Monday, November 11, 2013

Comments on Veterans Day

I worked at a national park site, developing various social media posts. It took months to create the social media plan and that plan included having a set amount of ready-to-go interpretive posts (those were in addition to the posts that would be created on the fly, inspired by events and activities happening at that moment). Holidays proved easy to create those pre-planned posts. Picture, fact or quote, "Happy [whatever holiday we are celebrating today]!" and bam: we've got some content. That worked well especially considering holidays meant more visitors and less staff. The last thing (generally) a front-line interpreter is thinking about is developing an interpretive post.

I still follow a ton of parks on Facebook and Twitter. I used to follow them just to see what they were posting, how they were posting, and if there was any content that we could connect with them from our site. Now I follow all of them just because. On patriotic holidays, my feeds are jamb-packed with American flags. Season changes mean lots of picture of trees. Trees! Today meant Veterans Day posts. I knew it was going to happen. Heck, I even posted something acknowledging the holiday. As I scrolled down, this post caught my eye:

Look! There are even ladies wearing cute hats! Any time I see an historic photo, my eye automatically stops (unlike when I see those pictures of trees... my eyes tend to keep going). The photo is pretty good. The idea is pretty good. I'm pretty familiar with the story, having worked there for years and volunteer there, currently. So far this morning, the photo has fourteen shares and sixty-five likes. That's pretty good. However, the most poignant thing about this post comes from one thought-provoking question in the comments section:

 This virtual visitor made a quality point. Let us remember those veterans who served to protect this nation and the free thinking individuals within and the fact that those free thinking individuals have the right to share ideas. Happy Veterans Day.

*Mostly out of habit, but here it is: all thoughts contained within this post are my own and do not reflect that of the National Park Service.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Never-Ending Research Fun

It is a wonder I finish anything nowadays with my shortened attention span. It isn't that I have a lack of focus; I can focus. I just focus in concentrated bursts. Currently, I am reminded about my shortened attention span as I so some research for new tour ideas for the company I work with, Echoes of Nashville. Maybe I enjoy the material too much. As soon as I pull up one resource, I see another one! I have two separate internet programs running, each with over a dozen tabs open. Never mind my books and notes spread about me! I thought I moved on past graduate school! I never wanted to see this much source material again (or so I thought).

The Civil War in Nashville is only one chapter of a
large history book of a major American city.
Part of my problem is that I am developing several ideas at once. Each tentative program has a theme or idea propelling the potential tour. From one resource, I might pull material that will contribute to several different tours. I get to start from scratch how I develop these tours! I get to choose the direction of these tours! I get to build my own foundations for these programs (and continue building)! It is all just so dern exciting! It also means my resources are so broad that I keep falling into that black hole that historians know as "the never-ending story." Learning does not stop, research can feel like it continues forever, and the stories! Those stories are endless.

Maybe it is the story aspect that I am finding the most frustrating, not the abundance of research. All of this material continues to spark ideas of how I can frame the content to present to the public. What stories inherently spark interest? How do the stories connect to fuel interest further? Where will be the best place share this part of the past?

Building the outline of programming may be one of my favorite parts of being an interpreter. Another favorite? Seeing a visitor's spark "ignite" during a program. There is nothing quite like creating a connection to a resource.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Cookie Cutter Programs

Whoa. It's like I died or something. (Hint: It's the something. I didn't die.)

New day! New post! I might be two and half months overdue, but I have to restart somewhere.

The other day, I spent a solid hour and half talking to one of my best friends (and favorite interpreters), Stephanie. (That's your shout out, Stephanie). She talked about a recent bus tour that came through her park in which three buses needed interpreters for short tours. The three park rangers had discussed what they should cover beforehand, then each hopped on their designated bus and gave their programs. She said, "if only there was a camera so we could see side-by-side video of each ranger- I bet no program was the same!" While some might think of that as a poor interpretive program (each bus got their own program), I see it as absolute success. If each ranger gave only a cookie-cutter presentation, presenting the exact same program in the exact same manner to each bus, that is not interpretation.

Yep. Good interpretive programs should not be
the exact same cookie-cutter version of a program every time.
The main idea or theme exists, but how the interpreter delivers will vary.
Interpretation happens when the interpreter senses the audience and captures the attention of that audience. Interpretation happens when the interpreter shares something (a fact, a picture, an idea, a story) with the audience that makes the audience think. Or feel. Or connect. Or want to learn more. The magic of an interpretive program is that no one interpretive program is the same (or feels the same). Factors that impact an audience include:

  • Audience demographic
  • Audience interaction (with both the interpreter and with other audience members)
  • Audience questions (what is your audience interested in)
  • Events happening during program (especially true if outside and activities are happening around program)
  • Weather!
  • Contemporary events- can you relate your program to something current in the news?
  • New research- interpreters are always learning themselves, finding out new ways, means, and materials to share with the audience.

Good interpretive programs should be called "interpretive experiences." Each program is a new opportunity to create an experience for the audience. The interpreter's craft is creating that experience. So, a round of applause to the three bus tour interpreters that ultimately had three different programs! You were interpreting, not cookie-cutting.

*On a side note, I feel I need to write a separate post on the significance of cookie-cutter programs. They are absolutely necessary for spur-of-the-moment programs, had-no-idea-I-was-scheduled-to-give-a-program programs, and when interpreters feel like death-warmed-over on the days the interpreters showed up ill for they don't have it in them to call in sick.

Friday, August 2, 2013

My Trip to Gettysburg

I visited Gettysburg National Military Park last week. It was a last-minute trip thought up the day before I would take a major roadtrip to see family (I would be traveling with my sister and brother-in-law and we decided to break up the 13-hour trip with some form of a stop... I was elated when they agreed to Gettysburg). I figured this visit would reflect that, more or less, of a "regular" visitor. Especially after reading a particularly entertaining argument of why museum professionals make poor visitors (mostly because it is so true), I would *try* to put myself in my regular-self-just-here-just-because shoes.

We started on the right track of being "average" visitors by getting lost. I wish I were kidding, but I am geographically challenged... and was the navigator. After arriving over half an hour after our intended arrival time (we had only about three hours to visit), we were able to get into the next showing for the theater and cyclorama. The film is well done, for sure (narrated by Morgan Freeman, "spared no expense"*). The cyclorama is "cool," too.

Confession: I totally blanked out whenever the film told the story of the actual battle and involved troop movements. I was more distracted by the idea of the filmmaker chose to relay battle scenes: fire, silhouettes, close-up shots, and dramatic music. These techniques are fairly common for filmmakers to use when showing battle scenes for a family-friendly visitor center. OH WAIT. THERE I GO AGAIN. I realized I was assessing too much and reset myself to regular-visitor mode before entering the cyclorama. The cyclorama is an absolutely fascinating piece of Gettysburg history, considering its artwork and influence. What caught my regular-visitor-lens attention? The fact that the crowd made me feel claustrophobic and this:

"The music swells dramatically to an intense crescendo of drums."
I read the closed captioning experience for the entirety of the show and could not help be amused with some of the descriptions, ESPECIALLY about the music. "The music swells dramatically to an intense crescendo of drums." Intense crescendo!? What better way to indicate to 21st century audiences that they should be serious because what is being told to them is serious!? Serious music, of course!


Onward to the museum! At this point, we were nearly two hours into our Gettysburg experience and I wondered what my family's attention span was doing. I will admit (again, I will likely get scowls for this): the museum was so jamb-packed with sensory overload, I was breezing through. I can't focus with sound bites competing with movies competing with cool stuff on display with so much to read. My sister admitted that nature was calling so she breezed through with me. I did rather enjoy the exhibit about the early development of the park, complete with an early guide's uniform. We can just call it "my personal connection" to the story. Between working for the National Park Service and having researched so much on early battlefield park development, I smiled when I saw the exhibit. I don't know if that was my visitor-lens or my historian-lens or a combination of both.

I appreciated the room on Gettysburg memory,
especially the part about park development. 

My favorite room also appeared the only room that other visitors seemed to breeze through (and the only room where I spent some time). At the end of the museum before visitors exit is a space designed for contemplation. It features the Gettysburg Address etched into a window with benches for sitting and reading. For me, it was way to tie the museum with the actual place, ideas to the events.

The Gettysburg Address etched onto a window for contemplation.
We exited the museum only to see the crowds start gathering as the day progressed. After the museum visit we took a short stop at the national cemetery. We walked the loop. We contemplated. I personally tried to harken back 150 years ago to that moment. I thought of all the "unfinished work" that had yet to be started. I thought of rotting, bloated bodies. I thought of the wounded, crying out in delirium. I thought of victors. I thought of losers. I thought of battle-shaken survivors and a town filled with trauma. I would like to say those were my visitor thoughts, not my historian thoughts.

But you know what? I only contemplated those things because I had done all the research, read the accounts, and have (in the past) immersed myself in post-battle first-hand accounts. My contemplation time did not give those solemn and disheartening ideas justice. I only had a brief moment to think of those things! I was on vacation! I was about to spend the weekend at a family reunion with people I love! I was visiting the park with some of my favorite people and our time together was short! I consider Gettysburg one of those places that end up being on the list of places "We Have To Visit As an American Family During A Roadtrip" or it at least it is stereotyped as such. I sense I am not the only visitor to have a short visit with conflicting feelings. I know I should stay longer or think harder, but we have got to get a move on. And so we did.

As interpreters, we have to find that balance between knowing the audience (and understanding visitor experience) and knowing the resource. That's what we are taught. However, sometimes trying to bridge the gap between the two feels like nearly impossible task. Especially after learning how hard it is to be a visitor myself.

*I cannot speak for the actual expense or the park's film budget.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Time's, They are A-Changin'

To keep up with the many changes in my life from when I started this over a year ago, I am going to be making some changes here. One of the (slow but steady changes) has been the decrease in posting frequency. I plan on a'changing that. I also am planning on a site "overhaul" with some visual renewal.

My favorite change, however? Adding other contributors. Well, for now, adding another contributor. Mr. Chris Barr, park ranger and former history teacher, will now start sharing *his* thoughts here, too. I am looking forward to broadening the scope here and seeing what he has to say about history and interpretation. I am also super stoked (and am flattered) that he agreed.

Let's see where this takes us over the course of the next year, shall we?

*Chris Barr will be contributing as his own person and not representing official views of any other organization. All work and writing contained within is done on our personal, unpaid time.

**"Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen and keep your eyes wide for the chance won't come again."

Monday, July 22, 2013

Bottomline: Crowds like the Boom

I'm experimentin.' And by "experimentin'" I mean "goofin' around." But I can't help it so here I go:

I have found video one of the more effective ways to communicate and have been pulling out all of my gear and equipment (I paused some of my projects that I now need to complete). I felt the need to stretch my video muscles a little this weekend. That started with a conversation I had with my husband on Saturday:

Me: "Have you ever seen a cannon fire?"

Him: "No."

Me (overly exasperated): "WHAT"

Him: "Where would I have seen that?"

He made a good point. He grew up in the midwest then moved out to the desert. There are few opportunities to see cannons in the desert. I saw a Facebook status posted by Stones River National Battlefield that reminded me that THIS was THE weekend. It was the artillery battery weekend. Traditionally, that meant six cannons would be wheeled out and fired as a demonstration with accompanying stories told by rangers and volunteers. I have only missed one of the past six years' worth of demonstrations (I was in Louisiana at the time).

"Well, lets go tomorrow!"

So he agreed. I got him to agree to go to the museum and see the battlefield because of cannons. Much to my chagrin, it was the idea of a big boom that drew him in the first place (as is the story for many visitors to the battlefield during these weekends). Big booms draw crowds. I had recently seen all sorts of conversation about living history's role in the presentation of the past (and then I have my personal views on living history activities). Bottom line: it does draw people who may not have visited the site otherwise. So I decided to capture some of it on my phone's camera and see how making a video would compare to the actual event. It is a step up from writing about the boom but far below the reverberations felt within my chest during the program. It is why most visitors on living history weekends attend in the first place: to experience that demonstration. What they walk away with is another story. It is how the programs are delivered that make the difference between a dog-and-pony show and quality interpretation.

Among other thoughts about living history, I'll save my opinions about the cheering and clapping and "festive" vibes that happen after the cannons fire for another post.

EDIT: I forgot my disclaimer! *The views (and video) contained within are my own, completed on my own time.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Not a Question of Rivers

It's John's fault. He slammed it right out of the park with a piece earlier this week about shifting interpretations at battlefields. So I've been a'thinkin all week. Many things regarding interpretation and history have piqued my interest the past few months, but I have been busy. I left a job where I was immersed in history (and interpreting that history) to other work that forces me to deliberately make the decision to think about history and interpretation. It has been a valuable experience, if not frustrating sometimes.

Them people got places to be! (Image: Library of Congress)
Over the last nine months, I have moved thrice, living in super-rural (Stewart County), super-metropolitan (Viva NashVegas), and currently a version of suburbia. Every environment provided me new neighbors- different audiences who were usually willing to share their opinions about history when they learned of my background. "It's boring" or "my great-great-great-granddaddy fought in the Civil War" or "I've lived here all my life and never been to [insert local significant historical site here]." These insights force me to think about how I do (or have done) my job. Living in worlds outside of the "historians' circle" or "NPS 4evah fan club" grants me insight to how much what historians, interpreters, and park rangers do is often misunderstood.

Historic sites compete. Not necessarily with each other. Not even necessarily with other local "tourist attractions." Historic sites compete for attention. These places stand as physical representations of countless stories that reveal the complexities of a community, region, or nation. Those stories contained within are what make the walls (or bricks or fields or graves or monuments) valuable. But what good is value if people don't know of it, if it stays tucked away and out of reach to the majority of people? So interpreters craft methods to build meaning to visitors as a means to understand that value. Borrowing from John:
This is not revolutionary, it's a concept that Freeman Tilden piloted in 1957 with his Interpreting Our Heritage (“Information, as such, is not Interpretation”) and David Larsen echoed again in Meaningful Interpretation using the words of Tanaka Shozo (“The care of rivers is not a question of rivers, but of the human heart”). But it's key.
So as I trek through my day-to-day, realizing my own constant distractions from something I am fairly passionate about, I wonder about the perceptions of those without that original interest. It's hard to convey significance sometimes, even when the meanings of places are broadcast loud and clear. The emotional connections created with the type of interpretation John advocates provide these historic sites ammunition for competing with daily distractions. They provide inspiration. They provide a chance for reflection. They provide reasons for action. They make people want more.

I agree that this is key. Researching, reading, and synthesizing are just parts of the interpretation craft. Storytelling is another part. Discovering and understanding audience is yet another part. However, that key of creating a meaningful connection is what we strive for, what we work for, what is likely the most difficult part of being an interpreter. Incidentally, it generally proves the most rewarding part of being an interpreter.

Monday, July 1, 2013

A few things about my last post

I was so excited that Chris agreed to write a guest post here and do you know what I did? I fumbled it.

Chris, I am so sorry for not posting it correctly in the first place! I have tried to remedy the photos (and font), but there are still a few funky things going on here. Pleeeeease forgive me (and give me another chance to post a better one! Your writing was great! My delivery was not so stellar).

As of yesterday, I finally have my computer hooked to real internet. For the past several months, I had been operating with internet from the sky (and that was always iffy so I began to ignore any screen time to decrease my stress levels). Then during these past few weeks, I had been traveling around and moving, operating with my phone and an iPad. As it turns out, iPads and posting things to blogs do not mix. I posted Chris's guest post through that iPad. I could see photos great on it, but he mentioned they weren't loading properly. I got distracted then BAM- two weeks passed. FINALLY, I could sit down and start thinking only to discover not only had I let a friend down but that I let that friend down publicly for two weeks on this blog. (And I cannot figure out how to get that font to a normal size).

What do you say, Chris? You've got some amazing ideas I'd (still) like to see shared. I've got something to prove. Let me know when you want to share next. I'll do right by you this time.


Friday, June 14, 2013

The Tragedy of a Single Death: Making Sense of the Statistics of Atrocity

I asked a friend of mine, Chris Barr, to guest blog here at History and Interpretation. Chris worked as a high school history teacher for several years before working as a park ranger at Andersonville National Historic Site. 

Responding to Winston Churchill’s concerns over the loss of life in World War II, Joseph Stalin reportedly said, “When one man dies it is a tragedy.  When thousands die, it's statistics.”  Whether or not this exchange happened or not is questionable, but it reveals a lot about how our society deals with atrocities.  We see this all time today – the nation goes into an uproar over the tragic deaths of individuals like Caylee Anthony or Trayvon Martin, while recent reports that the death toll in Syria has exceeded 90,000 barely registers as a blip on our radar.  Single deaths we can make an emotion connection with.  Hundreds or thousands of deaths we have trouble understanding. 

If the self-styled man of steel reveals a lot about how we see the world around us, it also shapes our interpretation of historical atrocities.  Perhaps nowhere in our nation’s collective memory is this more evident than the tragedy of Andersonville.  Open for fourteen months at the end of the Civil War, around 45,000 Union prisoners of war were held in an open stockade in rural Georgia with inadequate food, shelter, clean water, and medical care.  In August of 1864 the population peaked around 32,000. Just fewer than 13,000 of these men died in captivity.  

Those are big numbers - the “statistics” that Stalin talked about.  We can’t comprehend numbers that large.  So it’s easy to gloss them over.  Even in the cemetery, where there are 13,000 headstones of the prisoners who died, we catch a fleeting glimpse of the size of this tragedy, but after just a few moments the individual headstones blend into a single mass of white stone. Stretching into the horizon. 

Just a portion of the Civil War graves at the National Cemetery

So the question remains – how do we interpret this statistic we can’t comprehend?  Turning to Stalin, the unlikely Civil War prison historical interpreter,  “When one man dies it is a tragedy…” In order to grasp the tragedy of Andersonville, we focus on the individuals who suffered and died there.  By telling the story of one man’s death, we can better tell the tragedy of Andersonville.

Henry Wirtz

But there is a challenge to this “one death is a tragedy” motif: Whose death is a tragedy?  Are all deaths tragedies?  Are all deaths equal?  Who are the victims?  For many, Captain Henry Wirz is the tragic victim of Andersonville because he is easily the “one death” that Stalin talked about. The tragedy of Henry Wirz became cause célèbre for the Lost Cause.  Writers like James Madison PageRandolph Stephenson, and Mildred Rutherford told the story of Andersonville as the tragic martyrdom of HenryWirz.  The United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument to Wirz in the nearby town of Andersonville.  Every November, the Alexander H. Stephens Camp of theSons of Confederate Veterans holds a memorial service for Wirz on the anniversary of his death.  Wirz’s death may have been a tragedy as a victim of a military tribunal system that remains controversial even in our own time.   But the people who see Wirz as the tragic victim oftenoverlook that statistic – 12,920 deaths.  The tragedy of Andersonville is not the blame.  The tragedy is that in the summer of 1865, there were 12,920 empty chairs at dinner tables across the nation.  

12,920 American soldiers of every race, religion, and national origin imaginable died at Andersonville in service to their country.  We must take that sea of headstones and share the tragedy of each one with the vigor and passion that Wirz’s story has been told.  This is our mission.  We tell the story of Edwin Niver and the fifty years of grief his sister went through.  We tell the story of Samuel Melvin and how he just wanted to go home.  We tell the story of Osceola Pochontas and how he sacrificed himself to preserve a nation that he lived in less than a yearWe tell the story of John Jameson and how his friends and family arranged to have him exhumed and returned for burial in Hartford, CT.  We tell the story of James Gooding, who wrote to President Lincoln demanding equality of treatment and pay for black soldiers.  We have thousands more tragedies to learn and share.   

Historic overlay photo of Emogene Marshall at Edwin Niver's grave

By examining each of these 12,920 deaths individually, we can begin to understand the tragedy of the Civil War.

*Thoughts contained in this post were written and published during free time and do not necessarily represent the official views of the National Park Service. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Flowers for Jennie

"Oh, that's Jennie's dad's grave. I put flowers there for Jennie."

The 8-year-old and I took a detour from our projected route to walk over to the decorated grave. A few pale flowers leaned over the vase. The bright-eyed, curly-headed child knelt down to reposition the flowers. She explained to me the story about Jennie writing a letter a long time ago, requesting "some little girl" place flowers on her papa's grave. This child piped in "I am probably the first little girl to do so." We then continued down the long row of graves. She was likely right.

I spent Memorial Day week at Andersonville National Historic Site, volunteering alongside the interpretive staff with visitor services. On my last morning before I rolled out of Georgia, I helped with the removal of the flags that had been placed throughout the national cemetery. Something around 20,000 flags were not going roll up and store themselves. One ranger made a comment about the idea of remembrance: it is easier to start and often unfinished business. He referred to the idea that hundreds help set up the flags on Saturday and only a couple dozen return to remove the flags on Tuesday morning. The quietness of the Tuesday allowed for a calmer process. It proved a solemn activity, stripping the cemetery of the flickering red, white, and blue. In the same way Saturday's placement of the flags served as an active form of remembering, removing them seemed a silent way of putting that act to rest. The quiet and solitude also allowed for more time to reflect upon each grave. The placement activities on Saturday happen so fast and involve so many people that there is little time for reflection. I knew of some stories and thought of those buried as I helped pull flags (like a veteran of Iraq buried who wasn't more than three months older than me). I thought about the reason the cemetery had been established and the crowded rows of thousands of Civil War soldiers. I thought about those who have visited over the last fifteen decades or so.

It was a ranger's daughter, joining volunteers for the flag removal, who brought one of the names engraved on a headstone to life. Bouncing curls pulled back in a pony tail, mismatched baby and adult teeth, and bright eyes characterized what an average 8-year-old might look like. This child, however, was not your average 8-year-old. Obviously raised by a historian (or a park ranger who loves history), she could drop some serious knowledge about the site. I had heard this particular story about Jennie (it is also posted on the park's website), but the modern-day's child personal connection to the story reminded me of the humanity contained within each engraved piece of limestone. She reminded me of those left behind to grieve their loved ones. She reminded me of how youth could be impacted by war (and still in some ways be shielded by it). In 1864, Jennie was 8-years-old, just like this ranger's daughter. Little did this a 12-year-old girl from Lafayette, Indiana realize when she wrote that letter, requesting "some little girl" be kind enough to place flowers on her papa's grave realize how it would impact individuals nearly 150 years later. Memorializing the death of her father was in a simple act of placing flowers on his grave, an act Jennie would not be able to do. What would Jennie think if she knew her minor request was honored nearly a century and a half later?

**Opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Park Service.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Poison Ivy CAN, in fact, be a Good Thing

On my drive home yesterday, I found the evening weather cooperative enough that I drove the last hour and half with my windows rolled down. The sun was painting its farewell colors in the sky as it set and the temperature hovered around 80 degrees. The warmth heightened the pungent smells of bush honeysuckle, even along an interstate at 75 miles per hour. Thanks to a stint on an exotic invasives removal crew, I no longer see (or smell) the bush honeysuckle as exclusively "lovely." It grows throughout middle Tennessee, especially along roadways. However, it does not belong here.

Trail running through lush green provides
much food for thought
Thinking of the abundance of bush honeysuckle yesterday reminded me of some thoughts I had on a trail run a few weeks ago. Again, I encountered a number of exotic, invasive plants, but I also encountered a number native plants that would be considered a nuisance for other reasons. Plants like poison ivy belong in this ecosystem, but are often removed because of the allergic reactions they cause to humans.

Because of those months working on a removal crew, my eyes have been trained to spot the non-native plants (well, and those native plants that cause massive rashes... a lesson learned with a heavy dose of calamine lotion). I learned through my colleagues and research about the negative impacts of exotic, invasive plants. I went on to lead a number of education programs to school groups about the importance of biodiversity.

Now, back to my "running thoughts..."

At first glance, it is a lot of green. A more extensive
examination might reveal a heathy ecosystem (or not).
I mentally wandered back to a time in my life when I went and did a series of photographs along trails of any "pretty things" I saw. That was well before I worked as a park ranger or on that removal crew. I was a historian and spent more time at the library than anywhere. My plant identification skills rested somewhere between "that one is green" and "I think it might need water." So as I passed through the Tennessee woods, I wondered about others' interactions with the space. What do they see? Green? Lush? Pretty? Can they identify plants? What percentage would know of the exotic plants (and who will be walking away with new rashes?)?

Since my brain is wired the way it is, I always appear to come back to the idea of interpretation and the public. And since my background is heavily in history, I wondered about those same ideas with the overlay of history. Think of those exotic plants as myth or legend or a poor movie presentation of a historical event. Maybe they are pretty. Maybe they smell good. But in reality, those myths or legends interfere with a more accurate understanding of the past. And how about the irritating native plants, like poison ivy? It isn't "bad." But it surely is uncomfortable. I don't care what era of history you study, you are aware of uncomfortable parts that our gut reaction is to remove or just avoid.

An irritating native plant, poison ivy
BUT. In a healthy ecosystem, the native plants interact with each other (and other forms of wildlife) with no interference of the exotic plants. Those plants are allowed to thrive (the exotic plants, meanwhile, thrive in the regions where they are native... everything has its own place). How does an ecosystem get to its healthiest state? Humans have been the largest contribution to the spread of exotic, invasive plants and now have to be a part of the solution (no, it isn't an easy solution). Some areas (parks or public lands) have people who manage that ecosystem to the best of their ability, removing the exotic while planting natives as best they can. Education also plays a huge role. Ecologists are trained to understand how plants interact and work to achieve healthier ecosystems.

I will again continue that thought into history and interpretation, how do interpreters (or historians... or both) encourage a better understanding of history? On case-by-case basis, interpreters interact with visitors and can maybe instill some thoughts to encourage alternate thinking (remove a myth, for example, or inspire a new idea). But how can a broader historical understanding be encouraged? Is there a mass-approach method to encourage these types of thought?

I know this is a question that has been deliberated by many for a long time.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Hope on a Deadly Landscape

Last week, I moseyed on down to Americus, Georgia (because, let’s face it, there is no other travel speed than “mosey” when in south Georgia) to help a friend move into her new place. Ok, fellow park nerds: what (two) National Park Service sites are within 20 miles of Americus, Georgia?

Ding Ding Ding Ding!

That’s correct. If you guessed “Andersonville National Historic Site” and “Jimmy Carter National Historic Site” you get two gold stars. Since I know all the interpretive staff down at Andersonville, I spent some time there before my departure.

I believe I should preface what I believe will be many of my future posts about Andersonville with “wow, what a striking place” and “I have a new research interest.” The stories on the landscape are complex and, unfortunately, have been mostly neglected over the past century. I have visited the site before, but that was about six years ago (and the interpretive staff was different and I was visiting with family and was there for maybe half a day). This visit proved enlightening and fascinating. The staff is doing an excellent job researching, interpreting, and providing means for visitors to connect to the place in ways that haven’t been provided there before (especially considering the limitations of a small staff and limited budget). As I digest some of the content there (and content I’ll be working with in the future), sharing what I learn here in the future, I wanted to share one  interpretive effort on site at Andersonville that almost caught me off my interpretive guard.

Behind the visitor center and National Prisoner of War Museum sprawls the landscape where the prison physically existed. That patch of land the staff refers to as “the deadliest ground on American soil” hosted a Civil War prisoner of war camp, probably the most infamous of all the “portals to hell.” That patch of land witnessed atrocities that would make the most stalwart of individuals squeamish. That patch of land saw more deaths than the battles of Gettysburg and Antietam combined. In one month alone, more perished here than in any other one battle during the American Civil War.

When visitors walk from the visitor center towards the prison site, they pass a reconstructed wall and some tents. These pieces serve as visual props, indicating a prison site. The tents, torn and weather-worn, stand forlorn and isolated. The staff use this site as the “stage” for some of their living history events and remarked that often visitors express empathy and sadness with costumed interpreters there (not always the sentiments park rangers in uniform receive at the museum). It is hard not feel sad or heart-broken just standing at that place.

But then there are these.

Tiny shoots of corn peak out of the red dirt, stretching toward the sun.

I commented “oh, how sad!” to the park ranger who showed them to me.

“Ah, ha!” he said. “Yes, sad is one way to look at it, especially when one considers where the prisoners would have found the corn” (either in their food supplies or possibly in the, hmmm, areas where food had already been digested once). “But,” he continued, “consider the idea of the prisoners planting corn."

Take a minute. Consider it.

He continued, "The prisoners thought of the future- these prisoners looked to the future and told themselves they would survive. They looked toward that day when they would harvest this corn, holding onto hope.”

That is what I call interpretation. He made a simple connection of a thing (a living, growing thing) to an idea in a way that visitors could make a connection. Hope! Here! Even amongst the some of the worst of human experiences existed hope. Woven throughout the inhumane narratives of the Andersonville story (and the general “prisoner of war experience”) shine glimmers of humanity. Numbers of dead, statistics of wounded, or facts about prisoners of war don't stand out in my mind nearly as well as those pieces of green growth contrasted against the dirt. 

*Special thanks to the staff for talking to me about the many aspects of this place and to Ranger Eric for sharing this particular feature at the park. 

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

***I also feel that those corn stalks can be considered "living history." And they don't need to dress up, either.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Thinking Beyond Tilden

I think sometimes there are those who think the interpreter's job is easy. "Oh, you just tell stories and point visitors towards the directions of the bathrooms, right?" Uh, no.

I also think sometimes there are those who have no comprehension of everything that goes into "interpretation" or "interpretive programming" or "interpretive media." Research, reading, planning, synthesis, synopsis, design, understanding, audience awareness, public relations, perception, even anticipation and anxiety. Those complexities grow exponentially when various interpreters understand the content or presentation differently, especially at historic sites. "Do it this way" or "No, this is better." We have opinions on the "best" way to do what we do, right? Heck, my ramblings on this blog are just my opinions of history and interpretation based on my limited experience in the field and understandings of scholarship in action.

Last week, I followed The Future of the Civil War History: Looking Beyond the 150th conference long distance. And by "long distance" I mean "on Twitter." I used #cwfuture to follow along the best I could. Many ideas struck me and provided food for thought, but this minor conversation stayed with me:

If you aren't familiar, Freeman Tilden is kind of like the "Godfather" of interpretation, especially in the National Park Service. I would bet his "Interpreting Our Heritage" is assigned reading for easily 85% new front-line interpreters and seasonal interpreters (and I would bet that number is low). It's just how we do. In this selection of tweets (there are more in the conversation, I just highlighted some), Tilden's work gets called into question and some front-line interpreters engage.

I have been thinking a lot about "why we do what we do" recently. Since I now work for myself, I wonder about what it is I "do." And why I do what I do. I still consider myself an interpreter, though I work for a private industry rather than the federal government. I still want to promote historical awareness and even conservation/preservation, but I don't work at one specific site anymore. I operate with many of Tilden's ideas and then some.

I would love to hear back from those who work in history, education, interpretation, or a combination of those things. Why do you do what you do? What principles serve as your foundation? Ultimately, what do you want your visitors, guests, students, listeners, etc., to walk away knowing, understanding, thinking, or doing?

[Cue responses via "Comments" below and thanks in advance for what you have to say]

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Working the Emancipation Proclamation

Ok, ok. So after my three-posts-in-one week in early January, I didn't post for a whole month. I have no excuses for my absence, just reasons why.

I would like to make a comment regarding working major events. Especially since the sesquicentennial is over the course of several years, there have been (and will be) many "signature events" throughout the country. Historic sites, parks, battlefields, and museums have used living history events, lectures, exhibits, and more to commemorate the American Civil War. The fiftieth anniversaries of many events that happened during the Civil Rights Movement have been occurring AND that whole bicentennial anniversary of the War of 1812 has also been happening on the American landscape, too. Lots of anniversaries means lots of events, right!? You betcha.

Last week I worked a temporary position at the Tennessee State Museum for its opening of the "Discovering the Civil War" exhibit. I was specifically hired to help with crowd control while the Emancipation Proclamation was on display. The museum expected between 22,000 and 25,000 visitors over the course of the week. Over 30,000 came through.

Around 8,000 students came through from schools across
Tennessee to see the Emancipation Proclamation.
While working there, I encountered thousands of people. All week I thought of things I wanted to write about on this blog, from visitors' connections to the significance of the document being in Nashville (where, in fact, it legally made no difference). But after working that many days in a row, talking to that many people, and ending the week in a fog of a head cold, I decided the most I can say about it: the event is a blur. The week was long and it seemed to go by fast and I remember a few highlights, but honestly, the memory is a blur.

I think that is partly why I still have not posted my thoughts about the sesquicentennial events at Stones River National Battlefield. They are still bouncing around my head, but that freezing week went by crazy fast and before we knew it, it was over. We can provide visitation numbers as a measurement of success. We can share anecdotes about visitors' reactions. But we will not fully know the reaches of these events for a long time. I think assessment is a valuable tool as these commemorations are still on-going, but maybe the length of time is starting to become a blur, too? The 50th, or 150th, or 200th anniversaries will pass and what will we remember about them? More importantly, what will the public remember about them?

P.S. And yes, I got to see the Emancipation Proclamation AND the 13th Amendment. I suppose I can write about my personal reflections upon seeing the documents. That part is certainly not a blur.

P.P.S. I want to give credit where credit is due: the public programming staff at the Tennessee State Museum did a fantastic job. The staff commented a few times that maybe they over-planned since there were no major hitches during the week. They planned and implemented their plans exceedingly well, making for a positive experience for the vast majority of the visiting public. I know they must be exhausted, but deserve a huge pat on the back.

Monday, January 14, 2013

history rockstars

How exciting is this?

Okay, okay. From a glance, maybe not very. It's just a truck! Parked on the street! In downtown Nashville!


Do you know what is in that truck? That's the exciting part. I happened to pass the truck last weekend with a friend who works at the museum and he gave me the "scoop" on the contents of the truck.  It is one of three trucks filled with the National Archives exhibit "Discovering the Civil War" set to open at the Tennessee State Museum. The exhibit utilizes documents managed by the National Archives to tell the fuller story of the Civil War. I have heard good things about the exhibit from many people and look forward to its exhibition in Nashville.

National Archives
The rockstar of the exhibition, however, will only be on display for a few days. The original Emancipation Proclamation will make its appearance over a six-day period at the museum. THE ORIGINAL EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION. WILL MAKE ITS APPEARANCE. OVER A SIX-DAY PERIOD. IN NASHVILLE.

Deep breaths. I need lots of deep breaths.

A digital version is available through the National Archives' website. As a matter of fact, I have accessed the online version countless times. While working at Stones River National Battlefield, we used the document in our education programs (as the victory of the battle gave President Lincoln weight to his proclamation and the document is part of content standards for fifth graders). 

My excitement over seeing the original by no means takes away from my enthusiasm over the fact that the digital version is available to everybody thanks to the great interwebz. But to see the document with mine own eyes thrills me to no end. After I recover from swooning over seeing the original 13th amendment, I will have a chance to swoon over seeing the Emancipation Proclamation.

I am ecstatic that the exhibit is traveling the nation and hope hope hope people are going to swarm (if not swoon) to see these special documents. The Tennessee State Museum anticipates enough of a crowd for the Emancipation Proclamation that patrons have to get advance tickets with allotted 15-minute viewing intervals (although, the museum is free to attend). I have a feeling, though, the percentage of local population will not appreciate the magnanimity of the visiting document(s), completely unaware of the history rockstar that will soon grace Music City's presence.

And I wonder how we change that?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Cannons or Eagles or Both?

Sign posted along the road at Fort Donelson National Battlefield
I live a hop, skip, and a jump away from Fort Donelson National Battlefield in Dover, Tennessee. For those of you who don't know, Fort Donelson fell to the Union Army in February of 1862. Within a few days, the Union Army followed the Cumberland River and took Nashville (the first capitol city of the seceded states that the Union reclaimed). Fort Donelson National Battlefield, a part of your National Park Service, now hosts a small (about to be updated) museum, driving trails, a national cemetery, the "Surrender Hotel," and eagles. Yes, eagles.

I'll admit it. I have been living here for over three months now and I still have only popped in to the visitor center to use the restrooms. I know, I know: I am one of those visitors. I recently found out that the whole museum is about to be gutted so I should visit in the very near future (I am sure I will write about that here). However, I find the battlefield an excellent place to run, with slow and controlled traffic, beautiful scenery, and gauged distances. So I run. Yes, at a battlefield.

Heavy artillery overlooking the Cumberland River.
Yesterday, I passed several visitors. Some just drove through (many do that, actually). A few were wearing their hiking boots and backpacks (equipped with maps and/or books), touring the battlefield on foot. A few were wearing their sweatpants and tennis shoes, briskly keeping their heartrates up, probably choosing to workout there for the same reasons I did. We were all experiencing the place in our own ways. Here is where I argue for those visitors. I argue for those visitors who chose to engage with parks (especially battlefields) in their own ways (legally, of course). I argue for those visitors who may see more than battle site.

The winding road through the main portion of Fort Donelson National Battlefield rolls past well-preserved earthworks, through old stone pillars (I'd bet circa 1930s, between the establishment of the park under the War Department and the transfer to the NPS) and other monuments and markers, along the Cumberland river and heavy artillery pieces (you can't have a battlefield without CANNONS!), and through beautiful wooded areas. I enjoy it for the natural aspects as well as the historical landscapes. However, I choose to appreciate the park averaging 9:40-minute miles (the hills are killer) with a bandana tied to my head and an iPod strapped to my arm. Does that make me any more or less valid than those who drove to the site from out-of-state to get their stamp or those who visit because their ancestors fought there or those who just love the Civil War and have to see all the Civil War sites or even those who visited because that was the designated field trip destination? I pay federal taxes, just like all those "real" visitors. I appreciate the place, just like all those "real" visitors. Heck, I even like history some, just like those "real" visitors.

A FED eagle is a DEAD eagle. Seriously.
Yesterday, thinking about the differing visitors I passed on my run, I stopped to take a picture of the place in preparation for my original plans of this post. One stretch of the road loops down towards the river; it is designed for cars to park and visitors to take advantage of the trails and boardwalks. I found the "A Fed Eagle is a Dead Eagle" sign mildly amusing, mostly because it doesn't take much to amuse me. I know it is a serious matter, but rhymes like that tickle me (similar the "Booze it or Lose it" signs along the interstate- serious messages in rhyme just make me giggle). I contemplated what the various visitors would notice in their own walks. What do other joggers think of cannons or regiment markers? What do the "history buffs" think of the eagle signs? Integration of cultural and natural resource management has to happen at places like battlefields, and some battlefields do a better job than others. The interpretive media (wayside signs or cell phone tours) can be one way to present both natural and cultural resources to the public to encourage better stewardship. How well is that message received by the public?

At the end of my run, I was cooling down with a walk to my car. I believe I had my head down and phone out, plugging in my run info into some tracking app, earphones still in, when a rusty red truck slowed down beside me. The truck had passed me already once before, with its faded "heritage not hate" sticker peeling off the back. I figured the overall-wearing occupants to be some of those "real" visitors, some "buffs" of the Civil War. I am usually sensitive to my safety when running by myself, so I immediately went on guard and mentally planned how I might react if I encountered any trouble. The windows were rolled down and the passenger called out, "you see that eagle there?" At first, I thought he meant the sign (since I was taking a picture of it earlier). Still out of breath, I heaved out an answer that sounded like, "you mean the sign?" "No, that eagle right there!" Both men pointed up to the tree. The driver announced, "It's beautiful! Look at its white head! Like in a picture!" All three of us gawked in awe for a moment, attempting to capture the amazing site with our phones. "Thanks for pointing that out!" I quietly called out as I walked away to finish my cool down.

An American Bald Eagle at Fort Donelson
Those guys (with their park maps and obvious desire to tour the park) maybe only planned to drive through and read the appropriate battle signage. At least, that is what I would have expected them to do. Those guys seemed like the last guys to be the nature-appreciating visitors (from a judgmental perspective like my own). Yet, as I drove away, I saw that those guys ended up parking at the closest stop to get out and stand in awe of an American icon a little closer. What do you think they will remember most about their visit to Fort Donelson National Battlefield?   

I disagree with the notion of  forced reverence at battlefields. I believe the line reads something like: "We can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground." That's already been done. People come to visit this places for their own reasons. Yes, men fought at died at these places. But so did people live. So do people live. Providing positive experiences that highlight the many aspects of these special places (like nesting eagles) allow for more opportunities to make connections to the stories, to the histories, and to the places. These connections inspire interest. Interest inspires stewardship. Local runners and joggers want to see these places preserved maybe for different reasons than birders or naturalists (maybe). Naturalists want to see these places preserved for different reasons than descendents of soldiers (maybe). But each makes connections in their own way, resting on their individual reasons for caring for these special places, and each can ultimately serve as stewards for the park. 

Side note: I nearly burst out in Lee Greenwood's "Proud to be an American" upon seeing a bald eagle at a national park, but resisted.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Wonders of #Technology

Last night PBS aired the first part of its The American Experience The Abolitionists series. I have the series on DVR and will watch it in the near future (after not having a television for over 5 years, I have discovered the DVR is a new favorite thing of mine... mostly because I am rarely in the mood to watch shows during their actual airtime... add that to my list of "quirks"). My twitter feed exploded with tweets about the show while it was airing (mostly because I follow a bunch of other nerdy historian-types like myself). This one caught my attention:  

Let's take a minute and think about the increasing accessibility of history, sources, and in this case, historians. For interested parties wanting to learn more, they had/have an opportunity to interact with an involved party from the show, a historian. PBS has always been good about providing materials to accompany its airings (educator resources, clips for reviewing, etc). Communicating with the historian via Twitter is a relatively new (and huge) resource. Having a historian jump in while the conversation was happening on Twitter is also huge. Differing social media types allow for the democratization of history- you don't have to be a student or academic to talk to a professor knowledgeable about a subject that aired on public television. You can just tweet at him (or her).

And I think that's pretty darn neat.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

warming up

The sun rising over the living history camp during the 150th anniversary events at Stones River National Battlefield. 

After a holiday hiatus from writing (a product of many factors), I am feeling my itch to start posting the series of jumbled thoughts. Didn't I say this was going to be a place for me to do that? I believe so. I spent over a week volunteering at Stones River National Battlefield for the sesquicentennial events held there over the New Years holiday. There are many things I want to say about the events and some of my perceptions of the events. However, I think I will keep this first post of 2013 fairly short.

During my stay in Murfreesboro, I encountered a fair number of familiar faces, especially when I headed around town. Most of the conversations echoed something of this nature:

"Hey, Elizabeth! What a surprise! What brings you to town?"

"I am spending the week at the battlefield."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah. It's the 150th anniversary of the battle."


The "and" generally ended with a puzzled look. The "and" usually meant "so what?" and was probably accompanied by the thought "oh, there goes that nerd girl and her history again." Even with the heavier press coverage about the events, many locals were still unaware of the significance of the dates. The "and" usually prompted me to add a line or two about what I was doing, that they should visit, and how are things before parting ways.

Seriously, though. And? What is it about the numbers 1 and 5 and 0 that are so important? Because the word "ses-kwee-centennial" is fun to sound out? Because "150" is easier to use when designing commemorative brochures and tshirts? The 150th anniversary of American Civil War, when strictly going by the Sumter-to-Appomatox dates, is nearly halfway over (or still has half of the anniversary left, for you glass-half-full types).


I am interested in how others assess the success of commemorative events of the American Civil War. I won't deny my disappointment in knowing people who don't know the significance of historic sites or events. I plan to write more expanding on these thoughts soon enough, but for now I continue to chew on the "so what" embedded in that "and."