Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Jean Lafitte: Original Gangster

I recently discovered a shirt. A shirt, in fact, that I love.
T-shirt design from Dirty Coast in New Orleans
If you know me personally, you know that I have had a fascination with all-things-pirate lore. If you know me professionally, you know that I have spent much time figuring out how to engage the public with "difficult" history. Slavery. Civil rights. War. I now work at a national park named after a thieving, murdering, pillaging, slave-smuggling pirate.

A challenge I have faced in my short time at this park has been bridging the gap between myth and history regarding Jean Lafitte. He's a pirate! Contemporary memories of pirates include quirky quotes about the disappearance of rum. Pirates, especially those that lived during the "Golden Age of Piracy," have levels of romanticism, mystery, and legends associated with them. Jean Lafitte's lore, especially in south Louisiana, seamlessly exists with the histories of the area. Hence the T-shirt produced by a New Orleans-based design company.

My professional self and personal self had a minor battle over this shirt until a comrade of mine offered a suggestion. "Why don't you research and write about pop culture's impact on the memory of Jean Lafitte and the difficulty of presenting history?" Brilliance. So I have found my new project, one that has been in the making for a while, and now I don't feel guilty about buying (yet another) pirate shirt.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Dichotomy of Park Rangering (at a Historic Site)

"You're an interpreter, not a historian. Your job is to spark interest, not overload anybody with facts."

I recently had a conversation with a former colleague about challenges I face bridging what I learned in school with "real world" experiences. In his efforts to help me, he reminded me that historical perceptions change constantly and the core of my job is to spark interest in the public. I agree with this... to an extent. I did not spend [cough] four years in a public history graduate program without the expectation of applying some of my training in the field. My past experiences granted me the fortune of working with folks who considered themselves historians and remained current with the trends of historical thinking. Then I jumped into a park that had a larger story to tell besides just the history component and have encountered a number of challenges working with those who are not as familiar with history.

When I expressed those challenges to my former colleague, he was trying to help me by encouraging me to think of the perspective of non-historians. But I cannot strip away my own understanding of historical thinking. And while I understand a major part of my job is sparking interest in history, in parks, in culture, and for here, in the physical place, I can't operate without a solid background in history. I am not comfortable relating "well, let me tell you what I heard," stories. If I am going to relay information, I want to be able to present evidence. I don't mind sparking interest, but when visitors seek "fuel" in the form of further information, I need to be able to navigate the resources well and know where to send them. My current challenge is working for a cultural center in a rich and complex region for a historically isolated culture that did not do much to document lives. Oral tradition is alive and well in Cajun country.

The National Park Service strives for excellence among its employees. Regarding its treatment of history at national park sites, the Organization of American Historians produced a document called Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service. I have only read it through once, but am still chewing on many of the thoughts. I do a lot of thought-chewing. One of the biggest gaps is that of the historian and the interpreter. "You're an interpreter, not a historian." I consider my historian background one of my assets as an interpreter. I agree that the roles are separate, but developing my skill sets for one role enhances the skill set for the other. I suppose that is why I started this blog in the first place; I wanted a place to sort out the differences between the two and how the two can integrate.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Playing with Ideas

The stuffed alligator

"Because it is not a toy. It is not something to play with."

The little boy's inquiry to his mother was an honest question regarding his touching the stuffed alligator on display. The display encourages visitors to touch the alligator's teeth and skin, asking "why" questions as a form of engaging children. The display includes a teal-colored, eighteen-foot length of tape stretched across the lobby to indicate the size of an adult male alligator. While the display was designed with children in mind, adults often interact, walking the length of the tape as the display suggests.

The mother's statements startled me. Immediately, I wanted to walk over and say, "but it is a toy, it is something to play with." My judgement told me not to interfere with parenting and to let the situation be. The family soon walked out. The incident provided me with thought about exhibits, museums, and playing. I had read this article about designing exhibits for adults a few weeks back. One of the first things I learned in grad school was some statistic that more adults trust information coming from a museum than coming from a classroom. I do not believe people should take information given to them as fact, it should be something they think about. Wait for it... Did she just... Isn't that...? Interpretation, yes. Provoking thought, yes. Playing with ideas.

Museums should be considered toys and the ideas contained within as ideas to play with. Kids know learning everyday is a fact of life and they are constantly figure out where to file these ideas in their head (see another child's response to the stuffed alligator and some of her own inquiry prompted by the display here). They explore naturally. Adults don't lose the exploration pulses naturally; often they just tuck that pulse away, getting along to go along. Institutions of learning, whether academic or cultural, school or museum, should engage brains in a way that allows for new thoughts to swirl into the mix. Adults should be given the freedom to figure out how information contained in these places fits with what they already know. That "figuring out" looks different for each adult (just as "playing" looks different for each kid).

Museums presenting ideas from the past especially need to provide ways for adults to engage the resources in manners that allow them to connect to the place in their own way. They should feel free to play with the ideas. "It is not something to play with" may be how many understand how content presented to them should be received. You read the exhibit, you file the fact in your brain, maybe one day it will come in handy for a rowdy game of "trivia." How can museums encourage a process of receiving-and-playing-with content? Is it physical interactions? Is it emotional connections? Is it none of the above or all of the above? To quote a little boy who wanted so badly to feel the ridges of an alligator's back: "why?"

Friday, May 4, 2012

A Perspective of Perspective

Today's session of "Integrating Civil War and Civil Rights" concluded the course, but not its effects. The course provided much food for thought. While I plan on using this blog as a place to sort out some of those thoughts, a particular idea struck me about perspective.

One of my jobs as an interpreter is introducing ideas, prodding thought. One of my jobs as historian is telling a complete and objective story. I want to remove as much as my own bias as possible. I won't ever remove it fully, but I need to be cognizant of it. When I interpret history, I want to introduce ideas, expand ways of thinking, while remaining objective. Is my motivation to provoke thought subjective? Maybe. But if I am to do these things well, I step outside of myself and consider the many perspectives.

I realized somewhere during the many conversations within the course that I hold my own bias, especially towards those who don't want to change the "we've always done it this way." On the surface, it isn't a bad bias, but it does inform my perspective. My first college course about the American Civil War was taught by the former chief historian of the National Park Service. Only a few class periods actually discussed battles and tactics; the majority of the course focused on the causes and effects of the war. A semester later, I took another course from this professor entitled, "Interpreting Historic Sites to the Public." That course became a foundation to how I understood the role of history, historians, and historic sites in the public. In his career in the park service, this professor advocated for the telling of a more complete history at National Park Service sites. Sites should engage the public about history, even the more difficult topics of history! In my naiveté, I thought, "that must be how historic sites think! That is the way to do interpretation!"

I then traversed through graduate school, pulling apart ideas about public history, asking questions, engaging with other students and professors about these ideas. Few resisted these ideas; we came from the same training and read the same arguments and often drew similar conclusions. My time spent at the battlefield was shared with other historian-types who did not completely resist the idea of telling a fuller story at Civil War sites, so I still saw these ideas come to fruition in programming and publications.

During this week's course, I had a hard time grappling with the idea that there are still those who manage historic sites who resist the integration of a fuller story. But then it struck me. I have my own perspective, and that is one filled with books, and journal articles, and writings, and arguments about this topic. I can talk my way up and down and in and out of the historiography of Civil War memory on the landscape in America. For those who have not had the same training or interests, I need to be considerate of their perspective. "We only tell battle history at Civil War sites!" Why? Why do you think that? What is the harm to contextualizing these stories within the bigger American story? What can we lose by shifting our approach? Or better yet, what can we lose by not shifting that approach?

After asking those questions, the most important thing I can do is listen.

I tend to be more patient and forgiving with visitors. I expect the lowest common denominator of understanding of a place and anything more from a visitor provides a pleasant surprise. I need to adopt that idea for coworkers and other historic site managers, utilizing methods that help guide them to see what I see regarding how we tell a story. And I need to remember how and why our perspectives differ. And remember that I do not hold the correct perspective every time. And remember that history is comprised of many perspectives. That's a thought that I am trying to help encourage at historic sites, isn't it?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Day 1: Integrating Civil War to Civil Rights

Yesterday's session of "Integrating Civil War and Civil Rights" laid the foundation for the rest of the course this week. I have many ideas bouncing around my head about the how we (the National Park Service) approach interpreting the Civil War. Rather than delve into each of these bouncing ideas, I would rather take some time to talk about the course itself.

I am "attending" the course through a web-based conferencing program. This is the first time the park  service has used this method to teach a content-based course (rather than skills-based course). The long-distance training is beneficial, as it saves parks money (no travel costs). The program allows for some interaction through chat boxes, and if the instructors permit it, we can interact with the telephone via a conference call situation. The experience is not the same as an on-site course with personal interaction, admittedly.

There are maybe 10 parks represented, mostly Civil War-related parks. I think I had expected to see more parks, particularly from Civil Rights-related parks. I know the class had a cap and I know that spring usually means interpreters are busy with school groups and are gearing up for summer crowds. But I am still slightly disappointed to not see more "attendees." And I wonder why that is? Is it the nature of the pilot class? Is it the season? Is it interest levels? Is there resistance to the ideas presented?

I know that resistance to the ideas we are discussing in the class exists. I have seen it before, even from "academics" who are supposed to lead the way in research and from former co-workers. Sometimes the resisters came about and started shifting their mindset. I am of the mindset (and am not the only one... some of the course instructors blog here; you can see they are generating the same ideas) that we need to make some drastic changes in how we tell the story of the American Civil War at parks. And not just at Civil War battle sites, either. That is where that key word "integrating" comes in.

The lead instructor gave a brief introduction to some of the motivation behind this class. People don't visit battlefields. He showed trends in visitation, and it was mostly downward (except for Gettysburg, the mother of all battlefields- it's trend broke even). Less than one percent of the population visited Civil War sites. And the visitation to the parks by no means represented the American population. What does that mean for parks today? Is it possible that we do not tell a quintessential American story, relatable by all? I am going to argue that, no, we don't. The story has meaning for many, we just have to do some serious shifting in how we approach telling the story.

Robert Sutton, the chief historian of the National Park Service, was quoted in the class, "Four million enslaved African Americans saw this as their revolution... Today we commemorate the beginning of the Civil War, but we also celebrate the fact that, with the end of the war and with the 13th amendment to the Constitution, more people were freed from enslavement at one time than at any time in world history." Now, there is a radical idea: the Civil War as a form of revolution? This isn't a wrong way to present the past, just a different way (though, you can imagine Sutton receiving letters regarding his comments). Interpretation is about provocation. Now maybe you have a new idea bouncing around in your head?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

My "Think" Piece

Over the course of the next four days, I will be attending a training called "Integrating Civil War to Civil Rights: Interpreting the March toward Freedom and Equality." Offered by the National Park Service, the course is long-distance with individuals "attending" from various parks (mostly Civil War or Civil Rights-related). We have been given some pre-course assignments. The first assignment included reading through the essay packet written by a variety of individuals. Our second assignment is "set aside some time to think about what integrating Civil War and Civil Rights interpretation means to you." The two posed questions include, "What do you think will be most challenging?" and "What is most exciting?" The back of the essay packet included some blank pages entitled, "My 'Think' Piece," a place to jot down theses ideas. I am going to use this as my place to write, instead.

First, I am glad we (an inclusive we: interpreters, National Park Service, historic sites, the public) have made the step to contextualize history in a bigger way. History is not just made up of one even after another. Events and perceptions linked in many complex ways together make up the past. The event of the Civil War officially lasted only four years, but its meaning echoed much longer than that (arguably still echoes today). The Civil War "end" at the surrender of Appomatox Court House should really be considered the beginning. The nation tore itself apart, essentially over the questions of what it meant to be America, what it meant to be an American. At the end of the war, the nation continued its journey to answer those questions. The nation still has no easy answers for those questions.

The war proved a catalyst of several major changes in these United States. The end of the war launched a shift in civil rights toward some groups. People of color would now be considered more than property. Amendments were passed, widening the range of those who could vote (although, it did not completely open voting rights for all Americans). However, even an event as significant as a war would not be enough to change everything for the positive. The American Civil War served more as a catalyst.

While I can think of many challenges in interpreting this integration, a few stand out a little more in my mind. First, defining "Civil Rights" will be a challenge. When I say "civil rights" in conversations, often the images that come to people's mind are that of freedom marches, of sit-ins, and of speeches. The Civil Rights Movement (capital C and R) is only a part of civil rights (lower case c and r). What is a civil right? Should we confine our discussion of civil rights specifically to people of color? Should we confine civil rights to just a decade in the middle of the twentieth century? Second, the violence of the American Civil War is easier to swallow for it was "war." The violence committed after the American Civil War towards many people groups is a more difficult thing to grapple with. People were beaten. People were hung. People were raped. People were verbally humiliated and accosted. These things (in the civil rights movement spanning across American history) happened often based entirely on the color of skin. These things happened for decades. While I don't think interpreters should shy away from these events, interpreting inhumanity and injustice is not an easy task. Third, our human nature automatically wants to create "good guys" and "bad guys." We want to victimize and villianize as a way to make sense of a story. An objective look at the past, considering the past "a foreign country" means we take away the labels of "good" and "bad." We should tell the story as a whole.

In the same way I think of many challenges, I can think of many ways this course, its material, and the ideas that will continue beyond the course excite me. First, the course will be a concentration of professionals who have the same interest as me. Not only will I have food for thought, but I will be able to engage others on their viewpoints and how they handle these sorts of things at their park or in their field. Second, one of my personal research interests are of the American Civil War and its meanings. Please don't throw me into the briar patch and make me take that course! Third, I am hoping to continue building my own interpreters "tool box" with ideas and skills I can use to present these ideas in my job. If interpretation is about provocation, this will be an excellent exercise in provoking thought and learning how to provoke thought.

I have been asked before (on more than one occasion and by more than one person) why do you want to study the more painful things of the past (war, violence, racism, etc)? I don't know if you can take an honest look into history without revealing some of the ugliness of human nature (some of that ugliness on vast scales). Ignoring the past only hurts us. Painting a pretty picture of the past also hinders more than helps. We remember the full story as a way of seeing where we have been, how far we have come, and what is in store for our future.