Sunday, July 29, 2012

Lasers and Lincoln and Bears, Oh My!

Abraham Lincoln Riding a Grizzly (DeviantArt)
Gentlemen Bear Rides Abraham Licoln, With Eye Lasers (DeviantArt)
What is it about Abraham Lincoln that makes him so much fun to incorporate into pop culture? He is recognizable. Even non-historian-types have a rough idea of his role in American history (as demonstrated by the two pieces of featured art... take note that he holds up a "Proclamation" in the first image).  He is recognized as a hero, keeping the nation together, freeing the slaves (wait for it), growing whiskers at the request of a little girl, and a seemingly all-around nice guy. Why wouldn't we want to incorporate him into pop culture?
It's true. (snorgtees)
We are just taking a piece of history and making it awesomer, right? I mean, come on. He has lasers shooting out of his eyes. What can be wrong with that? I am even going to argue that by incorporating the ridiculous into history allows for the average non-historian-type to understand it is entirely fantasy. The danger happens when historic images or icons are used in a context that is not as easily distinguishable. Quotes can be incorrect, as demonstrated by the image below:

I will admit: I don't even know where this one came from, as it was just "shared" on the Facebook. (credit fail)
Even worse than misunderstanding, however, is misremembering. One example: "Abraham Lincoln freed all the slaves." This is a common thought. While most don't believe President Lincoln rode in on a bear with an M-16 when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, many believe that Abraham Lincoln freed all the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation.

Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park, Washington D.C. (image from Picturing U.S. History)
This iconic memorial, imbedded into the American iconic landscape (in a city filled with some of the most iconic memorials, monuments, and other pieces of landscape), serves as one example of the dangers of misremembering. 

"Well, if Abraham Lincoln freed all the slaves, doesn't it make sense to have a slave thanking him?" 


No, because while he helped moved emancipation forward, Abraham Lincoln did not single-handedly free all the slaves. Even the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves. I am in the historical argument ring on the side of those who argue that full emancipation was a combination of factors, including resistance by the enslaved, the presence of war (and the lack of male enforcers), and the incorporation of African Americans into the United States Army. Our nation insisted on remembering "The Great Emancipator" in stone and perpetuating the mismemory on the American landscape. What does it mean to have a person of color bowing to President Lincoln? This is one of many images where formerly enslaved representations remain at a lower, submissive stance than their white counterparts. These representations contribute to some of the difficulty in redirecting the mismemories towards more solid historical accuracy by being ingrained in our collective memory. And unlike Abraham Lincoln shooting lasers out of his eyes, this representation is believable. 

In this case, grizzly bears and lasers are less harmful than a bowing, unarmed man. 

*Disclaimer: These thoughts are my own and do not reflect that of anybody else, my employer included. 

**Can't get enough of Abraham Lincoln references in pop culture? Then head over to Imitating Lincoln website. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Storytelling Advice (Complete with Legos)

See? My notes on upcoming
posts. I think in color.
I am drafting a post (well, several) about historic sites using digital media to enhance visitor experiences. I had a goal to write on that at least once a week (and here we are, eight days after my post about Twitter... what can I say? I operate on a Beatles calendar). But then I saw this article about storytelling from Pixar using images of Legos and my "ooh-look-something-shiny" kicked into full gear.

Awesomeness leaks from those photographs. First, they are made with Legos. Second, the ideas originate from Pixar. Third, each one of these story rules serve as excellent advice for any storyteller. Aha! And there is where I tripped up a little, when my shoulder interpreter and my shoulder historian started bickering. Again.

As a park ranger who is not a commissioned federal law enforcement officer, I have had my fair share of visitors ask me why am I "not packing heat." (Their words). I usually respond with a smile, "because I am a different kind of park ranger. I tell stories." That response usually serves as some sort of introduction to an upcoming ranger program or a lead into what interpretative park rangers do. Granted, I have only worked at parks with themes related to history. History is filled with stories, so it is easier to think of interpretative programs as stories (heaven help me if I ever have to give a talk about a tree). These stories told come from many many (many) hours of research and reading and learning and more research. Interpreters take the historical evidence and weave it into a story that engages both the brain and the heart, that connects visitors better to the resources, and captivates attention. It is a craft. It is not easy. I have seen some amazing interpretative programs and am in awe of those who delivered them.

I have found in my short past, however, that historians like what they do and often (incorrectly) assume everybody else will also enjoy history just as much. Historians also like to use a lot of words. A LOT OF WORDS. I am guilty of it, too. That would be when I choose to listen to my shoulder historian who wants to pack in all the information possible. Bam! Surely if we give visitors a thorough and complete analysis, they will walk away with something. And something is better than nothing, right?

Consider the average visitor and their knowledge of [insert related historical event here]. They are visiting the site to learn and experience! But place-based interpretation means historians have to pry their fingers from the abundance of words and consider simplifying. Provide the simple, thought-provoking information. Let the visitor take that information and digest it. If done well, the simple will spark interest that might lead the visitor to read more on the subject (then you can use all the words you want). Let the content be absorbed. Pause after making a statement. How does the detail you consider vital impact the information absorption by the visitor?

I like this idea for interpretive programming. Every ranger program is going to be different, based on visitors (and sometimes those major points you meant to bring up and craft an out-of-order story accidently... it happens). You can obsess over making something perfect or you can give it a "go." Try out your story on a group of visitors. Know that each program is an opportunity to get better. Visitor interactions shine light on what you can do to improve (e.g. what types of questions are generated). You have the gist of your content down, so jump in, and do better next time. There is always room to grow.

Okay, this idea threw my shoulder historian into fits, but it had ninjas on it (so I had to include it, duh). They frown upon your creative licenses during ranger programs when you just make your story up. But that doesn't mean you should ignore the tensions built into the human story. How do those threads of your story get woven into your story to build some tension and captivate your audience? That ties into the next idea:

Identifying with characters! This is important! I think it is vital for interpreters to identify with the characters in order to tell a story that will have the audience also identify with the characters. No, you don't have to dress up and shoot historic weapons in a wool uniform to identify with a Civil War soldier (though shooting muskets is fun). But maybe read a letter from that soldier. Or better yet, read a letter to that soldier. What could they have thought? What could they have felt? Assuming you are at a historic site and people are visiting a place, it isn't too much of a stretch to encourage thought about characters' possible relation to the place. How did the setting impact the story? The visitors' abilities to identify with the human elements of the story will help breathe life into history for them (like I said, heaven help me if I have to give a program about a tree). When people can see themselves in the story, asking "what would I do in that situation?" questions, you've made a connection.

Interpreters at historic sites have a challenge, mining for the historical evidence that tells a story and then telling it in a way that captivates the audience. It can be done. And you don't even have to break out the ninjas.  

*Disclaimer: these thoughts are my own and do not officially reflect that of anybody else's.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Dealing with Tragedy

'Tis true. This park ranger working in Alaska made a quiet, yet echoing, statement prompted by tragedy. Considering the amount of humanity (and in many cases, inhumanity) we often deal with as interpreters, we have little training on how to handle difficult discussions. I do not believe anybody was prepared to receive the news of the massacre in Colorado. How can one prepare for tragedy?

Many places of history preserve stories of great inhumanity. Murder, genocide, violence, war, slavery, and other atrocities speckle the historic landscape, whether or not we choose to acknowledge it. These stories are often preserved at historical sites. The stories are told for a greater humanity, showing how far we as society have come, allowing the stories of hope and goodness and love and triumph to shine brighter than the evil, honoring memories, providing places for catharsis and healing, and not forgetting victims. Maybe the active "remembering" would be more appropriate word choice for thinking of the people impacted by atrocities. Battlefields, cemeteries, memorials, concentration camps, natural disaster sites, human disaster sites, are among types of "sites of conscience" and people visit these sites. Interpreters work at these sites. Interpreters are people, too-- people who sometimes have to help provide opportunities for sharing, learning, forgiving, growing, and healing, too. Interpreters are a part of that experience.

When I worked at the battlefield, I encountered a woman in her early 50s meandering through the museum. I approached her, as I would any time I roved the museum, and asked her how she was doing. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, "those poor boys and their mothers." I was startled. While visiting the battlefield could prove an emotional experience, I rarely encountered the raw emotion through tears. In the following conversation, I learned that her son had recently been deployed and she struggled with being a mother of a soldier in a war zone. She commented on the casualty numbers (around 24,000 killed, wounded, or missing during the Battle of Stones River), but specifically clung to the number of killed. That is a difficult number to pin down, but estimated about 3,000. She pointed out that "meant 3,000 mothers did not have a son come home because of this battle." She personally related to that tragedy.

I was heartbroken for the teary visitor and felt helpless. I listened the best I could, but didn't know what I should do. What can I say to comfort her? Should I give her a hug? Should I just stay still? I don't exactly remember how I handled it, but I remember staying with her for a while in the museum and eventually walking out to lobby, probably wishing her a good rest of her day. Because I am trained to smile and greet people and provide information and create positive opportunities for visitor connections. I am not trained in tragedy. Even when working at sites of tragedy (I worked at a battlefield before and now at a site that commemorates a story about forced deportation). But then again, I suppose nobody fully can be fully prepared to deal with it.

I know I am not the only interpreter who has experienced dealing with a conversation of difficult content. I know I am not the only park ranger who has dealt with visitors' tears. We do the best we can in the moment with the tools in our interpersonal and interpretive toolboxes. I personally feel more confident in handling visitor interactions about tragedy now, if for no other reason than from experience and some outside training (the American Red Cross offers courses in trauma and mental health for those who respond to disasters). But my strong facade that appears during these interactions does not change my human heart and its tendency to hurt when it hears of others' hurt. It is still hurting over thinking of the events of Colorado; I don't think that will go away any time soon.

*These thoughts are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer (past or present).

**I would like to point out that the National Park Service does provide some interpretive training for facilitated dialogue and handling controversial topics. It isn't necessarily a training readily available for all front-line interpreters, however.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Uncertainty is Certainly Expected: Twitter and the African Burial Ground National Monument

I love this mock news report about the “historic” Blockbuster video rental store:

“What’s so poignant at this time is the uncertainty. When you get to the Blockbuster, are they going to have your video? Did someone else rent it? Is there going to be a line? Are the alarms going to sound when you walk out the front door?”

The costumed “interpreter’s” line about uncertainty makes me giggle. Lines! Alarms! What travesties! While this “report” makes light of a major transition in the American entertainment industry, uncertainty certainly exists. Uncertainty exists especially about the use of digital media by many parks and historic sites. There are a ton of “what ifs” about moving in this direction, causing hesitation. I see this uncertainty as a major root of resistance by historic sites to seriously grab these social media tools and use them to their fullest ability.

However, it can be done! Effective transitions into social media presences by historic sites can enhance the visitor experience. In the future, I plan to use examples from a variety of historic sites that use social media, but will refer to the African Burial Ground National Monument in Manhattan often, as I consider their presence one of the strongest in the National Park Service.  For this post, I will specifically look at their Twitter feed. Currently, their Twitter feed has over 71,000 followers and they have recently launched a Facebook page. The site created its Twitter feed in 2009, but began actively using it in December of 2010. Park staff uses the tool to actively engage followers. A while back, I grilled one of their park rangers, Cyrus, about strategies and theories and he was most obliging.

For visitors to the African Burial Ground National Monument site, providing a Twitter feed allowed a way for visitors to connect on another level. It enhanced the visitor experience by giving visitors a chance to learn more, tweet at, or share about their experience. With budget cuts, management decided to limit the visitor center’s hours, but people still had the opportunity to experience the outside portion of the site. Opening up an online “hub” gave visitors a chance to interact on a different level any time of day or night.

Visitors can interact and ask questions through this medium. The site actively retweets questions, allowing for other followers to see the types of questions visitors have.

Sometimes, a conversation with more than one follower ensues.

Additionally, by engaging with visitors, the site has encouraged new visitors to make a trip to this site.

The African Burial Ground actively follows its followers and engages. Cyrus mentioned his original goal of using the site's Twitter feed dynamically as a way to show social media's potential. His goals include providing a variety of related content regularly throughout the day. By meeting those goals, he has captivated an audience that he would not have otherwise had without this feed.

When I asked about how the site measured success, Cyrus suggested that to consider measuring success both quantitatively and qualitatively. Yes, African Burial Ground National Monument is the most followed, and yes, the park can demonstrate higher numbers of “hits” on links provided because of his feed. The “social” element, however, proves a little more difficult to demonstrate with numbers. Cyrus mentioned the example of an experience he saw when some local folks came out for a program they had not known about before the site’s live-tweets. Isn’t that what historic sites want? Real-live visitors? Especially the kinds of visitors who don’t traditionally visit?

For those who do not see the full potential of social media at historic sites, resistance can be easy. It is too much work! It takes away from the experience! These new-fangled devices will take away the need for visitor centers! No, that’s not it at all! Social media is a tool. Uncertainty is an absolutely valid notion when using a new or different tool, but it shouldn’t inhibit progress! Consider these media types as “hubs,” places where people can interact, albeit digitally. Moving in this direction allows parks and historic sites another means of engaging. Creating these “hubs” and then using these hubs to engage has merit. Social media will not replace parks, like Netflix replaced Blockbuster. Social media will give an opportunity for enhanced visitor experiences.

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

**Special thanks to Ranger Cyrus for all of his help!

***Stay tuned for more discussion on other historic sites and social media engagements.  

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Social Media Potential: My Prologue

Understand the medium. More importantly, understand its potential. 

I am interested in utilizing various types of digital media as a means to engage more people in parks and historic sites. Why? Because I am a nerd, duh. I am a nerd who loves parks and history and digital media. And I know I am not the only nerd who loves these things, either. Over the past several months, I have been reading as much as I can about social media's use (and heaven knows every day a ton of material is produced about social media and its use for marketers and its impact media on society and the list goes on and on and on). I am the lead for my park's social media team and have been responsible for putting many proverbial ducks in a row, readying for our launch.

As it turns out, those proverbial ducks were harder to finagle than I anticipated. What did I say I wanted to use this blog for? That's right: a place to share my ponderings about history and interpretation and how to better engage audiences. So I plan on launching a series of posts about social media's use by parks and historic sites over the next several weeks. Consider this post my prologue to the series. As a means of introducing the series, I thought I would address some of the concerns and possible misunderstandings I have encountered about parks utilizing social media.

But what about visitors to our parks?! They won't want to visit!
No, social media does not replace the visitor experience. Rather, it provides an opportunity for some to enhance their experience. It may even encourage visitors to go out and visit, now that they have an a way to seek information about the site. Nobody is forced to use Facebook or Twitter, but if they want to share with the world their visit, why not provide that opportunity?

Social media is just a phase.
Um, no, no it is not. Sorry. It will be easier if you quit telling yourself this and just accept that this is the our current society and that technology developments only continue to encourage this. I have been a member of some form of social networking site for well over a decade. This ain' going anywhere.

*%^& kids! Get off my lawn and get off your phone!
Let's face it. Up-and-coming generations grew up with mobile phones, many don't remember a time when telephones had to be attached to a wall. They understand that computers come in a size that fits in their pocket and that those tiny computers have the ability to connect to the world wide web via invisible waves and networks. We are not going to change these facts. Why not provide a way for younger generations to connect to sites in a way that is second nature to them?

Digital meets analog when camping in this picture.
Also, I felt the need to include this image
if for no other reason than the fact that there is a
stuffed toy raccoon and a person wearing a bear suit.
Courtesy of 
I know of many other concerns and am bound to present and hopefully counter them in my upcoming posts. I consider myself an advocate for social media's use, however, and want my messages to stay on the positive side. We have opportunities to engage the public in new ways! This should be more exciting and not scary! (Although, it appears too often that control over the message interferes with engagement). I do not claim to know everything there is to know about the media, I just know that it can serve as an effective tool in spreading messages. When interviewing another park ranger who utilized social media effectively at his site several months ago, I got an excellent foundation for approaching media's use in interpretation. He told me, "understand the medium you want to use, but more importantly, understand the potential." I am ready to see more of this potential turn kinetic and influence visitors' experiences with parks and historic sites positively.

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

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Power of "I Don't Know"

Courtesty of Nerd Girl Problems

I am not sure as this is really a problem as much as it is a fact. Friends and acquaintances know I am bright and enjoy my fair share of trivia and they somehow associate that with being able to answer any and all questions about... anything. Add a uniform with a shiny badge and a flat hat, and you've got yourself a perceived walking, talking Google machine. Here's the thing: I am not an encyclopedia. I consider myself a pretty smart cookie, but I don't always know all the answers. Can you imagine if you clicked "search" and Google returned with "I don't know?" What kind of world would we live in if Google did not know?

Answering questions provide learning opportunities for both the visitor and the interpreters. Often I am learning as much as the visitors who are asking the question. On a scale, I don't know what would weigh more valuable: knowing the answers or knowing where to find the answers. Take the weightier of those two and measure it against the ability to synthesize information or disseminate information or engage in a manner that both answers the question while creating a meaningful experience; what will prove the most important?

When I worked at Stones River National Battlefield, especially during my first season and even some of my second season, I was terrified of any "Q & A" time. A time for questions served as another opportunity for visitors to play another round of "trick the ranger." OK, it wasn't that bad, but I never knew what kinds of questions to expect and I had not given myself permission to say, "I don't know." On one of my first battlefield tours, I had a visitor raise his hand and ask where a company of a regiment was located during that moment of my battle story (I believe we were in the Slaughter Pen at the time). I don't remember doing anything other than my fish-out-of-water move (complete with incomprehensible sounds out of my gasping mouth). That planted a seed early on that all questions would be detailed and specific and visitors would want a detailed and specific response.

I have since learned a little more poise and grace when asked questions that I can't answer off hand. I can't recall specifically when I started to give myself permission to say, "I don't know," but I often learned more in seeking those answers than I would have learned providing a canned answer (or a fish-out-of-water answer). "In case I forget, ask me again at the end of the program and I will see what I can find out." Usually, visitors are happy for the extra attention at the end of the program.

Interpretation requires a set of skills that is part reception, part perception, part delivery, part (may I say) acting, part relaying, part purveying, and all understanding. The biggest part of understanding is knowing that you can't know everything. Interpreters should understand that their engagement with visitors is an experience for both the visitor and the interpreter. After a visitor asks a question that requires extra research, the interpreter can use that extra nugget and tuck it away for later use. Interpreters can also use the question time to engage just a little further. Why did the visitor ask that particular question? Was there something in particular that piqued interest? Was there something personal? Is there an opportunity for the interpreter to provide more than information; is there an opportunity to provoke further thought?

That is what perceived walking, talking Google machines are missing. They can't engage further, they can't see if there are more layers to the questions, they don't know if there are other questions to ask. Absolutely, knowledge of the resource and the ability to answer questions the moment those questions are asked have merit. But don't underestimate the power of "I don't know."

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

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

In Those Days: The Orphan Train Museum

Mural at the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum in Opelousas
"So, what are you up to today?"

"Aw, nothing much. What are you doing?"

"Want to go exploring with me?"

"Okay. Where to?"

"The Louisiana Orphan Train Museum in Opelousas!"

While this may not sound like the average conversation two twenty-somethings might have, it was one I had with a friend this afternoon. My original plans had been cancelled, leaving me to my own devices; my own devices included finding a fellow explorer to discover a local museum. Said friend was happy to oblige, while admittedly puzzled about my destination of choice. "Just because" rarely satisfies inquiries like that.

Our tour guide's father came to Louisiana as an orphan on
the train from New York City. 

I explained that I enjoy 1) seeing how local museums interpret the past, 2) museums involving trains, 3) spontaneity. A trip to the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum in Opelousas, Louisiana sounded like a good idea to me, meeting all three of those things. The drive to Opelousas provided time for me to share a little bit more about my background in public history, interpretation, and how I tend to assess places like museums or historic homes as much as learn from them. You would think that after saying this to him that I would have been ready for his post-visit question.

"So, what did you think?"

What!?! That is a loaded question! I am not ready! I don't know! Uhh, can I get back to you?
Some of the dresses worn by the orphans. The children
were identified by numbers; the number tag is still attached.

Honestly, I was surprised by the little museum. It is an all-volunteer-run site, an impressive feat on its own, filled with images, stories, and artifacts related to the hundreds of children who arrived in Louisiana from New York City in the early portion of the twentieth century. Admittedly, my knowledge of orphan train riders came from vague memories of The Boxcar Children (and I probably haven't read any of those in nearly two decades). Our tour guide informed us that there are estimates that nearly two thousand orphans came to Louisiana in this manner; these children were especially appreciated in these rural, agrarian areas.

Orphan trains delivered orphans all over the United States. There are a few other orphan train museums, as well. South Louisiana, however, gave these orphans a totally different experience than most other orphans; children delivered here spoke English but were accepted by families who spoke French (Acadian). The orphans often were ridiculed for speaking English and teasingly called "Yankee" by the other children. Stories handed down mention how children learned French to speak in their new homes, only required to re-learn English to enter school. The museum has files on over 300 orphans; any images or pictures of children that have been donated to them are now hanging on the wall. The two volunteers that led us through the museum were related to orphan train riders (one was the daughter of a rider). One volunteer admitted having worked on collecting these stories for over twenty years.

If I were assigned to review this museum within the ivory walls of a university classroom (an assignment I have received many times before), I could mention the lack of over-arching story, the missing dates (I heard lots of "in those days" and "way back when"), or the abundance of images. But knowing how "the real world" works, I think this museum did an outstanding job with its limited resources. I left knowing a lot more about orphans, orphan trains, and life in rural Louisiana at the turn of the twentieth century than I did before my visit. The guides made the visit particularly personal, as the story was a particularly personal story to them. I believe I left the museum a walking outcome of effective interpretation.

If you are ever looking to kill a Wednesday afternoon, stop by Opelousas and see the Louisiana Orphan Train Museum.

"Dear Friend, Within a week after the reception of the little one,
will you please fill out the enclosed slip and forward it to me.
Please also to write to us yearly about May 1st,
how the little child is progressing, with any items of interest.
Wishing you many blessings for your kindness to the orphan,
I am, in our dear Lord, Yours Respectfully, Sr. Anna Michella

Sunday, July 8, 2012

One Man's Victory is Another Man's Narrowly Avoided Victory

The clearly-labeled visitor center
at Parker's Crossroads. If the cannon
didn't give a big enough sign, there is
an actual sign to help visitors find
their way.
On my way out of Tennessee last week, I decided to stop off at the Parker's Crossroads new visitor center. The visitor center opened in June of 2011. I had been to the old visitor center in October of 2010 and was less than impressed with the old interpretation (it was everything one might expect at a privately-run, small Civil War center, complete with dioramas). I appreciate many of the changes, but should disclose that Civil War interpretation is near-and-dear to my heart. If I come across a little fierce, it is only because I expect nothing less than the best out of these places.

The new center was clean and cool and felt "new." Meeting the needs of wary travelers is one of the most important things a historic site can do. Consider it the Maslow's hierarchy for interpreters. The staff greeted and welcomed me. Quality customer service is another extremely important thing for historic sites to maintain. When staff show they are open and friendly early, visitors feel more at ease about engaging. Even if the staff doesn't know all the "right answers," they still allow for visitors to interact in a positive manner. As it turns out, Eastern National houses a store within the visitor center.
While most of the Forrest memorabilia
had been removed, not all was gone.

I knew I was not going to do the driving tour, but wanted to see what they had changed in their presentation of the battle. I was especially interested in seeing how they interpreted one Nathan Bedford Forrest, the leader of that there Confederate outfit. After working at a Civil War site of the western theater, I encountered my fair share of the Nathan Bedford Forrest hero-worship. I'll be danged if Shelby Foote did not help any by calling Forrest one of two "geniuses" of the American Civil War. I have even met people who have tattooed his face to their arm. [*shudder*] I understand that I need to remain as objective as possible when interpreting the past, but how history has remembered this man still impacts how the Civil War is interpreted (even at sites where he played a major role, like at Fort Pillow... just wait until I get myself on over to that site). Forrest led 1,800 cavalry men against Union troops at the battle of Parker's Crossroads... and lost. Or, according to the general interpretation of the battle, "withdrew." Here is the thing: lose your ground, lose the battle. It is simple. But, since ol' Forrest evolved into this larger-than-life Confederate icon, his historians treat his loses quietly (or just ignore them). Indeed, if you were not entirely familiar with this battle, its players, the battlefield, or anything about Civil War tactics, a visit to this site will probably just confuse you. Who won?
"Parker's Crossroads: Narrowly Avoided Defeat"
This sign was moved from the old visitor center to the
new site. Considering the age of the trails program,
the sign can't be more than a few years old.

It turns out, even reading about the battle might just confuse you, too. Wikipedia calls the battle a Confederate victory. I quote Wikipedia, because let's face it: the public uses it as a source of information. (In the "Aftermath" section, the author acknowledges that both sides claim victory but that the Confederates "appear to have more credence."). Sillies. When 300 of your men are captured and you are forced into a retreat, you are defeated. You are defeated, even if you damaged all but two bridges in west Tennessee. You are defeated, even if your name is Nathan Bedford Forrest. The Tennessee Civil War Trails sign posted outside of the center calls it a "Narrowly Avoided Defeat." Lost Cause much?

I am a fan of Civil War battle sites including context. Specifically, I prefer contextualizing the war (causes or effects), but for Parker's Crossroads, even contextualizing this battle as small as it was would help push their interpretation to the next level. There is no clear victor or loser presented. Okay, fine, be that way. But neither is there discussion of why there is no clear victor. Who writes these histories? Who has been telling these stories? That is a story within itself. There is no mention of who lived through this area nor how Forrest's raids impacted their lives. Raiding was a tactic to destroy or capture supplies, transportation modes, and communication methods. How would that have impacted any of the local population (besides being devastating)? And who was the local population? The majority of west Tennessee favored secession because of their crops and the value of maintaining slavery (not as much of an issue in the mountainous eastern portion of the state). So who exactly lived here at that time?

While the majority of the hero-worship I remember from the first visitor center is gone, there are still traces, begging the question: who visits this place? Probably self-proclaimed "Civil War buffs." But there have to be more visitors, too. Considering it is off of an interstate exit, I would bet they receive many incidental visitors just looking for restrooms. If those folks did not know much about the Civil War and just wanted to stretch their legs while reading some of the panels, they probably won't walk away with many more connections to history than before they left. Historian me found it interesting that Eastern National did a good job carrying a variety of books; indeed, I saw the National Park Service publication The Civil War Remembered. The "Official National Park Service Handbook" compiled essays from a variety of scholars on a variety of topics, including addressing the "Lost Cause."

The history is there, the interpretation is not. The battle was small, but the site preserves a place for a richer story to be told. The new visitor center has improved many things about its presentation of the battle. The new visitor center has many things about its presentation of the battle that can be improved, too.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Stereotypes as Interpretive Tools

Interpreters understand that visitors arrive to a site with varying levels of knowledge about the resource. Usually visitors go to historic sites to learn more about the history or to understand the history better (or because someone in the family is dragging them along... it happens). Interpreters take what visitors already know and build upon that. Sometimes visitors know absolutely nothing about the topic, sometimes they know a great deal about the topic, and sometimes what they know is not entirely accurate. How do you take preconceived, but often inaccurate, ideas and use them as a teaching tool?

I work at the Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette, Louisiana. Through a film, a museum, and interpretive programs, the center tells the story of the deported Acadians who found themselves in south Louisiana and how they have become the Cajun culture today. Louisiana sees a fair amount of visitors (the state boasts a 9.4 billion dollar tourism industry with over 24 million visitors to the state). South Louisiana, especially, has capitalized on the distinct-ness of the region. Many folks visiting Lafayette start their visit at our center as it is 1) free and 2) an introduction to the area by way of historical and cultural explanations and 3) the welcome center staff often suggests to visitors to start at our center. It is interesting to see the types of perceptions people have before their arrival to the region, especially since pop culture has amplified stereotypes about the Cajun culture. 

Adam Sandler played a Cajun from the swamps in Water Boy. 

Disney's Princess and the Frog portrays the Cajuns as a community of fireflies (fun-loving but sometimes backwards).
The most recent portrayal of Cajuns in the media comes from Swamp People (Choot 'em!). In fact, tourism analysts have argued that the popularity of the show has provided a boost in tourism.

Many visitors greet me with questions prompted by these shows and movies. "Where are the REAL 'Swamp People?'" "Do people really live in the swamp?" "What does alligator taste like?" (I think it tastes like chicken, actually). Unfortunately, many perceptions have stereotyped Cajuns as backwards, illiterate, toothless/shoeless, uneducated, funny-sounding people who eat anything and live in the swamp. Often, people don't know of the Acadian roots and how the British forcibly removed the Acadians from their homes in the 1750s. Many people don't know that the distinct cultural features we now call "Cajun" are rooted in history, as the Acadian population had to adapt to environmental factors as well as other cultures in the region. The isolation of the region allowed for the population to hold on to their cultural features (language, traditions, family structure, religion, etc). The isolation also allowed for these misunderstandings to abound outside of the region. 
It helps that visitors have some sort of reference to the culture, even if the reference is inaccurate. When myths or inaccuracies surface in conversations, opportunities arise to dissect the roots of misunderstandings. Stereotypes can serve as a launching pad for discussion that can lead to a better understanding of the history. Being familiar with these stereotypes and pop culture references allows me to greet visitors at their understanding levels and provide the types of information that will help visitors make connections to the history.

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

Monday, July 2, 2012

Viva Visitors!

Sometimes, I think interpreters forget their role in the visitor experience. I don't mean the independent role they play as purveyor-of-information or sparker-of-interest. I mean the integrated role in the human interaction. Interpreters listen as a means of finding out the visitors' needs. But listening can also be enlightening. I know I sometimes forget how much I learn from visitors. Today, a visitor provided me with my own interpretive experience.

A family from Miami visited towards the closing end of our day. They missed the last movie but had a chance to walk through the museum. Within ten minutes of closing, the father asked again about films about the Acadian story. I showed him what we had available in the book store and we began talking about the deportation story. The conversation revealed that his interest rested more in the role Spain played in the development of Louisiana (knowing that it the governor of Spain at the time invited the Acadians to the region).  He was quite knowledgeable about Spanish history in the region, so I didn't have to tell him much. It turned out he is a high school history teacher in Miami.

He began telling me about Miami and listed the national parks there. "You haven't been?!" he asked in amazement. "You should go! They are beautiful," he continued. "But go in the winter when the mosquitoes won't carry you away." As the father told me about Miami, he mentioned how the city "looks more like South America than North America, there are so many immigrants." At that moment his wife piped in, "Us, too! We came here." 

"Yes," he said, "We came here, too. We escaped. We fled the communism and are now American!" He articulated his last statement boldly.

Havana, Cuba (photo courtesy of

New Orleans, Louisiana
(photo courtesy of
Havana and New Orleans have many similarities,
rooted in their shared Spanish heritage.
I asked if they came from Cuba and they said yes. I responded with an extra spark about how I had just been reading about the Cuban influence on New Orleans and how when Spain rebuilt New Orleans in the 1790s, the Spanish modeled the city after Havana. "So you know!" he said with a smile on his face. I mentioned how our website would soon have information about the many people groups that influenced the culture in south Louisiana and that Cubans will have a page. This excited the man. I was not about to get a word in. He started by saying that many don't know about Spain's history related to the United States and led to him mentioning the importance of history and led to his expression of gratitude that the United States has places like national parks. "These places are special all over the United States! That is why we are taking our son to see what these places mean and how they represent our freedom." 

That is a very good point, sir.

I say that a lot. I quote Wallace Stegner by calling the national parks "the best idea America ever had." I can practically recite the introduction to Ken Burn's series, "America's Best Idea: The National Parks." But I have only known freedom. I have only known democracy. I do not have a history of personal oppression to compare with my current state; I lack the contrast of knowing my freedom and knowing anything else (I am grateful for that, don't get me wrong!). I appreciate what I do and believe that I make a difference in my own small way. That does not mean it is always easy, however. I know this history and want people to connect to these places and stories on their own terms. There are times I get so caught up in hard work that I trip up and frustrate myself. But sometimes all I need is another human to remind me why I work so hard trying to make our complex history accessible to more people. 

The family was on their way to Arizona and Utah to see more national parks in celebration of their Independence Day holiday. I wish I could join them.

*Reminder: these thoughts are my own and do not reflect that of my employer (or anybody else, for that matter).