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."