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?

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