Thursday, November 15, 2012

Symposiuming: Perspective of an Interpreter


I am sorry. I realize that it has been a solid two weeks since I promised my final installation of my Stones River symposium-ing. A friend of mine (who had attended the symposium, traveling from Maryland), emailed me yesterday to touch base after the symposium (unknowingly prompting me to list “finish post” on my to-do list today). So here I go…

I think I procrastinated this post because it seemed the most complex. I mean, I understand that this blog is, in fact, entitled “History and Interpretation.” I also understand that I want to use this place to sort out thoughts about both history and interpretation and where the two intersect. But I struggled with the idea of pulling out the interpretive aspects of a symposium.    

First of all, the name “symposium.” What does it even mean? Ask an average visitor and I am guessing the answers will vary from “an illness” to “a fair or festival.” Yes, some may know the definition (in this case, I am referring to “a formal meeting where specialists deliver addresses on a specific topic"), but if the goal is to encourage visitors who may not traditionally have an interest in this type of thing (or don’t know they have an interest because they haven’t been exposed before), maybe a word other than “symposium” would be preferable.  I’ve harped on this before and I have a feeling it will come up again. But if historic sites want to make the information accessible to a broader audience, thinking about how to market the information is crucial.

Early visitors to the battlefield, pre-symposium era. 
Additionally, I am finding that many events hosted by historic sites (specifically, Civil War sites, if for no other reason than because those are the sites I follow most consistently) are happy with attendance to programs, boasting of higher visitation than anticipated. “Hey, guys! We had over 300 people attend our event!” Great! Good for you! Question, though: who attended? Was it the same people that keep attending these types of events? Do you suppose it has something to do with the way the events were advertised (or named…)? I’ve said it before, but what good is quality programming if few attend? How can historic sites entice more people to visit? The Battle of Stones River 150th symposium was attended well enough (although, it certainly did not reach its attendance cap of 300) and overall, attendees expressed their satisfaction of the programming. In addition to the speakers, there was music and a performance by an actor who portrayed Andrew Johnson. The variety of events provided content that would appeal to a broader audience. If listening to lectures weren’t your thing, you could watch the performance or go on a ranger-led walk. Planners of the event wove pieces of interpretation throughout the weekend; some pieces proved easier to find than others.

I am operating with Freeman Tilden’s definition of interpretation here. One of his principles states, "Information, as such, is not interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information." The presentations themselves were not necessarily interpretive in nature (excluding Pitcaithley’s), although they were informative. To be fair, the presenters (excluding Pitcaithley and the park rangers) were scholars and not interpreters. They were engaging speakers, they had compelling arguments, but their talks informed. Interpretation is a craft, a skill set refined with practice and effort. However, I found provocation (the chief aim of interpretation) naturally happening between presentations and during the performances. The lectures unleashed all sorts of new ideas and attendees were forced to chew on these ideas. When attendees had a chance to process the information and talk among each other, they were able to pull meanings out of the information presented. I interacted with many attendees who expressed how they personally connected to the information presented, but they pulled those meanings out of the information, the meanings weren't explicitly presented. 

The music presentation did incorporate many aspects of interpretation, but rather than a presentation about history with facts, it was presentation of history with music. The performers told stories of where the songs originated while making connections to today. One song linked wounded soldiers coming home from wars before the American Civil War to wounded soldiers coming home during the American Civil War. The performers took it a step further to incorporate ideas of wounded soldiers returning today; they made the song meaningful and relevant (and hard not to cry).

Andrew Johnson conveying the difficulties
brought on by civil war.
I think the most interpretive piece was the performance by “Andrew Johnson.” Maybe theatrical performance naturally provides more room for interpretation because it is an art form within itself.  The actor portraying Andrew Johnson touched on “his” (Johnson’s) actions and possible motives behind decisions during early Reconstruction. He highlighted the personal agony of war. He ended with a tearful mention of his son’s death and how the death resonated through his whole family making day-to-day living difficult. The end of the presentation left the audience with heavy hearts and a reminder of the weight of war. The actor’s accent was quaint and his costume was splendid, and his performance breathed life into the facts and figures and arguments that scholars made earlier in the day. That’s what historic sites should be doing: tugging at more than just the brain.

The American Civil War was a personal experience for millions of people, although they experienced it in their own ways. “Death” and “destruction” and “devastation” are merely words: letters assembled together to express our ideas of assessing the past. For those involved at Murfreesboro (the soldiers who fought during the Battle of Stones River, the people who lived on the during the war, the “contraband” camps that followed the Union presence, the citizens who dealt with recovery for years following the war), heavy hearts may have been their only legacy. For those who attended the symposium, they were provided plenty of information that illuminated that legacy. While the interpretive aspects of the symposium were limited, there was enough to provoke attendees to make connections to the place and the stories. 

This symposium was deliberately held at a time to reflect upon the rounded "150"number- an anniversary year. The symposium itself is one of many opportunities the park has provided for the public to experience a deeper understanding of the past. The technical anniversary of the events is over the New Year's holiday. Stones River National Battlefield will have special events commemorating the anniversary between December 27th and January 2nd. These programs and events are a small portion of the many commemorative events happening nationwide during the four-year stretch of the sesquicentennial. There are still over two years-worth of sesquicentennial-ing the American Civil War. We learn from our experiences, from others, and most importantly, from our audiences (intended and actual). We keep asking "what works?" and more importantly, "what isn't working?" There are two more years-worth of utilizing that rounded "150" number and capturing the attention of a broader audience. Think of it! Potential! Potential rests within these upcoming years to provoke a broader audience's attention.  

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Symposiuming: Perspective of a Historian

Stones River National Cemetery is only one of the battle's many legacies.
As promised, I am writing on my reflections of the Stones River National Battlefield symposium from a variety of understandings. In this post, I want to approach the two-day event from the perspective of a historian. I have a hard time dwelling in just the history of things; I tend to think "how can one interpret that to a broader audience," or "how would this be received by the average visitor?" I am always considering how to take information "down from the top shelf." Even as the symposium progressed, the gears in my brain constantly turned about what seemed effective and well-received.

Again, I applaud the battlefield for hosting an excellent event. The planners of the symposium secured some talented and smart speakers. I anticipated both Larry Daniel's presentation as well as Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley's. Daniel recently published a new work out about the battle (and completely immersed in all-things-Stones-River), so I was excited to hear what new material he would bring to the table. I also wanted to see what Pitcaithley would say regarding sesquicentennial events in the midst of the sesquicentennial.

I am not sure what is the best way to approach evaluating the event through the eyes of a historian. What criteria do I use to assess the event? The speakers gave excellent presentations that included quality arguments, quality evidence, and in most cases, quality visual aids. The speakers presented ideas under new light and challenged some of the existing scholarship of the battle. The discussions flossed crevices in my mind that haven't seen the light of day in a long time. Overall, I walked away with some ideas that I want to investigate further regarding my knowledge of the Battle of Stones River. Talking with other attendees, I know that many others also appreciated the content and wanted to learn more about the battle, more about the Western Theater of the war. Based entirely on those things, the event was a success. However, I never stop pushing, I never stop asking questions, I never stop expecting less than the very best. There is more to the story.

While the symposium fed me new ideas, I still felt that the symposium did not reach its full potential. The symposium's title "The Legacy of Stones River: Why the Battle Matters 150 Years Later" suggested more of the discussion would address the legacy of the battle. The "About the Symposium" introductory paragraph of the program read:

"On the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Stones River, we turn our thoughts to the fighting that raged here from December 31st, 1862, throught January 2, 1863. The Battle of Stones River left thousands of dead and wounded and shaped local and national events during and after the Civil War. We will examine how this bloody fight in the heart of Tennessee helped shape a town, a nation, and a legacy that has lasted for 150 years." 

Park ranger Jim B. Lewis and historian Antoinette van Zelm co-presented a program called "The Local Reaction" that discussed some of the effects of the battle on the local population, stretching the story into Reconstruction a little bit (some of their discussion reached into the 1870s; most was about the impact of the battle immediately after the battle). But three of the four guest speakers focused on assessing the battle and choices made during the battle by those who were involved in the battle (Richard M. McMurry even discussed how Jefferson Davis made choices that impacted the battle from afar). We examined some of the "bloody fight" but little of how it specifically "helped shape a town, a nation, and a legacy."

As a historian, I operate with the mindset that societies view the past through the lens of their era, their culture, and their understandings. Throw events and memory of the events with the telling (and re-telling) of the events into a blender, add a dash of legend, and you have yourself some history. We use what we have (primary sources, secondary sources, etc) to help us understand the past, but our collective understanding will always be shifting. Seeing how we currently treat the American Civil War serves as a reflection of contemporary society as much as a reflection of the past. In this case, we have a hard time pushing ourselves to delve into the effects of the war or the legacies of the battle without diving into some pretty uncomfortable arenas. Even today, discussion about race, about economics, about class, and about regions prove difficult, so we often avoid those topics.

Dwight Pitcaithley was scheduled to be the last speaker (the remaining event included a variety of programs that did not include lecturing). His argument started with the idea that when we only dwell on the discussion of soldiers or battles or fighting without including discussions of meanings or causes or effects we trivialize the whole war. Pitcaithley stated those with the best intentions to honor the fallen soldiers do a disservice to those same soldiers by not engaging about the complex reasons the soldiers fought in the first place. I found his presentation an interesting way to end a symposium where the majority of the speakers focused on the battle and neglected to discuss much legacy.

Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley, former Chief Historian of the
National Park Service addressed symposium attendees,
challenging how many historians approach the American Civil War. 
During the "Questions and Discussion" session (before Pitcaithley's presentation), I served as photographer and quietly stood off to one side of the auditorium while processing the types of questions the audience asked. I lost my own nerve to ask "in a sentence, can one of the presenters please tell me WHY what you said was important?" Seriously, though: why should historians (or anybody) bother studying the maneuvers, the strategies, the tactics of battles if you don't bother understanding their larger significance or deeper meanings?  I leave that question out in the open and wonder who will be willing to take a shot at answering it?