Friday, June 29, 2012

On Controversy

I consider myself a "beer snob." Life is too short to drink cheap beer and when I do imbibe, I sit back and enjoy the flavor. I wonder about the process and what makes the beer taste that way. I contemplate the complexities of brews. The fact that microbreweries and homebrewing is an "in" thing right now puts a smile on my face. It is like the misquoted Ben Franklin said: "Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."

Deliciousness in a bottle
A while back I went to one of those fancy beer places with a friend, the type of bar that offers proudly over one hundred beers to choose from, several dozen on tap. We ordered a Xingu Black Beer from Brazil. The bartender made the comment that this beer's flavors were nuanced and revealed themselves "layered" as you drink the beer. He posed the alternative statement that many American beers have flavors that just "bam! hit ya!" all at once. I thought, "that statement can apply to more than beer" right after I thought "this beer is delicious!"

From a glance, our society does not reveal itself as nuanced, particularly when we express our opinions, particularly when those opinions relate to [fill in controversial adjective here] issues. Generally, we are presented with information and are expected to "bam! hit ya!" make a decision one way or another about it. It isn't that we are not nuanced society, filled with complexities, but we don't necessarily reveal that about ourselves, particularly when we are expected to make decisions about topics that are considered controversial.

Stop for a moment and consider that word "controversy." I looked it up in the thesaurus and found words like "altercation" and "contention" and "strife." The connotations imply a harsh and negative idea. Other synonyms include "debate" and "discussion" and "variance" and "difference." Nuance, anybody? Not that this will come as a surprise, but the media especially, likes to toss that word around. Controversy, BAM! The word just hits ya, all at once. So when does an issue get elevated from "debate" or "discussion" to "controversy?"

We have access to so much information constantly. We don't just get a "Bam!" any more. We get, "bam! bam! BAM! bam!" Our chances to let information soak in are limited. How often do we (individually or on a community level or heck, on a national level) allow time to contemplate?

[Take this moment as a chance to do so.]

Interpreters of history have many opportunities to talk about what we might label as "controversial." Allowing opportunities for contemplation may help to sooth the controversial beast. Knowing audiences vary, my question is: what should contemplative opportunities look like? I agree that a major part of interpreters' jobs is to provide for these opportunities, even facilitate this part of the visitor experience. Here's a real kicker: do we discuss then contemplate? Do we contemplate then discuss? What if a visitor is like me, an external thinker who verbalizes thoughts? How do we defuse controversy in a way that allows for visitors to feel safe to talk about their thoughts? Or better yet, how do we reveal a nuanced past without labeling it "controversial" first?

As much as we may be a "bam! hit ya!" kind of society, I think we could handle some layered discussion and time for contemplation.

*These thoughts are my own and only my own.

**And yes, it has crossed my mind that somebody reading this will find my beer analogy controversial. Sorry.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Peeling Paint and Other Historic Perceptions

Peeling paint is only one indication the public uses to gauge authenticity.
I ran into a friend's dad recently; knowing I am new to the area and that I like history, he asked if I had visited the local historic villages since I have been here. I told him I had been to one but not the other. "Ah," he said in all seriousness about the village I had not been to, "you should go because it is more authentic- the paint is actually peeling off the houses." Admittedly, I have not visited both, so I can't compare the two. Also (admittedly), I rarely enjoy historic house tours. "But don't you like history?" Yes. "And I thought you got a degree in cultural resources management?" Yes. "But isn't a historic house tour where history and interpretation seem to collide in the most obvious fashion?" Yes and no.

Historic house tours should provide excellent opportunities for interpretation, but countless times I have seen a potentially awesome tour turn into a furniture tour, complete with explanations about closet taxes and petticoat mirrors (don't get me started on petticoat mirrors). Not all historic house tours are bad. I have experienced some excellent tours (example: I went on a tour of the Eisenhower National Historic Site and over the course of the tour I learned about Eisenhower as a human, Eisenhower as a president and the nation under his presidency,  Eisenhower as a family man, and Mamie. Mamie rocks. By the end of the tour, I felt as if I had just stopped in for a visit to the Eisenhower family and was welcome back any time*).

Interpretation can make or break the perceived meaning of a historic site. Does it matter if paint is peeling or not? This editorial piece by the Huffington Post arguing against historic preservationists intrigued me. Maybe it is the tone of the article (it is the opposite of warm and inviting). Maybe it is the argument he makes (I am not a historic preservationist to the core and sometimes don't agree with some preservation efforts, too). But Mr. Leher's words, "Nothing truly historic happened in either place" probably broke my historian's heart the most. I disagree with that notion, but it does shed some light on what much of the public considers "historic." The paint does not appear to be actually peeling off those houses so they must not be truly historic.

I find the commentary especially intriguing when compared to an article the Huffington Post ran two months ago arguing for historic preservation. Preservation of historic sites doesn't always mean turning each site into a tourist destination (heaven help me if every historic preservation effort turned sites into historic houses complete with tours). But when done well, it involves community engagement and instilling a sense of ownership to that portion of history. Maybe the warehouse gets converted into apartment buildings, but the history of the place tangibly remains with that community. Using skill sets of interpreters to engage the public-at-large about these places can help historic preservation efforts move forward. The majority of the public won't read the bibliography of historic references created to support the preservation efforts, but that doesn't mean they aren't interested in the stories associated with the place. Distill the information in a manner that will spark interest in the community to spur these efforts forward. It sounds like that is being done in many places.

What makes a place "truly historic"? Just like beauty, history reveals itself in the eyes of the beholder. How do historians reveal history to a broader audience? I don't expect simple answers because it is not a simple question.

*I did not get my NPS Passport stamp while at the Eisenhower NHS. If you know you are headed that way, let me know so I can tell you the date I want stamped. I will pay with a massive amount of gratitude.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Fancy That: Nostalgia's Role in Interpretation

"Fancy being without a telephone,” Nancy cried. “Or without the radio, or automobiles, or airplanes, or electric lights.”

A 1933 Nancy Drew couldn’t dream of being without a telephone! How else would she tell her closest friends, George and Bess, the breaking news on her latest mystery? What would Nancy think today, with things like plastic, computers, the internet, or cell phones? Give me an average teenage girl today and her “fancy being without” statement would look much different.

From The Sign of the Twisted Candles by Carolyn Keene, 1933
Some of our fascination with the past is the imagination factor we have to implement when learning about history. What would it be like to only be without a telephone or the radio? The element of nostalgia plays a role in the spark of history. I think sometimes public nostalgia gets in the way of some professional historians who try to convey the “real” parts of history, sans nostalgia: 

“Hold on a minute, sir. Let me remove your current point-of-reference to this timeframe by wiping away all mistruths related to your nostalgic understandings AND THEN we can get started with our traditional program on historic facts.”

Nostalgia, I am sure, has been a thorn in historians' sides for centuries. The double edged-ness of nostalgia, however, is the understanding that these "mistruths" are also a part of history and how people, sometimes societies, remember the past. 

Using the nostalgia, however, becomes a tool for interpreters to catch the attention of the audience before leaping into the more informative portion of a program. Why do people hold on to the nostalgia? Generally, people make a connection to something about the past through nostalgia because it is more meaningful to them. Our challenge as interpreters is taking that nostalgia and reframing it in a way for visitors to get a better grasp on history. 

Recognizing or acknowledging visitors' perceptions before or during a program can help them feel more at ease. Generally, they are there to learn (although, admittedly, every once in a while a visitor arrives who wants to play a round of "Outsmart The Ranger"- they are exceptions to my argument). Rather than just telling them "the facts and just the facts, ma'am," engaging with nostalgia, especially the kind visitors bring with them to that particular historic site, serves as a means to launch a non-threatening learning experience. What better way to help visitors learn more than building on what they already know (even if what they already know is candy-coated or in song or a candy-coated song)? 

Fancy turning that nostalgia into the flammable stuff  ignited by a program or museum display.    

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Walk a Mile: The Requirement of Reflecting and Observing

"I know the American people. They are an impulsive people, impatient of delay, clamorous for change, and often look for results out of all proportion to the means employed in attaining them."

This might sound like something you would hear somebody say today, especially in light of how technology has changed expectations and interactions with people. Instant! We expect instant. We expect now. This quote might lead you to believe that I am citing a commentator on a news program or an editorial page of a newspaper, especially considering this year of elections. 

Would it surprise you, then, to learn that these words were spoken in 1864 by one Mr. Frederick Douglass in a speech he made? Do you hear how his words still ring true nearly 150 years later? 

Reflecting on the "Slave for a Day" event that I wrote about yesterday, I wondered about social media's role in how the event would be received. People could instantaneously retweet a link and post a less-than-140-character thought and go about their day. I almost expected more conversation regarding the event in other venues, news sources, blogs, etc. I wonder if the Twitter allowed for thoughts to generate collectively while simultaneously granting a mechanism for steam to be released before it was built up (and exploded)? It also provided a way for park managers, public historians, and other interested individuals to see how the public reacted to the announcement. I found a few blogs or other digital publications on it. This article comments that "we'll all laugh about this some day," (the website is called "Mommyish" and seems to be directed towards those with children, though the article itself contains a video with explicit language).  This article serves more as a news piece, including a list of reader comments. This post pushes the information to another level, encouraging readers to read some primary source material found in the WPA slave narratives. 

The park website reflects some changes in
the program's announcement.
I said I would be interested in how the park responded, even silently wondering if they would cancel the program. I am glad they didn't outright cancel the program, rather, they have changed the name (and tone) of the event to "Walk a Mile, a Minute in their Footsteps." Word choice (and punctuation choice) has made a difference in the type of program presented. I wish I could go and experience the program for myself; I wish everybody who made a comment about the event (or even had a thought!) could have at least the opportunity to see the program for themselves before evaluating the content. We are a very quick generation to assess and pass judgement, sometimes not providing much time for analysis. "[I]mplusive... impatient... clamorous for change..."

Slavery is a painful aspect of American history and it will not go away. Even if we ignore it, slavery will still stand as a part of American history (and does not go away!). Our nation at its establishment started as an experiment in freedom. Our nation's forced bondage of people from Africa in these United States served as a mockery of that freedom. Our nation tore itself apart as a means to define this experiment in freedom. Our nation has tripped on itself countless times in the process of this experiment in freedom. Indeed, our nation still struggles with this experiment in freedom. 

If the goal of interpretation is to provoke thought, staff at Hampton National Historical Site have already done that. Buds of thought sparked by the event posting revealed themselves very specifically through social media (some sprouting even further with the encouragement for others to continue reading). This isn't over! We still have more to think about, to read, to experience, and to discuss. This program will not be the last to stir up thoughts, engage hearts, provoke minds... and I see that as a good thing.

I'll close with Mr. Douglass

"We know and consider that a nation is not born in a day. We know that large bodies move slowly—and often seem to move thus when, could we perceive their actual velocity, we should be astonished at its greatness. A great battle lost or won is easily described, understood and appreciated, but the moral growth of a great nation requires reflection, as well as observation, to appreciate it."

*Click here to read Frederick Douglass's full speech "The Mission of War." 

**As a reminder, these thoughts are completely my own and do not reflect that of the National Park Service.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"Slave for a Day" Event

 "Experience what it may have been like being enslaved.  Work in the fields with actual hoes and scythes.  Carry buckets of water with a yoke on your shoulders!" 

No joke! 

These words come directly from an announcement for a living history event at Hampton National Historic site in Maryland. The "Slave for a Day" event, a "first-time ever" for the site, allows for visitors to "experience" some aspects of being enslaved. I believe the closest response I have seen to this announcement to my own initial response was, "Wow." At first, I was at a loss for words. Then I was overwhelmed with thoughts, some of them contradictory in nature: This can't be good! Well, at least they are trying! I see merit in this. What are they thinking!? This Twitter feed echoes how I felt:
"It's the exclamation point that kills me." Maybe it is just the way the announcement is written that makes this seem worse than it is? Maybe this should just be a lesson in the value of grammar? Maybe I am trying to take the easy way out of why the "Slave for a Day" event is an uncomfortable announcement? 

First, I would like to applaud the interpreters at Hampton National Historic Site for being brave enough to take a risk in offering a program of this nature. Historic sites have attempted to engage today's public with living history events involving slavery before, with mixed public reception. It is a leap to jump from offering programs about dairy to offering a program about slavery. Especially considering how the "Dairy for a Day" program sounds fun (and includes ice cream!), the "Slave for a Day" shows a huge leap into offering an interactive program about a difficult portion of our past. Historic sites often fall into the "we-need-to-increase-our-numbers-so-let's-do-something-fun-and-inviting" trap. "Farm days" and other living history events generally include things like candle-making and butter-churning and neglect to offer the other tasks of historic living, like hog-butchering and chamber-pot emptying. Nevermind how these events rarely show who was doing many of these activities, especially at the larger historic homes. This is a big step for the interpretive staff at Hampton to make the decision to offer a program engaging the public with the not-so-fun-and-inviting side of history. 

But that exclamation point tries to make the program sound fun while I can't imagine anything about being enslaved "fun."

Offering a "Slave for a Day" program seems to do the history injustice, taking away from the experience in the same way battle reenactments seem to do injustice to events of the past. The National Park Service's Management Policies regarding reenactments (7.5.9) states, "Even the best-researched and most well-intentioned representation of combat cannot replicate the tragic complexity of real warfare. Respect for the memory of those whose lives were lost at these sites... precludes the staging of inherently artificial battles at the memorial sites. Battle reenactments create an atmosphere that is inconsistent with the memorial qualities of the battlefields and other military sites placed in the Service's trust." We can cut and paste that concept replacing "combat" and "warfare" with "the enslaved" and "slavery." While this program-type technically falls under demonstrations and not reenactments, the line between the two can often be fuzzy. Engage people about this aspect of American history, yes! But don't mistreat the past by trading depth or meaning for enticement. 

The second half of the program offering, the ceremony, better suggests the intent of the day's programs. When memorials and monuments are put up at battlefields, that has historically been the way the living paid respects to the soldiers who fought or fell on those battlefields. While the National Park Service does not allow reenactments on battlefield lands anymore, they do allow statues as modern acts of commemoration. How do we publicly remember other aspects of our history, slavery included? Hampton National Historic Site is trying to create an awareness of a complex event that happened in the past, providing an opportunity to reflect on this horrid shadow of American history. Is this the best method of doing so? If this event is just trivializing history, how can it be done better? 

I plan on following the "buzz" regarding the announcement, interested in both the public reaction and how the park responds. 

**Reminder: these thoughts are my own and do not reflect those of the National Park Service. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Living in a Visual World

I am currently one of three administrators for the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve's website. Specifically, I have been assigned to update our "History and Culture" section of our website. Go ahead, take a look. Currently, barely a framework of information is available through our website. Go to the People link (warning, you are about to be underwhelmed). That is what I have been developing in my spare time this past week. I have pages and pages waiting for approval and activation. Hopefully, if you are reading this any time after June 30, you are not going to see the old information; rather, you will see some of the products of my energies at work.

Specifically, I have started with a series of articles of the many people groups that have contributed to the diverse culture found in south Louisiana and in New Orleans. New Orleans, especially as a port city, existed as a place for many immigrants to pass through or settle. Many distinct features of the city come from the blending of these cultures. As you can see, we have nothing (currently) that addresses the diversity, either contemporarily- or historically-speaking. That's what I am working towards.

In this 1884 image, "Peace" and Uncle Sam is greeting a parade of
citizens from Latin American countries to the International and
Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans. 
One challenge I have been trying to overcome is finding images the park has rights to use. We can't post photographs or drawings if another organization owns the rights to those images. And knowing my audience, I need to have visuals on the pages. I decided to go about searching the good old Library of Congress, the United States of America's oldest cultural institution. Most digital images are either boring or racist in nature. The Library of Congress has many political cartoons from the past and some political cartoons from the past reveal our nation's racist leanings. As political cartoons, however, they also reveal complexities of society (and from a design point of view political cartoons are usually vibrant and artistic- good for illustrating a boring historical article on a website).

Obviously, I am not going to use the racist images (although, I noticed that the Library of Congress does not provide large or easily-accessible files for those, like this 1891 cartoon on immigration). But some of them, like the illustration above, have more complex ideas beyond what meets the eye. Many of these complexities rest in the nation's foreign policy at the time. Some complexities exist in how the United States presents itself as a totally welcoming nation to immigrants (not true, even in New Orleans). I am also planning on using this image to illustrate the rich diversity in New Orleans. While this picture is colorful and shows many countries represented, it may not be the most accurate.

So if the last paragraph reveals my "glass-half-empty" attitude, filled with negativity, I should consider the flip side. It is colorful! It does show a diverse group of women in New Orleans. I would only use it to illustrate the page that introduces the idea that many people groups came to the area, influencing the region's culture. And if you aren't too familiar with American history, you would have no concept, historically, of our nation's international policies so you might just assume this is a pretty picture and keep reading. That is what I want, right? For people to take a moment and read the posted content? And then continue thinking (and reading).

So until those pages go live, I will teeter back and forth about the value of using historic images to illustrate ideas without fully explaining the image. Am I doing a disservice to the image or the history by not using it in context? Or am I just using the resources available to me to enlighten readers about a broader story? Can the image speak for itself or am I abusing it? Thoughts?

Reminder: these thoughts are my own and do not reflect those of the National Park Service.

Friday, June 15, 2012

History Practitioners, Unlicensed

My imaginary license to practice history 

I had a couple of visitors tell me the other day that they had stopped at a historic home somewhere along their route and were appalled at the gross misrepresentation of history at that site. "You should do something about that," they informed me. I explained to them that there is no official criteria to open or run a historic site and that in these States United, private individuals and organizations are allowed to say what they want regardless of gross misrepresentations. This idea had clearly never crossed their minds. As far as they knew, they have been lied to this whole time by museums! We continued a conversation about history presentations at historic places and how these sites tend to reflect the contemporary understanding of the past.

Our conversation prompted my own thoughts about how members of the public perceive historic sites, museums, and other cultural institutions. People trust museums and often take the information presented at face value. They don't necessarily ask "does this place reflect the most up-to-date-scholarship?" They usually just ask "where is the restroom?"

Just kidding. Mostly.

While training programs exist, there is no mandatory school for museum or historic site managers. Some would even argue that the best managers come with a business background, a skill set vital in an age where money for the humanities is scarce. Historians have been trained to research and retell the story of the past with the best possible evidence. Historians working with the public have been trained to disseminate that information in the most accessible manner. There is no test, no annual refresher, no license providers for historians. Many visitors don't know that, however.

So do we try to change this? Do we advocate for a professional monitoring source, an agency that can issue a license or stamp its seal of approval? I would argue "no, not entirely although there may be some merit in it." That ambiguous answer comes from a combination of my understanding of history and how history "works." I understand history as a conversation on collective memory. People perceive the past in different ways. Even those experiencing the same event may remember it differently that the others who experienced the same event. Visitors engaging the stories that historic sites tell of the past will leave with differing experiences and understandings. I think one of the most important things historic sites can do is provide a place for feedback and engagement. Facts might wrong, but society is moving in a direction where we can access the world deftly with palm-sized mobile technology. Obviously, professional, independent, untrained, and other types of historians want to present as accurate information as possible. But how the facts are presented impacts the visitor experience. Differing perceptions of a place or a story represents the diversity of the human experience. Encouraging visitors to consider their own role in remembering the past may be a way to get visitors to think about information presented at that and other sites.

Organizations, like the National Council on Public History, provide opportunities for professional development, networking, and conversations to happen about improving history at work in the public. Historians are trying to do their best with what they've got! Conveying how history is "done" may be another step in encouraging more historic thought among the public. How often does the public get to see researchers and the process behind researching? I like to watch NBC's Who Do You Think You Are? and giggle. In the show, actors and actresses learn of their genealogy on screen. The part that gets me is the archivists and researchers; they just open magic books and ta da! All information is neatly ready for the two-minute presentation to the film star. What the show does not demonstrate is how researchers may have poured hours or days or weeks of time into their efforts. What about the efforts it takes to put together a museum? That story of choice, about the decisions managers make, about what is included (and alternatively left out) can reveal as much as the museum itself. Visitors seeing some of the "behind-the-scenes" actions can be encouraged to ask "how" and "why" questions. Again, this may be a method to encourage a broader historical thinking.

As far as a history license goes, we have strict standards for doctors, lawyers, even HVAC technicians and cosmologists. We have no official professional standardized bar for historians or historic site managers. Think about THAT the next time you cross the threshold of a historic site (at least before you proceed to ask "where is the restroom?").

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Flexibility and Public Programming

Being flexible often proves itself as one of the greatest challenges for public historians. Flexibility is key, however, to working with the public. Maybe the skill needed more than staying flexible is that of releasing control.

"But I know how to do it! I know the best way! They just have to listen to me! I am the trained professional, after all." I am not referring to The American Breed's version of flexibility:

Flexibility does not mean you lose control and have to let yourself be bent and shaped anyway somebody wants to bend and shape you. It means you are confident enough in your message, your understanding of the resource (in this case, the history), or your goals that you are willing to take alternative routes to reach your destination. These alternative routes come from the "give-and-take" process called engaging.

Today's public, especially, sees themselves as engagers. A combination of our society, technology, and contemporary norms have created a public that expects transparency from organizations, methods of expressing thought, and response to their expressions. If historians want their stories to captivate the public audience, historians have to meet that audience at their level. The following case studies on flexibility demonstrate the usefulness of "letting go" and how not being a control freak can have positive benefits.

Example One: Partnerships
Partnerships, and really all relationships to some degree, require flexibility. Each partner has expectations. Communicating and sharing expectations is important. Having similar goals is vital to working together. But the glue that makes partnerships function is flexibility. Historians working with the public have to be willing to listen to those partners and their desires. Listening and engaging might mean adjusting the course of a project, but often it is for the best (a way to keep all parties happy). In my most recent experience working with a partner, Asociacion Cultural Latino-Acadiana, flexibility keeps the project functioning. We are working together to develop an exhibit about the Latin American influences in Acadiana, both historically and contemporarily. It would be very easy for the Acadian Cultural Center to say "this will be the exhibit we will produce and you can help if you want." Instead, we engaged the group and had the members express what they envisioned. This has shifted the theme of the exhibit, but the group feels ownership of the project and wants more of the community to engage in this story. That's the point of developing a partnership.

Example Two: Social Media
In my experience, the words "social media" tend to scare those working in bureaucracy, control freaks, and in some cases, historians. Social media is just a "phase," right? Not really, not anymore. Social media, by design, is meant for engagement. The only control organizations have is what they say, not how people respond. This notion has kept many organizations away from utilizing the media. In fact, until you establish your own presence, you have NO control over what your audience may already be saying about you. I say "jump in!" with flexibility and see where your audience takes you. Use your audience's responses to adjust your sails as you navigate the social media water. Engage your audience to see what they are looking for. You can't launch a successful social media presence with an exact plan and expect you'll be able to follow that exact plan. Have a framework set up that will guide your engagements, but be willing to accommodate change as you listen to those responding.

Example Three: Interpretive Programs
This is a good one. Speaking from experience, most people attending a ranger program expect to be talked to by the ranger. They usually don't expect to talk with the ranger until the end when those magical words come out, "are there any questions," indicating a permission to speak. What happens when these programs become interpretive experiences? I will say, as a seasoned interpreter, no one program ever goes the same. The audience makeup changes with each program; even when giving a cookie-cutter "talk then ask questions at the end" program, different members of the audience will walk away with different memories and meanings. Why not utilize the variety of your audience and use them to help you tell the story? Prompt conversations among your audience. Allow opportunities for visitors to share. When you ask questions AND LISTEN to the answers, you provide an opportunity to see where your audience is coming from. This can be a scary thought, as you don't know what your audience will say or how they will respond. And you have to overcome that "but-I-am-in-charge-here-and-need-to-do-all-the-talking" temptation to make this leap. But if you know your resource (in this case, the history or a place), you can be flexible with your audience, providing opportunities for them to make their own connections to that place based on what they told you.

Interpreters interpret best when they facilitate visitors' experiences. Facilitation requires listening, conversing, letting go, and being ready to respond with whatever happens. Historians working with the public work best when they engage the public. Engagement requires listening, conversing, responding to the public, and ultimately, letting go. I will speak from experience that "letting go" is a difficult thing for control freaks to do. Actually, it may be the most difficult thing for control freaks to do, a skill that completely goes against the personality-type. But ultimately, it provides avenues for engaging a broader audience on deeper levels.

Reminder: these thoughts are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

At What Cost: Using Emotion to Convey the Past

"That made me want to read more."

"That helped me understand what they went through."

"That was the most self-indulgent film I have ever seen."

Visitors who walk out of the Echoes of Acadia film at the Acadian Cultural Center, where I currently work, announce a variety of comments regarding their responses to the film. Some are moved. Some are provoked. Some are irritated. Some are outright mad.

The film, co-produced in 1994 with Parks Canada, presents the history of the Acadians, how they find themselves on this continent, life in Acadia, and the deportation that eventually results in a group of the population settling in south Louisiana. Dramatic music amplifies the scenes of burning churches as the narrator describes the British governor who ordered the deportation and how his "sins scream across the pages of history." The film's intensity encourages us to warn families with younger children about the content.

Now, the contemporary historian in me questions the park's method of presentation regarding this story. Bias reigns throughout the telling of the film, presenting a villianized/victimized past. The perspective of the film is narrow, not providing more context to the story of colonists or of their struggles. It does not necessarily provide all of the facts of this specific story, neither. The contemporary historian in me grimaces every time I have to press the little green button to start the next showing of the film.

A drawing of British soldiers gathering
Acadian women from their homes.
Courtesy of Canadian Military History Gateway
Interpreter me, however, sees a challenge.
The film grants me a moment to stretch my interpreter skills. I have the opportunity to engage with visitors and use the techniques I have collected that make up my informal interpretation "toolbox" to steer visitors in a direction that prompts them to think beyond the story presented in the film. Some folks immediately recognize the one-sidedness of the film and use that to launch a conversation with me (the uniformed park ranger, a personal representation of the federal government's role in preserving the nation's stories). Some folks respond to the emotion the film invokes, even admitting coming close to tears. It is a sad story, the deportation of this group of people from their homeland meant separating families, sending a population to places where they weren't wanted. The film presents this portion of the story well.

Tapping into visitors' emotions serves as one way to encourage multi-level connections to a place, to a story. In fact, I meet a lot of visitors who re-visit the center for a second time years after their first visit. What they remember about their visit: the film. People want to experience emotion. Think of Hollywood's success! It gives patrons a chance to laugh or cry or experience terror or feel good; it taps into the human emotional experience. History is not devoid of emotion. In fact, history is the complex story of human experience and if you are sitting and breathing and thinking as you are reading this, you can agree that the human experience is full of emotion. Emotions vary, but so do people. Historic sites provide a way for visitors to "experience" history and engaging the mind and the heart can reinforce the message they are presenting.

The film's engine targets emotion, engaging the human heart, while neglecting the richer story. The film has, in many cases, provided new thoughts for visitors (many leave acknowledging that they knew little or nothing of this piece of history until their visit). Yesterday I had a visitor who, after seeing the film, told me that she now wanted to read as much as she could about the story. Yes! Sparking interest! That is exactly what historic sites should be doing! But on the flip side, at what cost? Where is the balance? We do not want to be dull when presenting the past, but neither do we want to sacrifice accuracy.

I will close with the acknowledgement that funding is short, especially within the National Park Service (and with all-things-humanities-related). 'Tis the story of our historian-lives! I don't know when the park will see money come its way for a new multi-media production (I told a former colleague of the film's dated reflection and he reminded me that Shiloh National Battlefield only got a new film this past year after presenting a film produced in 1956 for the last several decades). The Echoes of Acadia film serves a purpose, but the park can enhance the visitor experience by providing a film that reflects current scholarship and tells a more accurate story. Much like the story of interpretation at Civil War sites (think Rally on the High Ground, its process and how even decades-worth of work mean we still have lots left to do), the interpretation at this cultural center will not change overnight. But taking baby steps, like encouraging visitors to think beyond the one-sided story presented, will move interpretation of this story in a direction that more accurately reflects the history.

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

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Living History Thoughts

The recreated Fort St. Jean Baptiste 
A few weeks back I made a trip to Natchitoches, Louisiana to see the sites. This particular trip I visited Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site, a recreated 18th century fort complete with costumed rangers. Costumed rangers! That means one thing! Living history!

If you know me, you know my personal feelings about living history creates a whirlwind of a storm within me. I see both positive and negative aspects of costumed interpretation. And since costumed interpretation happens at many historic sites, I imagine I will write about it again. So I will use this time to cover my very basic feelings about living history.

The interpreter talked to us about...
1) It can serve as way to help visitors envision the past.
Visitors "experiencing" the past may grasp concepts of history better. A friend of mine made the point that visuals are important- what would Yosemite be to most visitors without that vision of Half Dome towering over the valley? History, unlike nature, does not always have visuals readily available to assist people in grasping "what life was like."

And yes. Wearing wool in 95 degree heat is hot, no matter how you spin it. I used to get asked this a lot when working at the battlefield.

The ranger showed us how to
use flint to start a fire. 

2) It can provoke thought (interpretation!)
Some learners need tangibles or "hand-on" experiences to grasp concepts. Unfortunately, some historic sites don't have the original places (hence recreations). And most don't have the historic figures present to tell their story. If a historic site uses people or activities to tell their stories, that is their right. When done well, "recreations"can provoke thought.

3) It can be perceived as "hokey."
"Look, Ma! Look at that man in that funny outfit!" When not done well, this form of interpretation can easily be perceived as goofy and demean the historical value in visitors' eyes. One way to avoid this is to allow for third-person interpretation (when the interpreter talks about the character from the 21st Century perspective rather than pretends to be the character).

A visitor talks to the
costumed ranger
4) It can become its own barrier.  
My experience at living history "camps" has shown me that visitors tend to be tepid in their approach. Should they walk up to the guys girded in wool? Should they watch? How do they talk to these characters. I was fortunate when I worked at the battlefield that our volunteers tried to engage audiences, but visitors still emitted levels of feeling awkward around camps. We tried to ensure a uniformed park ranger was present to serve as a purveyor to the camp (for people felt more comfortable talking to those dressed in funny green and grey rather than those dressed funny in blue or grey), but that wasn't always possible.

5) It can take away meaning. 
Many times, people come for the "boom!" They want to see guns shoot. This is another "experience." But what do visitors walk away remembering? That cannons are loud. Not that fire power like that can prove devastating, killing dozens of men with each shot. Not that these weapons were designed to effectively kill as many people as possible. Not that the men fighting on that battlefield were fighting for a myriad of reasons. How can muskets-firing or basket-weaving tell a more meaningful story? Note that I say it "can" take away meaning; possibilities still exist for the interpreter to create meaning.

I know this list seems to contradict itself. Didn't I say a whirlwind of a storm occurs inside of me when I think of living history? But living history is so ingrained in how Americans visit historic sites that I don't imagine it will disappear entirely. The question now is how do we amplify the positives and counter some of the negatives? It seems to me that this would be addressed on a site-by-site basis.

Overall, I had a quality visit. I enjoyed talking to the rangers and seeing the recreations, regardless of heat. I guess I can add "provides reasons to be thankful for air conditioning" to the list, too.

Confidence as Facade

"I don't know if I'll make it, just watch how good I fake it." --Hot Chelle Rae

I have practiced confidence-as-facade for about as long as I can remember. I answer the question "Can we do that?" with "Why not?" I may not always be sure of myself, but I am smart enough to not cause too much trouble while pushing the proverbial envelope. That does not mean I am not internally screaming of terror, however. But if you don't try new things, how will you know if something will work or not?

When I write a post, I put a piece of myself "out there." It might be well-received, it might be torn to shreds, or it might just be floating in the interweb clouds. When I create a short film or an interpretive brochure or temporary exhibit, it might not seem that I am putting myself in a vulnerable spot, but I am. I do the best I can with what I have got. When people sense confidence, they expect a level of competency to match.

The biggest key to this success is understanding that I will make mistakes, but mistakes are learning opportunities. I currently am the lead for a few projects at work. Every morning as I cross the threshold of the cultural center, I hold my breath, convinced that today is the day I will be "found out." Somebody will sense my fear of failure and other vulnerabilities and I will be sent home. And every evening as I lock the gates of the park, I release that same breath, amazed that I have made it through the day with some version of progress. It might be slight progress but it is progression, nonetheless.

Flexibility may be the most important thing when working with the public. The public is made up of people and people are unpredictable. The public also trusts, wants to trust, in things like museums, archival collections, and national parks. They don't ask "do you know what you are doing?" they ask "what can I learn here?" They trust the uniformed smile, completely unaware that my wanting to do right means I am constantly questioning myself if how I am doing is the best way.

I write this as a disclaimer for future posts, as I know I will make statements that should be argued and picked apart. I will write with my confident facade, but don't want to sound like a pompous know-it-all. I would rather engage than preach.