Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Visitor Identity (is a Vital Thing)

The cultural center where I work recently launched a temporary exhibit about Spanish influences on culture in the region. A portion of the exhibit looked at the historical connections and the rest of the exhibit featured the diversity of contemporary culture and its connections to the region. Staff at the center worked with members of the Latin American community in the region.

The original challenge was the development of the exhibit. We wanted the members of the group to tell their story and share what they wanted to share. We also needed to make sure the exhibit fit into the park's interpretive objectives while remaining reasonably manageable. We also needed to develop the interpretation in a manner that would deliberately make the connections to these stories to that of the broader region's culture. That required several meetings and conversations. My biggest challenge was resisting the urge to take over. Community projects like this are dynamic, organic, and should be flexible. That was easier said than done. A friend of mine led a similar project (on a much bigger scale) and I found myself sharing some of the same frustrations, learning the same lessons.

The exhibit has now been up for over two weeks. I am finding that the biggest crowd that comes to visit the center because of the temporary exhibit are members from the community that helped put the exhibit together. Many have never been to the center before, even admitting how they did not know it existed. But these visitors almost always take the time to see the rest of the exhibits and watch the film. What I find the most interesting is how they are drawn to see the space they helped create, the stories that help build their identity. For some, the items on display are their own items from their own houses; seeing those items on display stirs up such excitement!

In fact, this happens with many locals who visit the center's permanent displays: they visit to find connections to their identity displayed in a museum. They remember using some of the tools, their grandmother owning that china, their family owned farming equipment, they've worked on some of the boats depicted on the walls. Many times, for locals who come to learn more about their "roots," they are happy to walk through and learn about whatever it is we have on display in our temporary exhibit space. In this case, locals who don't claim a Spanish heritage want to share stories about their connections to the exhibit or their knowledge of Spain's influence on the region.

Both types of visitors arrive seeking a connection to their identity. In fact, I would even argue those passport stamp-collecting visitors are looking for a connection to their identity. If the United States National Park Service deemed a site or a story worth preserving, then it must be a part of this nation's collective identity, right? Pack up those kids, tie the luggage to the top of the van, we have to see the places that mean "America!" Yet, sometimes, we (site managers/interpreters) struggle with making the types of meaningful connections to all Americans (hence the explanation of the average national park visitor not necessarily representing the diversity of this nation). It isn't that most people aren't willing to listen to the variety of stories found at historic sites, it is their lack of awareness beforehand.

I understand that I am mostly preaching to the choir (historic sites and national parks have been struggling with broadening audiences for a loooong time) and that these are not easy issues. I don't know what solutions exist or how other sites are attempting to open their doors wider to new audiences. I even fear that once this temporary exhibit goes away, so will some of the diversity of our current visitors. But understanding visitors' identity connections serves as one element that makes up the "knowing your audience" portion of good interpretation.

How do you see yourself in stories told at historic sites?

*Note: These thoughts are my own and do not officially represent those of the National Park Service.

*I like hearing others' perspectives. What kinds of solutions have you seen historic sites implement to broaden their audiences?

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Picture is Worth [Some Serious Thought]

I feel like in the past few days, all I have been hearing about is the upcoming 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. I've read posts about it. I've read articles. Heck, it is so big, it gets TWO re-enactment events! Doesn't everybody know that America's bloodiest one-day battle happened 150 years ago [on Monday]?!? But then I suppose I feel inundated with it because I immerse myself with readings about the American Civil War (and contemporary understandings of the war). I also suppose that I do not represent the "average" citizen in that respect. I also suppose "average" citizens will live out their Monday like any other Monday, maybe catching a headline or news clip about the anniversary of the battle. It doesn't stop me from trying.

While pulling together some of the park's social media content, I realized that one of the most famous pictures of the American Civil War is that of soldiers from Louisiana.

Antietam, Maryland. Bodies of dead, Louisiana regiment. (Library of Congress

The photograph shows splayed (most likely posed) bodies of Louisiana soldiers from the fields of Antietam. While the content we develop and post at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve includes all-things-natural-cultural-and-historical of Louisiana's Mississippi River Delta, anything related to 1) other National Park Service sites and 2) the American Civil War especially catch my eye.

Indeed, I plan on posting the image via the park's social media outlets on Monday. I think it will provide a little bit of relevancy, connecting both the anniversary of the battle with that day, as well as the region's connection to the American Civil War. In the meantime, I have been working what text I want to accompany the photograph. What should be the associated message? I have many tentative routes to convey some serious meaning! Do I just mention the fact that the Civil War impacted Louisiana? Do I focus on the soldiers? Do I bring up the "bloodiest battle" factor (over 23,000 killed, wounded, or captured in a day?)? Do I mention why they fought? Do I bring up Antietam's role in Lincoln's decision to announce the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation after the battle? Do I talk about homefront or battle? Soldiers or civilians? Complexities of Louisiana's role during the war or strict battle-talk? Do I mention Matthew Brady or photography during the war? Do I run with universals like loss, grief, or death? Do I let the photograph speak for itself?

Do people even care?

I haven't decided what I will post with the photograph. I have some draft notes at work (mostly scribblings of ideas accompanied by scratches of dissatisfaction, scrawls made in between visitors while waiting at the desk). It is likely I am overthinking this; I tend to do that (in many areas of my life). It is just one picture! How much thought seriously needs to go into this?

I have a feeling my Monday will play out no differently than my other Mondays regardless of what I choose to include with this photograph. That doesn't stop me from a'thinking.

*Note: These thoughts reflect mine only and do not necessarily represent that of the National Park Service.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Battlefield [in Technicolor]

While I have the battlefield on the brain, I thought I'd share some photos a friend did at Stones River National Battlefield a few days ago.

Every visitor comes to parks to experience them their own way. It behooves us historian-types to remember how different people connect to these places and its history in different ways.

Memories of Fighting for Home and Hearth

It's that time of year again! No, I'm not talking about the start of college football, nor the arrival of the Pumpkin Spice latte at Starbucks. I am talking about the Fighting for Home and Hearth living history program at Stones River National Battlefield! The media of social sorts reminded me of the weekend through posts, tweets, and photos.

I can smell the black powder from here.
(Courtesy of Stones River National Battlefield)
For the last three years, I planned and implemented this particular living history weekend. I had been given the opportunity for the experience. I also think my former coworker secretly liked to torment me, assigning me the Confederate-themed weekend every early September. Once upon a time, a visitor left a comment card about one ranger's "Yankee bias" after said ranger went so far as to talk about how slavery contributed to the causes of the American Civil War (gasp). That rootin'-tootin' Yankee ranger was me. That rootin'-tootin' Yankee ranger had no problems with engaging with those who wanted to deny slavery's role in the war's causes.

My first year planning the program was a complete struggle, for I feared I would mess up. This was a big deal, after all! What if I misspoke?! What if I spaced out?! I did not want to appear the dummy! What if I shamed the arrowhead?! Nerves wracked my body for weeks as I freaked out about all that was bound to go horribly wrong. I chickened out and had the experienced ranger do the talking about the infantry shooting part while I did the storytelling part. I think I operated from an outline that had been prepared before my arrival, adding a few tweaks. If I recall correctly, the few tweaks included some extra sappy quotes from soldiers to tug at the audience's heartstrings. Yes, I had an outline on a paper that I read from. Shameful.

A recruiting poster for the Confederate Army.
I like playing with the idea of freedom's meaning.
I never ended up using this in my program, though.
My second year, I struggled, too. Oh, I grew up a little and decided that I was a big girl and could talk about the steps involved in the physical act of shooting and the maneuvers of infantry units. This time I struggled for different reasons. I knew that I was not comfortable telling just the Confederate side of the story. I also knew that the program allowed me to talk about things beyond the battle (life on the homefront, complexities behind soldiers' reasons to fight, etc.). A large portion of the interpretation included talk about the Rutherford Rifles. Seeing as only 11 of the 150 who marched off to fight returned after the war, I tried to focus on what devastation meant after the Civil War. I tried to focus on what the battle physically did (to the men fighting and to the surroundings). It becomes easier to evoke visitor emotion when you focus on those ideas, telling the stories of the soldiers who died on lands where they grew up.

But then, I knew that if I talked about the reasons why these soldiers were fighting, I would have to delve into more than just the difficulties of battle. Soldiers' definitions of home or property would often include enslaved laborers. In fact, nearly half of Rutherford County's population was enslaved at the outbreak of the war. So those "fighting for home and hearth" from Rutherford County were defending slavery. They wanted "freedom" from their perceived oppressors. One soldier wrote of fighting "the implacable enemy who seeks to destroy our liberty and enslave us." I decided to include more than just soldiers' experiences in my program this time, including causes and effects (though, not delving too deeply beyond what related to the soldiers). Once the weekend arrived, I dealt with a whole other set of problems as I delivered the program. I survived, but knew I still shrugged off taking on the bigger challenge.

Last year was the last time I planned the weekend. By that time, I had finished my thesis and graduated. My thesis was about using place to tell a story. Specifically, it was about using landscapes to tell difficult histories. Specifically, specifically, it was about using the battlefield environs now managed by the National Park Service at Stones River National Battlefield to tell the fuller story of the American Civil War by broadening the interpretation of the place and its history. So it only made sense to me that I include these larger ideas, presenting the conflicting ideas of freedom to varying groups of people. This was the academic topic I had been nesting on for years and now was the time for those ideas to hatch.

AND YET. I still struggled. I even had a meeting with my supervisor about it. People were expecting to come see a program about the local Confederate soldiers. How do I tell the stories of the men and women who were literally enslaved  by those in grey when I have a group of guys ready to shoot, acting like they were those who were fighting for this version of home? Visitors just come for the "boom!" anyway! Maybe I should not push so hard. Maybe I should just give visitors what they want. Talking about all this war stuff makes people uncomfortable, anyway. What if people leave unhappy?

Ding ding ding ding! 

Exactly! I am talking about a war! I am talking about battle! I am talking about major inhumanities! These are not "happy" thing! Yes, I want visitors to leave with a positive experience, but I also want people to take away more than a ringing eardrum with they leave the program. The soldiers represented by the living history volunteers play only a small part of a larger story! I took that and ran with it. I centered my theme on "freedom" and did less talking, more asking. I presented one idea of soldiers fighting for freedom (since that is what the visitors came to see and indeed could visualize with the help of the volunteers dressed in grey). I also presented another idea of what the definition of "home" might look like in the area during the 1850s and 1860s. I did not necessarily go full throttle with the contrast of the ideas, but neither did I neglect to tell the fuller story, neither.

And then I let those muskets go "boom."

I can't say I was fully satisfied that program, though I know I did better than in previous years. We keep pushing forward, seeing what works and what doesn't (I am not the only one who does this, by the way). That program was my last living history event before moving to Louisiana and I haven't had much of a chance to try my hand at that story again. I have shifted the direction of where I push and prod in the world of interpretation, but I certainly haven't stopped provoking. I still struggle with "getting good" at interpreting, but know tomorrow is another opportunity for improvement.

*Note: These thoughts are my own and do not officially represent that of the National Park Service.

**I am forever grateful for the opportunities Stones River National Battlefield provided me during my time there. I am especially grateful for the struggles, as I know I did the most growing during that time.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

"Pottery" and "Pride"

Duck's Market, the place to buy
statues, fireworks, and "pottery."

I apologize for my absence. I took a vacation to visit family and friends in the Volunteer State (a vacation extended by the arrival of a certain storm that reared its ugly head in south Louisiana this past week... not that I am complaining about the extra days off). I was deliberately trying to keep my brain operating at its lowest possible energy levels while on vacation. Of course, the people I know and hang out with have a way of provoking my thoughts (even when they don't realize it). The trip proved a refreshing break from life.

Fiestaware is so fun!
I am still working out a few ideas stirred up by some experiences and conversations, but thought I would stretch my writing muscles with my stop at Duck's Market. I love to stop at Duck's Market. Mostly because I love Fiesta pottery pieces and Duck's Market sells seconds of the pieces. Colorful dishware at a discount price!? Yes, please! I like to add to my collection a piece at a time, so I try to stop in every time I pass through the area. [Note: you cannot buy anything from Duck's Market except for fireworks the three days before Independence Day, so if you want to buy Fiestaware early July, you are out of luck... lesson learned].  

Prowling cats complete the
Duck's Market Experience.

If Fiestaware is not your thing, no worries! The shop sells fireworks, garden statues, and assorted knick-knacks. Included among the knick-knacks: an assortment of Southern-pride/Confederate flag memorabilia. As soon as your eyes adjust to the dim interior after being blinded by the larger-than-life silver dragon statue towering in the parking lot, the first thing you see is the wall with the flags.  Maybe I am just sensitive, but every time I see the wall, I feel like I am smacked in the face. 

[Insert pithy Southern Pride comment here]
What I find most interesting of the display is the fact that it is just there. Not just that it is there, but that it is just there. Among fireworks. Among dusty dishes. Among cats (the prowling cats in that store easily rival tigers in size... no joke). Among statues of saints and garden gnomes. A variety of slogans accompany the iconic symbols. "Heritage Not Hate." "Rebel by Choice." "American by birth, Southern by the Grace of God." "Completely Unaware of the Complexities Assigned to this Flag by Varying Groups." 

Oh, wait. I just made that last one up.  It'd fit right in there, I think.

I met somebody at a training a while back who asked me "you guys don't still deal with that, do you?" She was from Connecticut. She knew I worked at a Civil War park (at the time) and we were talking about visitor perceptions. Her question referred to the "Southern Pride/Confederate Pride" concepts that still ebb and flow through the culture. I wrinkled my face and responded with an absolute "yes, let's not be ridiculous, of course we still deal with that." I can't even buy moderately-priced dishware without running into it. It still stirs up debate and people want to yell about what it means (and want to argue that the "heritage" associated with it has nothing to do with "hate," obviously unaware of that "heritage"). But what are we supposed to do with it? Ignore it? Fuss? Yell? Ask questions? Engage? And I am asking as "we" the general public, not necessarily as historians/interpreters/historic site managers (I was on vacation, remember? I was the general public). Will enough dust gather on those icons in a way that we ignore what that symbol has meant over its existence? Will the general public be willing to have meaningful conversations about what the symbol means today? Will that symbol ever stop selling on its own? 

I am considering this post my "getting-back-into-the-writing-groove" after taking nearly a two-week break. I don't have answers, just thoughts. And now some new, colorful salad plates and bowls. 

*Now-standard disclaimer: These thoughts are my own and only my own.