Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Symposiuming: Perspective of an Attendee

Like I mentioned before, I want to write about last weekend's symposium at Stones River National Battlefield from a few different perspectives: one as attendee, one as a historian, and one as an interpreter. There will be some overlap in my discussion, but I am trying to assess the event thoroughly (and before I forget about it!). I think it is especially important to consider these sorts of events as they are happening. We still have two and a half years of utilizing that "150th" ring when announcing anniversary dates and events of the American Civil War! We also have room to improve! The symposium at Stones River National Battlefield is co-hosted by the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area and the MTSU Center for Historic Preservation (as well as the Heritage Center of Murfreesboro). This symposium was the seventh semi-annual event; each event has a different theme surrounding the Battle of Stones River.

As an attendee, I could not have been happier with the clearly well-planned and executed event. My basic "needs" were all met. The $20 registration fee included hors d'euorvers on Friday evening, a quality selection of danish, fruit, and coffee on Saturday morning, and a boxed lunch in the afternoon. The places where the event was held were comfortable (a historic church in downtown Murfreesboro and at a heated tent at the battlefield). Staff hosting the event were friendly and welcoming. I knew they had all been working long hours but they did not show it. Hosting an event for the public should meet basic needs so that attendees 1) don't have to worry and can focus on the content of the event, 2) attendees will want to return to the site or to other events, and 3) attendees feel valued.

I especially appreciate everything keeping to the scheduled times. The first evening program was delayed slightly, otherwise all programs, talks, breaks, etc., stayed within the timeframes established. This demonstrated quality planning and respect for attendees' times. It may have had something to do with Nashville Public Television being present the first night and C-SPAN being present the second day, but I will take it. Built into the schedule was time for breaks, engagements (Q&A sessions and book signings), and traveling between sites. Again, quality planning showed respect for attendees.

Superintendent Hazelwood's introductions infused
the symposium with a positive mood
(Stones River National Battlefield)
The new superintendent, Gayle Hazelwood, cast a particularly positive mood on the events with her various introductions. Her introductions set the audiences at ease, making a symposium not feel so stuffy and serious. I think easing the audience at the front end of the events helped the group receive the presented content better than if it was introduced as an entirely serious event. Every speaker did an outstanding job at presenting their material. I will admit: that part made me nervous. I dislike lectures (there, I said it). So while I was excited about the event itself, I dreaded the talking parts (especially talks from the wordy and often boring historian-types... I should know, I am one of them). I was pleasantly surprised! They presented interesting arguments, incorporated some humor, and kept the attention of the audience. I talked to several people throughout the program who expressed their appreciation for the presenters and content.

I can babble on about all of the positive, but if I want to be entirely honest, I will admit that the event had room for improvement. I found the content interesting and engaging, but I was also particularly familiar with the battle. When a speaker said a name of a commander, I knew of the commander. Several attendees admitted to being from out-of-state and just "here to learn more." I wonder how the the content was received by those who were not as familiar with the battle history? The introductory speaker on Friday night, Larry Daniels, recently published a new history on Stones River (and by "recently" I mean "it isn't officially available until November." I only bought my book last weekend, so I don't know everything he argues. I am familiar with one major fact changing: Daniels argues that the Union had nearly 10,000 more soldiers present than originally thought. Previous understandings weighted the Union forces and Confederate forces about equal; this research changes much about how the battle could be understood from a tactical, strategic, and military history understanding. For some visitors, however, this may be the first time they even were aware of the armies' strengths, so the news didn't really change much of their understanding of the battle.

I was also disappointed that the "scholarly" speakers focused on the Confederacy. I knew one would be presenting on Jefferson Davis's approach to the Western Theater, but the other ended up presenting a more human examination of Confederate General Braxton Bragg. While both presented interesting ideas and challenged some scholarship, very little ended up being discussed about the Union army, decisions, or participants. One presentation by a park ranger and local professor discussed the impact of the battle and the war on the local population. That was interesting and well done, but still left out discussion of the victorious army during the battle. The final speaking presentation by Dwight Pitcaithley focused on meaning and remembrances of the Civil War (a quality way to end the lectures, in my opinion). I made a comment about it to some of my former co-workers and one of the maintenance guys piped in, "Well, you live in the South, Elizabeth, what did you expect?" Good question. What did I expect?

They left a heckofalot of room for me
to play with my "title." Goofing off also
helped other attendees feel comfortable
enough to approach me. 
As aforementioned, I expected the lecture parts to be incredibly boring, in part because of the name of the event: symposium. What is a symposium, anyway? How many average citizens can identify the meaning of that word, much less want to go to one? I am glad the lectures were well-presented, even if I am slightly disappointed in the content. I think it would have been valuable for some more directed engagement with the audience. Many attendees had questions or wanted to talk out the ideas (I should know... word got out that I used to work at the battlefield and since I was not in uniform, I seemed like an approachable individual for attendees to come and talk to me during breaks. I didn't really get "breaks" like everybody else. The approachability factor may have been influenced by how I chose to identify myself on my nametag- it proved a valuable conversation starter as I clearly did consider myself a stuffy individual). Break-out sessions or more time for Q&A sessions could have helped. It would also prove helpful as a means to assess what content the attendees were truly walking away with.

Musicians discussed the origins of songs before playing
the songs during the symposium.
(Stones River National Battlefield)
Even with limited opportunities for directed engagements, the event's programs included opportunities for different types of engagements other than lectures. Music and a presentation of Andrew Johnson by a costumed interpreter provided attendees with different ways to experience or understand some of the history. The musicians and the costumed interpreter were professionals and added an extra dimension to the event.

As an attendee with a special interest in Civil War, especially the Civil War in the Western Theater, I found the event engaging and thought-provoking. I don't know how I would have appreciated the content if I did not have as much interest in the historical side of things. I know the music and the costumed performance might have caught my attention (as it did for several visitors to the battlefield that afternoon who were invited to come and listen). The symposium proved an excellent experience for me, attendee by choice. My next question will be "how do we provoke interest in more people to choose to attend these types of events?" What value is an amazing event if few attend?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Symposiuming: Preface

This past weekend, Stones River National Battlefield hosted its semi-annual symposium. This year's symposium's title "The Legacy of Stones River: Why the Battle Matters 150 Years Later," hinted that the event would seriously provoke thought about the idea of legacy and meaning. I went because I love that place, I did immense amount of research on some of the legacies, I love that place, I like seeing how historic sites address the question of "meaning," and I wanted to see what the symposium would include. Also, I love that place. Knowing my former advisor, Dwight Pitcaithley, would be speaking only sweetened the deal.

I had been to several of the symposiums over the past few years (in fact, I was the ranger who gave the ranger programs at the symposium over five years ago). But my experiences have always been working the symposiums. I helped set up the places, I helped direct traffic, I ensured technology worked. This was the first event hosted by the battlefield that I attended and technically had no responsibilities (I ended up volunteering to take photos, otherwise, I was a total participant).

If I want to be honest about my role as participant, however, I will admit that I knew of some of its planning from when I worked there over a year ago and know everybody involved with the planning (so I didn't walk into this program as most of the attendees did). I am also particularly versed in the battle's history, the memory of the battle in Civil War history, and the history of the landscape around the battlefield. The majority of the attendees (some who came from New Jersey, California, and Texas just to attend the symposium) would not have that sort of background.

The event itself ran smoothly, was well-received by those in attendance, and provided quality content for attendees. What I want to do, however is poke around a little at what we (historians, historic sites, event planners, etc.) can do better. What went especially well? What can use improvement? How well did we address the ideas of "legacy" and "meaning?" How much of the content "matters" during this sesquicentennial anniversary year of the American Civil War?

Over the next few days, I will take some time to provide my own assessment of the symposium. These will be from my own perspective as an attendee, as a historian trained to work with the public, and as an interpreter. C-SPAN filmed the presentations and I assume that means at some point in the future, you will be able to watch some of the content, too. In the meantime, you'll just have to bear with me as I attempt to sort out ideas about a two-day event in a verbose fashion.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Magic at Mammoth Cave

Yesterday I trekked my way out to Mammoth Cave National Park. It is one of my favorite places to visit, especially this time of year; the colors along the rolling hills of that karst topography are brilliant. And the idea of standing in the world's longest cave excites me every time I visit.

The view from inside the cave without lights.

The view from inside the cave with lights (National Geographic)

The park ranger leading the program offered a quality tour, full of humor, information, and heck, some interpretation. Tour groups in the cave tend to "accordion"as the different paces of visitors stretch out the group. During the times when the group stopped the park ranger provided brief "Q&A" sessions, asking if anybody had any questions he could answer. Prompted by his earlier introduction, one woman asked, "Since you have worked here for seventeen years, do you find this repetitive or the cave ever losing its magic?"

Without stopping to inhale, the ranger responded in a soft tone, "Oh, no ma'am, it never loses its magic." He paused, then repeated himself, "It never loses its magic." He quickly recovered from his emotional response with an explanation that views may make the cave look different, lights shining cast new shadows, and visitors are as much a part of the experience. He said that visitors may provide different ways to look at things, ask new questions, and insert their own creative perceptions about the place.

I love that idea. The visitors are a part of the experience. They connect to that place in their own way while impacting the park ranger. Indeed, with a more interactive experience, visitors have the chance to converse with each other or vocalize their viewpoints. The park ranger understood his role as facilitator to the experience, not be the experience. That feels easier when visitors literally get to be immersed in the resource (we were 260 feet below ground when she asked that question). But the park ranger pointed out things (sadly he didn't do a lot of pointing AT things, except with his flashlight). He maintained the idea that each one of us impacted the cave in one way or another, often unknowingly. He revealed ideas and let us absorb them.

Sometimes it is too easy to fall into the trap of telling, not revealing, especially at historic sites. Sometimes we know so much and want to share all the important details that we forget the significance of letting visitors immerse themselves in the resource. What happens when tours become more about engaging with visitors and less about the furniture? What happens when tour guides, park rangers, or interpretive staff spend more time interacting with visitors and less time telling about the battlefield (or house, or statues, or other historical feature). The visitors can provide new insights, ask new questions, provoke the interpreters' understanding, and cast all sorts of new light onto the stories of the past. Contemporary visitors expect to be a part of the experience and not just told facts. I bet those engaged visitors will better remember their visit to the site than those who were talked to the whole time, too.

History won't ever lose its magic to those actively studying it. Those presenting the past the public have a chance to expand and share that magic.

Friday, October 12, 2012

No bullets? Then it must not be a Civil War Site.

Melrose served as the "suburban villa" for the
plantation owner, who owned four working
plantations. (Courtesy Library of Congress)
On my way up from Louisiana, I spent the night in Natchez, Mississippi. Knowing of a nearby National Park Service site that I had yet to visit, I decided to stop by Natchez National Historical Park. Specifically, I stopped in at "Melrose," the antebellum estate managed by the park. Initially, I had planned on staying just long enough to see what was there and get my stamp (knowing I had another ten hours left in my sojourn back to Tennessee). Yes, I am one of those park visitors. I ended up landing myself an engaging conversation with the park ranger and a brief tour of the house.

The tour was outstanding; the park ranger did an amazing job at fueling the stories with his passion, making connections with his audience. I actually enjoyed the house tour because of his program (I've mentioned my dislike of historic home tours before). He discussed nuances associated with the site's history while relating many of the historic ideas to today. I love to see the green and grey shine like that.

What struck me the most, however, happened during a conversation I had with the park ranger before the tour. I saw that the park had some of the new "Civil War to Civil Rights" trading cards available and I asked if I could have some. I mentioned something along the lines of how parks like Natchez are often forgotten when people think "Civil War to Civil Rights" and he responded "well, this isn't really a Civil War park."

The reason Melrose existed: cotton  and slaves.
(Courtesy Library of Congress)

What defines a "Civil War" or "Civil Rights" park? His argument was that since the minor skirmish that happened was small and didn't affect the sites of the park, it wasn't really a "Civil War" park. I suppose that is one way to define a "Civil War" site: fighting had to take place or damage had to be caused by fighting. But that is how we have always tried to define these sites and as it turns out, it isn't always the most accurate. The estate's antebellum existence represents what the war was fought over. The estate's struggles reflect war's impact on even the "distant" places from battlefields. The estate's post-war existence represents devastation after war. The people associated with the estate echo the theme "From Civil War to Civil Rights" perfectly. Oh, but no shots were fired at the estate, so it must not be a "Civil War" park.

The story of the American Civil War existed well outside of the boundaries of battlefields. The story of the American Civil War impacted more than soldiers. The story of the American Civil War lasted beyond the four years assigned in text books. The National Park Service is trying and slowly moving in the direction of telling a broader story of the American Civil War. The park ranger who stated that Natchez was "not a Civil War park" clearly was read on the subject and familiar with the site, so I don't want to take away from his assessment. But at the same time, how do we define a "Civil War" site? Even better, how do we define "Civil Rights" site?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Imagined Liberties

I apologize for my absence. I had a lot happen in the past few weeks and have kept fairly busy.

The first major happening: I have voluntarily left the National Park Service to begin working for myself (no more individual disclaimers attached to the end of each post!).

Calm down! Calm down! For those who did not see that coming, I apologize. For those who did, I appreciate all of your recent support. And for those who had no clue that I was even a park ranger, now you know.

Whew! Now that I have got that off my chest, I can continue.

I debated whether or not I should announce that fairly major life transition or just ignore it and keep writing as if nothing has changed. I started this blog as a place for me to sort out my challenges I faced in my job as an interpretive park ranger for the National Park Service. Now that I no longer work for the National Park Services my challenges will certainly shift. However, even though I don't wear the flat hat anymore, I have not changed. I have the same background, education levels, and experience. I still like history, I still like traveling, my gears still constantly turn when I read about or see something connected to historical memory, and I still write. My goal of inspiring the interest of history for the general public remains and now I feel that I have more freedom to continue to do it.

In a recent email conversation, a friend of mine commented on my breaking away from the National Park Service by mentioning that I will now have the liberty to write about what I want, how I want. He mentioned that while working for the National Park Service, it was just an "imagined liberty." Being publicly associated with any organization creates varying forms of liberty when writing. Indeed, I will no longer have to post my disclaimers nor do I have to be concerned I might get a call from my supervisor about my writings (an event that may or may not have happened in my recent past). However, I do sense that my liberties will always be some form of imagined. But imagined liberties are a good thing. Imagined liberties spark innovation, drive creativity, and push ideas forward.

Writing for public consumption, especially through a dynamic and open medium like blogging, requires a degree of boldness and many imagined liberties. Recently, C-Span aired a session from last summer's Civil War Institute's Summer Conference at Gettysburg College entitled "Civil War Blogging." The blogging panelists discussed their approaches to blogging then answered questions, mostly from audience members. All three bloggers, Kevin Levin, Brooks Simpson, and Keith Harris wrote responses to the re-airing of the session. I appreciate their attitudes about blogging. Nobody is forcing them to write and they don't have any official "license" or "stamp of approval" to write. All three touch on the idea of blogging as a form of conversation. All three also touch on the idea of authority. And all three touch on audience. All three have created their virtual "space" to invite others to engage by imagining the liberty to do so.

Blogging serves as a method to engage with others; I write, I post, you read, you assess, maybe you respond. As it turns out, this same process happens in many forms of communication. Blogging is just one way to provide food for thought or to outline an opinion or even to stir up the dust a little. There are no official "rules" in blogging. This is a process; I will speak for myself that I learn a little more with each posting about what works, what doesn't, how I want to shift the direction of the content. As technology changes, so will these varying forms of communications. Who gives permission to write? Nobody. Who reads? Anybody who wants to read.

I also find that writing about things like history, memory, public awareness (or lack of awareness), and interpretation of these things also require levels of imagined liberty, often stirring up more dust than expected. I am not always ready for those little clouds I help create. But I see stirring up dust as a positive thing. In my mind, if I have stirred up dust, I have caused somebody to think a little differently (or just think). I am a fan of thinking. And I like to see potential in thinking. Potential revs up my possibility engine and gets me going. But then again, I have created this possibility by imagining my liberty to do so.

I am currently looking at an entire horizon of possibility now I am not wearing the green and grey. I will still write about history and interpretation (you know, since that is the name of this blog and all), I will just have a different type of imagined liberty. The world is my oyster! I will start by imagining it, first.