keep pushing forward, seeing what works and what doesn't (I am not the only one who does this, by the way). That program was my last living history event before moving to Louisiana and I haven't had much of a chance to try my hand at that story again. I have shifted the direction of where I push and prod in the world of interpretation, but I certainly haven't stopped provoking. I still struggle with "getting good" at interpreting, but know tomorrow is another opportunity for improvement.

*Note: These thoughts are my own and do not officially represent that of the National Park Service.

**I am forever grateful for the opportunities Stones River National Battlefield provided me during my time there. I am especially grateful for the struggles, as I know I did the most growing during that time.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

"Pottery" and "Pride"

Duck's Market, the place to buy
statues, fireworks, and "pottery."

I apologize for my absence. I took a vacation to visit family and friends in the Volunteer State (a vacation extended by the arrival of a certain storm that reared its ugly head in south Louisiana this past week... not that I am complaining about the extra days off). I was deliberately trying to keep my brain operating at its lowest possible energy levels while on vacation. Of course, the people I know and hang out with have a way of provoking my thoughts (even when they don't realize it). The trip proved a refreshing break from life.

Fiestaware is so fun!
I am still working out a few ideas stirred up by some experiences and conversations, but thought I would stretch my writing muscles with my stop at Duck's Market. I love to stop at Duck's Market. Mostly because I love Fiesta pottery pieces and Duck's Market sells seconds of the pieces. Colorful dishware at a discount price!? Yes, please! I like to add to my collection a piece at a time, so I try to stop in every time I pass through the area. [Note: you cannot buy anything from Duck's Market except for fireworks the three days before Independence Day, so if you want to buy Fiestaware early July, you are out of luck... lesson learned].  

Prowling cats complete the
Duck's Market Experience.

If Fiestaware is not your thing, no worries! The shop sells fireworks, garden statues, and assorted knick-knacks. Included among the knick-knacks: an assortment of Southern-pride/Confederate flag memorabilia. As soon as your eyes adjust to the dim interior after being blinded by the larger-than-life silver dragon statue towering in the parking lot, the first thing you see is the wall with the flags.  Maybe I am just sensitive, but every time I see the wall, I feel like I am smacked in the face. 

[Insert pithy Southern Pride comment here]
What I find most interesting of the display is the fact that it is just there. Not just that it is there, but that it is just there. Among fireworks. Among dusty dishes. Among cats (the prowling cats in that store easily rival tigers in size... no joke). Among statues of saints and garden gnomes. A variety of slogans accompany the iconic symbols. "Heritage Not Hate." "Rebel by Choice." "American by birth, Southern by the Grace of God." "Completely Unaware of the Complexities Assigned to this Flag by Varying Groups." 

Oh, wait. I just made that last one up.  It'd fit right in there, I think.

I met somebody at a training a while back who asked me "you guys don't still deal with that, do you?" She was from Connecticut. She knew I worked at a Civil War park (at the time) and we were talking about visitor perceptions. Her question referred to the "Southern Pride/Confederate Pride" concepts that still ebb and flow through the culture. I wrinkled my face and responded with an absolute "yes, let's not be ridiculous, of course we still deal with that." I can't even buy moderately-priced dishware without running into it. It still stirs up debate and people want to yell about what it means (and want to argue that the "heritage" associated with it has nothing to do with "hate," obviously unaware of that "heritage"). But what are we supposed to do with it? Ignore it? Fuss? Yell? Ask questions? Engage? And I am asking as "we" the general public, not necessarily as historians/interpreters/historic site managers (I was on vacation, remember? I was the general public). Will enough dust gather on those icons in a way that we ignore what that symbol has meant over its existence? Will the general public be willing to have meaningful conversations about what the symbol means today? Will that symbol ever stop selling on its own? 

I am considering this post my "getting-back-into-the-writing-groove" after taking nearly a two-week break. I don't have answers, just thoughts. And now some new, colorful salad plates and bowls. 

*Now-standard disclaimer: These thoughts are my own and only my own.  

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Opelousas Massacre: Accidentally Racist?

So here is a question. Or three.

When is it okay to bring up race when I tell a story?

How necessary is it to include race when telling a story?

Can a storyteller be accidentally racist?

While investigating some local history, I stumbled upon the “Opelousas Massacre.” I don’t know what specifically piqued my interest about the title of the event. It could be the fact that I live none too far from Opelousas and had visited the Opelousas Orphan Train Museum recently. It could also be that word “massacre.” A former professor of mine challenged audiences regarding the use of that word. “What qualifies a massacre? Intention? Method? Numbers? Can 3 killed be a massacre? How about if 1,000 fall in battle, is that a massacre?” So now when I see the word “massacre,” I want to investigate how it is used.  It could also be the subject, historical era, and how the event has been remembered (and the fact that I have never specifically heard of it that I recall).

It turns out on September 28, 1868, members associated with the white supremacist group, The Knights of the White Camellia, descended upon the little town of Opelousas, Louisiana, killing upwards of 200 people over basic civil rights, like education and voting.

Constitutional Rights were not guaranteed for all citizens
for a long time in our nation's history (Library of Congress)

Have you ever seen the film, Groundhog Day? In it, Bill Murray relives the same day over and over. He has one day that plays out perfectly and attempts to try and retry to make that day exactly the same. Circumstances keep forcing how the day plays out. Every new day is different (sometimes vastly so). Every time Bill Murray tries something new, it impacts the day. 

I am sorry for the abrupt shift in thought, but I have a method to my madness. Let’s revisit the Opelousas Massacre. I stated the facts earlier: A group of men wanted their legal right to vote. They wanted their children to grow up educated. Another group of men did not want those things to happen. So that second group of men mass murdered the first group of men.

Let me try again. Free people of color in the area wanted to express their freedom by exercising their rights to vote. They wanted their children to have an education. Whites in the area did not want these free people of color to vote nor be educated. So the whites killed them.
Again. Free blacks in the area desired to vote and learn. Free whites in the area desired oppression of a group of people based on the color of their skin. The free whites killed the free blacks as one form of oppression.
And again. Once enslaved like chattel, understood to be nothing more than property, newly freed people arrived at the polls, ready to vote as American citizens. They advocated equal rights, holding positions in office and wanting their children to grow up educated. Completely overtaken with fear and hate, members of a supremacist group showed up ready to use whatever force necessarily to prevent these people from having basic American rights.
Once more. Formerly enslaved, thought of as nothing more than property, newly freed blacks were soaring to new societal heights, voting, holding office, establishing schools. Members of a group who considered the pigmentation of the epidermal cells a factor in evaluating the value of people did not want people of color to succeed. So these members of this group slaughtered the people of color.

I can keep trying over and over again. What gives this story more meaning? Can words even do justice to what happened in St. Landry Parish in 1868? Can this story be told without including the element of skin color? How much does race play a role in this story?

I ask these questions because one of the headlines that originally caught my attention about the event stated, “200 to 300 blacks were killed.”  Race is rarely a descriptor in events that include people of fairer skin color. How often do articles read, “200 to 300 whites were killed?” And if the article had said, “200 to 300 people were killed” would that make a difference? 200 to 300 civilians? 200 to 300 fathers? sons? brothers? 200 to 300 lives ended? 200 to 300 hearts that stopped beating?

These individuals were killed over their basic civil rights.



                 Desiring to make change by holding public office.

                       Living a life 


And yet, tragically, the heart of the reasons why this massacre occurred rest in the skin color of these 200 to 300 people. So does the storyteller of this event become an accidental racist by including the color issue? Or does the storyteller of this event become an accidental racist by not including the color issue?

No, I don’t expect a simple answer for I don’t believe there is one. But neither does that mean we should not talk about these things.

*Note: these thoughts are my own and do not necessarily reflect that of my employer.

Thoughts on Silence

I recently read a book in which the author called “arguing from silence” an “intellectual sin.”


Silence holds many mysteries.

Silence reveals many questions.

Silence invokes investigations.

How much of our understanding of the past is arguing from silence? Should what we know be considered whispers instead of silence? Can what we know ever be considered shouting?

Doesn’t the silence of a story tell a story in itself?

We don’t just ask “what’s there” or “why is that there?”

We ask “what’s not there?”

More importantly, “why?”

Why is there silence?

Silence serves as a piece of evidence in its own right sometimes.

It keeps us seeking. It allows for exploration.

It provides contrast for that of which we do know. Or, at least, it gives us the illusion that we do know.

*Regular disclaimer: These thoughts are my own. They don’t necessarily reflect anybody else’s (employers included).

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Interpretation is a Form of Translation

 This is kind of how I feel when I talk to scientists:

I usually have to have another interpreter who is familiar with the basics of biology or ecology accompany me when I go talk to researchers or resource managers (of the scientific kind). My strengths rest in the humanities and liberal arts; the only "C" I got in high school was in biology (I was an "A" student, otherwise... 'nuff said). When people ask me what type of tree is that, I have to bite my tongue with my desired response of "a green one." In fact, at the battlefield, the resource management crew put together a binder of all plants and trees around the visitor center (with colorful pictures and drawings) to help us interpreters answer the nature-y questions. I could point out regiments on a map. I had a hard time remembering the different wildlife found within the boundaries of that map.

As an interpreter, my challenge is taking research and delivering it to the public in a manner that is understandable. I have to make visitors relate to the resource. The resource may be a story, may be the history, may be the place, may be a thing. Since my background is in history and cultural resources management, I find I have to be especially careful that I operate from the lowest common denominator when I give programs. Auto-pilot doesn't always work, for interpreters have to be flexible according to the audience. Just because I inundate myself with readings about all-things-American-history does not mean my visitor will be able to tell me which General Jackson fought during the Battle of New Orleans. Rather than be frustrated with that fact, I embrace it as an opportunity to engage. 

A huge part of being an interpreter is understanding that not everybody is as interested as you in whatever it is you are talking about. Let's be honest: very few will be genuinely interested. Heck, if I had a penny for every time I heard somebody use the word "boring" in relation to history, I'd have at least several dollars (I feel like that one was weak... but you get the idea... many people think history is boring). Interpreters are there to spark interest, to tap into the various pieces of information visitors know about the resource and use that to help provoke thought. I think my biggest struggle is tampering my own passion when conveying history to the public. I need to remember to take the most important idea and present that. I need to remember to present that most important idea in a manner that engages thought and emotions. I need to remember that I can rattle off all the details I want, but they most likely will not stick. I need to remember to choose the concepts I want to convey to the public mindfully.

A colleague reminded me the other day that being an interpreter can often be a struggle, even when dealing with other coworkers. Usually, the problem rests in the distilling information related to others' passions and interests. I receive many reports and articles with information that non-interpreters want to convey to the public. They want to use many words! Big words! Big ideas! Field jargon! But this is great stuff, they say, why wouldn't the public be interested in knowing these things!? Like the Nick Frost character in the excerpted film, it is my job to translate for the public. The idea is if I do well, the visitor will invest more time in learning more. But parks and historic sites find themselves vying for attention, competing against a myriad of distractions. We often have a short length of time to capture the attention of our audience and have to use that time wisely. I don't want to take away from researchers' hard work or the integrity of respective fields. I do want more people interested in the subjects, however, and sometimes that means using my skills to distill content simply and not to overwhelm visitors with that same information.

*These ideas are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

**The excerpted film is from Hot Fuzz.

***I love Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Matter of Perspective

Same object, different angles, different lighting. [Source]

Mr. Egge, my high school art teacher, emitted the stereotype of art teachers. He was quirky, creative, and clearly passionate about his craft. His classes were also quirky and creative while providing for new ways to think about, well, art. And art reflects life, right? In one drawing exercise, he had three white, geometric figures on a white sheet (a sphere, a pyramid, and a cube). Mr. Egge darkened the room and shined an intense lamp on the grouping of objects. We were given short bursts of time to sketch the three figures, each time with a light shining from a different direction. He had us focus on the shadows cast by the light. How did the change of light position change the shadows? How did those changing shadows impact our sketches? He pointed out that the objects never changed, rather it was our perception and then recreation of these objects that changed.

I think sometimes that my job as interpreter is to take the light and adjust is a little to shine it a little differently. The content of the history does not change; rather, I just want to provide a different way to consider the past, to provoke a little thought.

If you visit this region, you hear of the French influence, specifically of the Acadian influence. In fact, the National Park Service manages three Acadian Cultural Centers, telling the story of the forced deportation of the Acadians from modern-day Nova Scotia and how that population's arrival to Louisiana has resulted in the Cajun culture today. As I continue to read about the variety of cultures that have influenced southern Louisiana, I am struck how often I find references to people of color and the influence of those of African descent, but little substance of their story in local memory. People want to visit to see the Cajuns and hear French because that is what is promoted by the tourism industry (and pop culture). There are more threads that make up the cultural tapestry down here, though. Indeed, these stories can be understood as one of Mr. Egge's geometric objects, existing as a part of the composition.

We just have to take the light and shift it a little as a means to highlight different features of the story.

Let's look at some numbers, shall we? France handed the territory of Louisiana over to Spain in 1763 (nevermind that the American Indians in the region didn't agree to any of this, by the way). Spain invited the deported Acadians to the region (between 3,000 and 4,000 Acadians will arrive by way of Spain's invitation). Spain even paid for some Acadians' passage across the ocean, land, livestock, seed, and tools. Spain also imported captured Africans to be sold into slavery in this territory. In a 1784 census, approximately 25,000 people lived in the Louisiana territory (American Indians were not counted, however); 16, 544 of these people were enslaved African. Math is not my strongest subject, but those number tally up to over half of the population at that time. Then, a few years later, the slave revolt in Haiti in 1791 resulted in 10,000 new settlers in the Louisiana territory, mostly slaves and some of their owners.

I know, I know. My brain just broke, too. So many people arrived to the area during the last part of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries... people of color! The Africans who were captured and brought to work in the fields in Louisiana, however, were able to maintain some of their identity from Africa (language, some religious practices, even food- okra, for example) unlike many enslaved on the rest of the continent. The National Park Service partnered with Louisiana State University and hosted a conference that resulted in an outstanding booklet entitled African Mastery of a Strange Land. The book demonstrates how the enslaved Africans influenced the development of Louisiana. Its arguments, however, do not saturate the historical landscape (not the remembered landscape, anyhow). Many of the people of color also spoke French (some Creole, some not, some enslaved, some not). A more amazing part of this story is that of Creoles of color; because of its French and Spanish rule, Louisiana followed the "Code Noir" or the Black Code. Imported Africans usually became slaves, but in some cases could buy their freedom. They were understood to have souls and were required to convert to Catholicism (unlike the understandings of slaves in the east where the enslaved were often understood as nothing less than property). The African Mastery booklet goes into a little more detail about the Code Noir's impact on how Africans influenced culture in Louisiana. So why is this region well known more for the Acadians-turned-Cajuns? I leave that question open on purpose to see what visitors think.

I don't want to take away from the Acadian to Cajun story, nor do I think it correct to compare the travesties of people groups. There is plenty of rich and complex history in this region. In order to tell it completely, sometimes we have to adjust the light a little to shine on other surfaces to reveal new angles of our story. In addition to including more people in the story, this provides a form of contextualizing the story of populating the state. People arrived to Louisiana with a variety of backgrounds and for a variety of reasons. When people leave the movie and make comments about how they had no idea that there were populations who were forcefully removed from their homes and wound up in south Louisiana, I tend to remind them that, indeed, there were many populations who came to these States United that way.

Of course, I talk about these people groups who arrived over the course of the past 300 years or so. My next post about people groups and their influences on culture will most likely be of the indigenous peoples. They had no say on who came and stayed here. Yet, indigenous people have been here for thousands of years.  

*Note: these thoughts are my own and do not necessarily reflect that of the National Park Service.