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]