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?

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