Monday, August 25, 2014

Storying Limestone

I remember my first (cognizant) visit to an American Civil War battlefield. It was a place managed by the National Park Service. At the ripe ol' age of 12, I discovered (unconsciously) how places contain stories because of that visit. The park ranger who led the battle tour made the stories of the battle feel real and the few remaining traces of the landscape contemporary to the mid-nineteenth century fueled my imagination of the past. I could see it! I could feel it! Later, I would write my master's thesis on how the significance of space and place and landscape in history and the roles space and place and landscape play in the interpretation of the past. That early visit planted a seed in me about how I engaged with the past and created a desire to share that passion. I still utilize that passion by taking people through the streets of downtown Nashville and reveal how the places tell stories of a rich and complex history.

My first experience at utilizing my experience of using a place to reveal a story happened during my time working as a park ranger at Stones River National Battlefield. Have you ever been to middle Tennessee? It's a pretty place. Have you ever tried to garden in middle Tennessee? Depending on the landscape, you might have a heck of a time digging in the dirt because of that limestone. Limestone plays such a role in the landscape here (all the way up through Kentucky, too- just ask the Corvette Museum). It forms rolling hills and hollers. It jets out in some places and recedes in others to create visually striking scenes. It makes post-hole digging an exponentially strenuous task. Basements are nearly non-existent in the area because it is so hard to dig down before hitting solid rock. As it plays roles today, the limestone has contributed to the human history on the landscape, especially during the Battle of Stones River and the events that followed.

Even the national cemetery established at the battlefield after the Battle of Stones River
had to be built "up" and dirt brought in because the limestone interfered with digging efforts.

At the battlefield park now managed by the National Park Service, the approximately 15% of preserved battlefield land contains trails and roads and signs to guide visitors through the place to learn more about the site. The vast majority of the interpretive media focuses on the three days of battle history. One of the most iconic scenes of the battlefield rests on the south side of the tour loop; protruding from the ground are dozens of large limestone outcroppings with narrow crevices between them. This place is now called "The Slaughter Pen." It is featured in many visual materials, as it helps separate this battlefield from others. During the battle, the place ultimately became a turning place for the Union army and the landscape played a role in the outcome of the battle. The fighting concentrated in the place was particularly brutal, and soldiers remembered those rocks as both defense places and then death traps.

No longer on the landscape, park managers once used these broken cannons
as a visual tool to convey the significance of these rocks.

So most visiting the place or going on a tour will visit the rocks and learn something about the limestone's significance in this battle (and how it contributed to the two armies and where they moved and ultimately the outcome of the war). Few will consider how the presence of limestone played a role in the years following the war or even the development of a battlefield park. The abundance of limestone (in addition to the detritus of war remaining on the battlefield) meant that particular swath of land retained little value after the war. Ultimately, a community of former slaves would claim the land as their own. "Rising Up From the Ashes" is the name of an interpretive program the park sometimes offers and now a wayside at the battlefield mentions this community called Cemetery. Did they choose the land deliberately? Probably not. It was not easy to grow crops on most of the land there. Lots of work likely went into cleaning up a battle-ravaged land. This group of people made the land into a community that at its height had over 1,500 citizens. This community claimed this place as "home" for several decades following the war. Many of the folks who lived out the rest of their days on the land were once considered property; this community allowed them to own property as free citizens. Wild.

"Exploring the Promise of Freedom" is a wayside along the tour route at
Stones River National Battlefield. Notice the limestone rock in the background?

The presence of a black community made it easier for the federal government to move in and buy land from these folks. At the very basic core of this, the particular piece of land attained by the government to make into a military park in the late 1920s, early 1930s had little monetary value. Again, that limestone played a role in what happened to the various parcels of land that made up this place where a battle once happened. The government did not actively pursue purchasing the nearby arable land primarily owned by white citizens; the core was secured and the place turned into a park. "The rest is history."**

Today, the National Park Service still utilizes the landscape to help tell the stories of the past. Visitors come to experience the place and learn about the history. Most are surprised to learn about the community's presence after the war (because you know, once a battlefield happens, it just turns into a park magically afterward... or at least that's the idea that just all shook up when people realize the 150 year span between fighting and today). But the park's presence is just another layer of a story. The National Park Service is one method used to preserve a place and share a place, but it is not the place.

The National Park Service as a federal agency is 98 years old today, so today seemed like a good time to reflect on what that means to me. It is a baby in the grand scheme of things and is just one portal to something bigger than ourselves. It is a land-management bureaucracy. It is also a history-management bureaucracy. And a story-management bureaucracy. And a memory-inducing bureaucracy. And an experience-producing bureaucracy. But the National Park Service is there for the resources and should be celebrating and honoring the resources, birthday or not. That limestone has been around for a while (as evidenced by some of the fossils embedded in the rock). It formed as the calcified remains of sea creatures settled a gazillion or so years ago. It has stood as native tribes hunted game through the area. It has rested quietly as white settlers began to take ownership of this land. It has had the brogans of soldiers run through it. It has existed as the barefeet of children hopped over it, playing and exploring the space on their own terms. My own park ranger hiking boots have led groups through it. It has been the frame as many scenes played out on it. And for the enjoyment of future generations that the National Park Service conserves this site, that limestone will continue to hold and tell stories regardless of how we choose to designate anniversaries.

These rocks have witnessed time march on and various people interact with the space.
In this case, a child rests amongst the limestone circa 1932.
(Photo from Stones River National Battlefield collection.)




*As a toddler, my parents took me to Fort Donelson. That's my official first battlefield visit.

**I hate that catch phrase.

***My time, my opinions, etc. etc.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Historians are not the Only Ones Who Struggle with Relevancy


"When you think Nashville, what comes to mind?"

I ask that at the beginning of my tours of downtown Nashville. Guess what the answer is 98.5 percent of the time. Here's a hint:

[Whine whine twang twang]

Nashville is known as Music City, USA! Of course people will answer that question "country music!" It is a part of our identity today. But I give tours to reveal Nashville's complex history; there is way more to Music City than the music. Way more. (You have to come on a tour to see for yourself.)

Modern lines meet unique architecture designs from the past.
Nashville has some remarkable landscapes, most unrelated to the music industry.
The music industry in Nashville is a fairly prominent industry, but Nashville has more. The music industry has certainly played a role in Nashville's identity, but for most Nashvillians, it is not the sole identity. So when it is time to rally public support for things like historic preservation within the music industry, what we see is this industry encounter the same issues that historians working with the public have dealt with for a long time. Is relevancy the correct word?  Or maybe meaning? Or maybe resonance?

The city is growing. It is an especially popular city right now, an "it" city of sorts. Heck, we even have our own television soap opera show that features all sorts of love triangles music airing on national television. But this growth also means "progress." And sometimes "progress" and "preservation" seem to clash rather than compliment each other.

One of the more recent preservation struggles to emerge within Nashville is that of the RCA Studio A building. Ben Folds wrote an open letter about developers' interest in the property and that got picked up and carried all over the place. Several musicians and artists came forward about the significance of the property and how it has contributed to music history. Hashtags for preservation efforts even got created (and you know that if you tweet something with a hashtag for a cause, you've made a difference, right?). Even this week, the issue received national attention by way of broadcast (because not everybody reads national publications).

So I have been following this as articles get published. It's like its own soap opera, really, just made up of mortar and bricks and plans and blueprints and hope and crossed fingers and pleas and contracts and more bricks. Yesterday, I read another open letter from country musician Keith Urban. Huh, I thought. This sounds crazy familiar. A group of people recognize the significance of a place because of their own passion and experience and interests and emotions, but are having a hard time instilling these things in people beyond the members of said group.

Kind of like historians, especially historians that work with the public. Most historians know what they are passionate about and why. Their struggle is creating a relevancy to new audiences, provoking something that resonates with new audiences. We know why history is cool, that's why we chose this line of work (because history isn't usually a massive money-making endeavor; just ask your local historic house museum director). But we sometimes forget that many people don't know why these places are cool, that these stories are fascinating, that the past helps reveal who we are today. These musicians and preservationists know why they want to save this building. However, Nashville's identity is complex and very few are actually involved with the music industry. For many people, why bother with saving a place?

I usually say that in my line of work, I tell stories. It sounds simple, but it is a developed craft. I have to spark an interest with the little time I have. I have to inspire new audiences. I have to get people to care. I already know why these places are significant, but I use this craft of interpretation to share that with the public. Maybe we can learn from the musicians that are trying to save a place. Just saying "this is important" is not enough. You have to resonate with your audience so they can walk away with the answer to the question "so what." I find this case especially interesting as it shows celebrity alone does not create relevance. It is bizarrely comforting to know that historians are not the only ones and that people who are masters at evoking emotions through music struggle with portraying the emotion in their own histories. I feel ya, Ben and Keith.

I appreciate being reminded of what happens when relevance is missing. The twang of a guitar resonates, but emotional connections resonate better.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Round Numbers and Linear Intersects

Elizabeth blogged about her thoughts about the Andersonville Raiders, who were executed 150 years ago yesterday.  Elizabeth has been doing a lot of research on the raiders - who seem to be everywhere in the primary source materials while at the same time seeming to not exist.  She asks, "Who Hallows?" these places, men, and stories? But I thought I'd take a moment and share my thoughts.

Yesterday afternoon I was driving back from Atlanta, where I helped lead a teacher's workshop on teaching Andersonville and the prisoner of war experience.  We got back around 5:30pm after the park was already closed, but had to go into the park in order to get my car and sign some travel related paperwork.  We know from prisoner's diaries that these six men were hanged in the stockade at around 5:00pm.  Given that daylight savings time wasn't a thing back then, it meant that I was on the site about 30 minutes before the 150th anniversary of the exact moment of the execution.  So I walked out to the south field of the prison site, and paced off the 100 yards from the south gate to the spot where the gallows were constructed (which, incidentally was probably about 100-150 feet farther south than where a white post marker has stood since the 1930s that supposedly marks the spot of the gallows).  And I stood there and waited.  It was surprisingly noisy - the rumble of the trucks on the highway and the staccato of the nearby gun range.  A strong wind blew, filling my ears with a whoosh and mercifully keeping the gnats at bay.  A lot of birds (presumably sparrows, but I don't know.  My knowledge of nature is famously lacking for a park ranger) flew overhead chirping away.  It was partly cloudy, yielding a gray and pink sky with pockets of blue as the afternoon turned into early evening.  It was actually really nice.  I forgot where I was for a moment.  Then I looked down at my phone and realized that it was right at 6:00, and I thought about 12 feet dangling in the space my face occupied, which admittedly made me feel a little uncomfortable, but just for a moment.
The exact moment and location where the raiders were hanged.

But here's the thing.  I didn't feel anything. No emotional connection.  No period rush.  No sense of awe that I was in a spot where something important happened exactly 150 years ago to the exact moment.  There are people who would almost have killed to be standing where I was at that moment.  That exact moment of 150th anniversary Civil War Sesquicentennial is never coming back - it's gone forever.  And I didn't feel it.

What is it about round numbers that make people feel the past?  July 1-3, 2013 there were probably more visitors in Gettysburg for the 150th than there were soldiers who fought there.  My Facebook newsfeed exploded with history stuff those few days last summer. But July 1-3, 2014 for the 151st?  Crickets.  Looking at Gettysburg's Facebook page, they shared some photos of ranger programs (that appeared to be about 1/8th as well attended for the 150th).  I think the only interpretive commentary I saw that noted it was the battle anniversary was this blog by good friend John Rudy.  So what is it that makes us care about the 150th but not the 151st?  What is it that would make some people jealous that I stood in the spot of the raiders gallows at Andersonville at the exact moment of the 150th anniversary?  That field is still there today, on July 12.  Heck.  It'll still be there on a Tuesday in January if you'd like to wait for cooler weather.   When we get caught up with anniversaries, we forget that those anniversaries mean something to us.  I got so wrapped up in thinking about how cool it would be to stand there at the exact moment, that I forgot to ponder what that exact moment meant to the men who stood on that field and what it means to us today.  And I drove home unsatisfied and thinking about what I would cook for supper.

Interpreting the past does not require us to focus on specific moments.  Sure the events happened at a specific moment, but we get to come to those events at times of our choosing.  Of our convenience.  Events happen at a fixed point, and then memories and meanings radiate in a linear fashion onward through the years.  We can intersect that with that at any moment we chose.

Next week I'll be in the Harper's Ferry/Gettysburg area.  No.  I won't be there for any important anniversaries round numbers or anniversaries.  But I don't have to be.


As usual - the commentary expressed in this blog does not reflect the thoughts & opinions of my employers, and this was written on personal time at home.  

Friday, July 11, 2014

Hallow Ye

The digital copy of Glazier's book is here. 


Who hallows?

The 150th anniversary commemorations for a place like Andersonville last for months. The anniversary dates generally include the events that took place during the time it the prison was open and operating (a fifteen-month stretch), not necessarily the impact of those events that would follow in the months and years after the prison closed.  Our history books provide compact time frames, a "start" and "end" time for these events. Generally, it is easier to wrap our minds around time if it is a focused point.

Fifteen months spans a great deal of time. For folks trying to fit this particular prison story into a grander Civil War narrative, it is often summed up in a sentence or two. What do most people know about the place? Poor living conditions, lots of Union soldiers were there, people died, Providence Spring, the Raiders hung, and Wirz was a scapegoat.* (I am being exceedingly generous here- I am happy to talk to people and they even recognize the name of the place as a part of the American Civil War). Some of these events of that 15-month-long narrative are remembered and told as focal points of the Andersonville story. It helps pinpoint times. It helps make the fifteen months seem conceivable. Events provide means of telling stories (because "we woke up and attempted to survive for the 84th day in a row" doesn't make for an engrossing story).

These "highlights" of a longer narrative become not just places along the timeline to tell stories, but they provide entry points for commemoration to happen. One story gets told and retold, maybe exaggerated, and retold and shared and pronounced and exclaimed and told again! Then it becomes more important than all the other days because people know of it. People know it. Are the events truly significant? Or just memorable? Why do we choose to hallow a place? Or a time?

The landscape in the national cemetery even tells that these six have a story.
Seven score and ten years ago ON THIS DAY six men hung from a roughly-built gallows amongst the crowded prison population at Andersonville. Prisoners watched. Guards watched. One prisoner wrote he could not stomach the sight and hid himself in the crowd. These men were accused of stealing and murder. They were buried in six graves isolated from the rest of the Union graves at the cemetery.

Seven score and ten years ago ON THIS DAY dozens of other men died at Andersonville, too. Disease, starvation, and wounds ultimately ended their lives. Why do six men whose lives ended by way of a rope get remembered and not these other men? The men who rotted to death were not accused criminals. The men who quietly slipped into eternity better represent the 13,000 other souls who perished during their time at Andersonville. Why did soldiers at the prison camp make note of July 11, 1864? It "was a day of unusual excitement," according to Robert H. Kellogg. Soldiers witnessed an event completely out of the ordinary and it stuck in their memories.

Information about the Raiders is still fairly limited, so historians can not just say "the Raiders were guilty" or "they were bad guys" or "this is who they were before the war" or "their deaths were justified" or "they were victims." But the six isolated graves today provoke questions. The unusual excitement of the day echoed loudly into the years following the end of the war. The story of this hanging has evolved into one of the most significant points of the Andersonville narrative.

So we remember the hanging. But they weren't the only ones who lost their lives on July 12th in Camp Sumter at Andersonville. Nor were they the only soldiers punished for their crimes within the camp. We like stories, however. The end of their lives makes for a good story. Their story echoes loudly from the stockade walls that once stood. While their separated burial sites indicate dishonor, they rest in a place people continue to hallow.

Ponder that. Who hallows? Who hallows ground, who hallows people? We make choices in how we frame stories and situations and what we choose to remember. In this case, we don't hallow the Raiders but this is an anniversary date of a widely-told story from they place. So, they are remembered. Do we unintentionally hallow these six men by thinking of them on this anniversary day?







*To paraphrase a friend of mine: every time that somebody says "Wirz was a scapegoat," an historian loses her wings. So just stop it. Want to learn more about Wirz, including the most recent of research? Read this.

**I think the story of the Raiders is far more complex then "bad guys hung" but I am doing research on them. I sometimes forget my own objectivity while researching because so much poor scholarship exists that I want to "make it right." Is this hallowing? I don't know.

***My own opinions. My own time. Like always.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Never Let it Rest

"Good, better, best. 
Never let it rest, 
until your good is better 
and your better, best."

I had to write that over and over in fifth grade. It was part penmanship, part memorization. Obviously, the exercise worked for me; the verse stuck.

Yesterday, I wrote about doing better. We keep trying the same programs and we keep getting the same results. It's so weird how that happens.

I was reminded that I can do better, too. Never let it rest.

At what point did you attend an interpretive program and it moved you? I don't mean when did you attend an interpretive program "and it was pretty good." I mean it knocked your socks off. It rattled your brain. It sparked a connection and you thought "aha!" It gave you goosebumps. It made you chew on a new idea for days. You can train people to project their voices, to look at the audience, even to deliver a program without reading notes. That's pretty good. But how can you develop a program that goes beyond that?

Look! A cave cricket!  
I once attended a wild cave tour at Mammoth Cave National Park. I'm not going to lie: I was absolutely terrified about the idea. Six hours "exploring" parts of the cave not open entirely to the public. But it was for a friend's birthday and I had already committed. We crawled. We crouched. We reached. We scooched. We stretched. After the six hours, I was absolutely enthralled. I made it! And the experience was amazing! While the whole trip was fun, there was one moment that was particularly memorable.

The interpreter was there to guide us (safely) through the caverns. He showed us pieces of the cave that demonstrated the ecology of the cave. He even relayed ideas of why caves are important to humans. The neatest moment, however, happened when we sat. We had been crawling for hours. The previously nervous souls [aaa-me-choo] were feeling pretty confident at that point. Yeah, buddy. Caves aren't so scary after all. Just watch out for those cave crickets.

This is my "I conquered a scary cave tour" face.
Earlier we had passed traces of people passing through from over one-hundred and fifty years prior. We got to a more vertical space with a rock landing and the guide had us sit down. Just sit, let's take a moment. At that point, he proceeded to turn out all the lights.

He had us sit in the dark for a while. In silence. We were deep in the belly of the earth. The individuals of the group could make their own connections to the space. The time it took to slowly etch this twisted, gnarly hole in the ground was practically inconceivable. The silent, pitch-black minutes seemed to stretch into the eternity that created the cave when a voice began singing:

"Oh, beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain.
For purple mountains majesty, above the fruited grain.
America, America, God shed His grace on Thee.
And crown thy good, with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea."

The guide began the song. By the end, the group had joined in the verse. We sat again in silence a few more moments before he lit his lantern and we ventured forth to end the tour.

We shared a moment with eternity in that space.

I have visited Mammoth Cave several times; I love it. That particular trip was a blast, too, as I went camping with my best friend and made memories. But the event that still has me contemplating is that dark, unexpected moment. The guide made unconventional decisions to instill wonder, awe, and pride. I now consider Mammoth Cave my Mammoth Cave and encourage people to visit regularly. That guide's interpretative methods filled my heart and connected me to that place, that space, and the stories held within.

I always want to do better. What methods can I utilize to encourage a better connection to a place for visitors? What methods can you use?

Never let it rest.




*As always, written on my own time. Views are my own and do not reflect any of my employers (past or present).

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Same-Ol-Same-Ol Trap

I wear many hats. Among them include interpreter, historian, tour guide, tour manager, and the public relations department for my mom's quilting company. In order to help her business grow, I follow a great deal of creative folk on various media outlets so I can keep up with trends. While following some of these folks, sometimes I get a little bit jealous. These bloggers can share about color trends and the newest tool and nobody gets upset. In fact, the majority of the creative souls I follow online are inspiring. Inspiration fuels the creators and their audiences.

Tyler Knott Gregson is one of my all-time favorite inspirers. 

I, on the other hand, chose a field that becomes incredibly personal for many people. I decided to blog about history and how we tell stories and how people receive stories and and how visitors frame the stories and the sites within their own world. I do this while investigating my own understanding within the field. I follow contemporary trends as a means to equip my toolbox. These tools might evolve, but the stories are always there. I don't want to know "how can we engage more?" I want to know "how can we engage mo' better?" Our job is not just to discover stories, but to also build them into meaningful pieces that audiences will carry with them. Why should visitors care about a place? Why should Americans care about their historic sites? I happened to chose blogging as an outlet, an expression, for my own understanding of what interpreters of historic sites should be doing or could be doing better.

Writing about this season's color trends would not be so antagonizing, I am thinking.

So when I write about what folks in my field are doing, it is my own examination. Today, I have another examination. So here I go. I think many planners at historic sites fall too quickly into the same-ol-same-ol trap. The events of the American Civil War sesquicentennial serve as a fine example of this. We do the same ol' things and attract the same ol' audiences. This ses-qwee-centennial has been in "full swing" for three years now. We still have a year of commemorations remaining (and then some... the events of the war echo beyond the surrender at Appomatox Court House). We had a full four years of opportunity to revise and try new ways of programming. So why are these events, "Signature" and otherwise, still trying the same things? Cannons! Wool uniforms! Lectures! These will bring all the boys to the yard! No, really.

As it so happens, the most recent of Civil War anniversary commemorations occurred at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park this weekend. The commemorations were filled with things like talks. Walks. Lectures. Battle maneuvers. [White] guys in wool. [White] gals in hoop skirts. CANNONS. Now, I will say this: This is quite possibly the first time I (personally) have seen kids encouraged to line up and pretend to fire at each other. I suppose we can call it kinesthetic learning:



Post by Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park.

So I guess in a way, they are trying something new (actually, not new- I know most Civil War-related sites in some way or another attempt to outfit children as soldiers, whether kids put on a wool jacket in the museum or march around with wooden muskets). In my opinion, however, this mistreats the past as poorly as the exclamation point at the end of a "Be a Slave for a Day" living history program. Now, because I am only a visitor from afar (a point the social media crew acknowledged by asking "where are you viewing these photos from"... clearly, they understood the importance of not just taking dozens of pictures but incorporating meaning into the shared photos, too), I can only assess what I see with the accompanying photo comment. Maybe there was an interpreter on hand to use this moment to share about war, death, fear, homesickness, or tragedy. Maybe that accompanying interpreter shared how these things happened at many battlefields and ravaged the nation. Maybe that interpreter shared how these things ultimately freed over four million enslaved people. People! That's a large population of people. The American Civil War challenged and redefined what freedom meant in this country. Teaching kids how to be infantrymen is an excellent way to encourage these ideas, right?

(I'd use the comments of the photo to decipher what was really going on in the image, but your guess is as good as mine.)

Thinking of large populations of people, Atlanta has one. Over six million people live in the Atlanta metropolitan area. Cobb county (where Kennesaw is located) has a population about 690,000. Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park boasts being the largest contiguous green space in the Atlanta-metro area (they attract a lot of runners for this reason). Thinking back to what I said earlier about same-ol-same-ol traps, it looks like Kennesaw fell into one. Just look:

From Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park's Facebook.
There are many more where this came from.
You can scroll through any number of the park's albums shared on Facebook from this past weekend. Look at the audience. Pay particular attention to the demographics of the audience. If we think about the vast number of people in the Atlanta-metro area, and if we think about the diverse population of the Atlanta-metro area, we have to wonder why doesn't the audience demographic better represent the local population? I am going to use my same-ol-same-ol argument. We still give the same programs, we still draw the same (dwindling) audiences.

Gosh. That girl repeats herself a lot.

I wouldn't share if I didn't care. There are only a few months left of that magical "150" number that inspire these programs. But we still have countless chances to try new types of programming, to inspire visitors, to engage new audiences. And as far as the Civil War sites go, I would argue that the years following the war are more crucial in shaping our nation than the battles themselves. We have plenty of time left for inspiring hearts.

Or do we?





*All opinions here are my own, written in my own time.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Pandering to Audiences


Pander. 


What does that mean? The earliest use of the word (Shakespeare's era and writings) meant "pimp." The word evolved and now the dictionary defines said word as "to gratify or indulge" or "to cater to." Wikipedia has an entire page dedicated to "pander (politics)." That page defines the act as "the act of expressing one's views in accordance with the likes of a group to which one is attempting to appeal."  

My question for you interpreter types: when does knowing your audience and reaching your audience become pandering? At what point is a historic site pandering to its current, limited audience rather than encouraging new audiences or inspiring new interests among that current audience? 

Sorry, Civil War Battlefields. I have to pick on you because you are the places I am most familiar with, most passionate about, and will ultimately have the most criticism for. As it turns out, you tend to demonstrate some of the best examples of pandering, too. 





Guys. You already have an audience. What does this post really do? Start a debate? A conversation? So what? If you can't really answer the "so what" question, you might have to push yourself a little more. And maybe I shouldn't pick on poor Gettysburg here. They are only followed by 25,000 people on Facebook, serve as the most-recognized battle of the Civil War, and now stand as the #1 landmark as designated by TripAdvisor.

I also understand that during the Civil War there were only white males that made up the US population so it is difficult for us as a modern society to relate since we now have women and people of various ethnicities within our population. That's why we have to obsess over soldiers and soldiering experiences of the war, too. There's no room at battlefields to talk about larger effects of war on populations, how a nation ultimately engages in war, the scarring of landscape, shifting economies, or how support comes from homefronts. We have to talk about campaigns! And fighting strategies! And, of course, those quirky stories about uniforms and gun powder. People like that stuff, right? We already have an audience, right? They already like, share, comment, retweet, and sometimes they even visit. They enjoy the posts of a pretty sunset-with-a-cannon picture. They like the name-and-date-and-place trivia, so we are golden, right? Why bother with anything more, right? 

That's when we fall into the trap of pandering. The number of "likes" do not equal interpretive quality. What can you do to answer the "so what" question? How can we do a better job of engaging, sparking interest, and helping create meaning (instead of pandering)? If you know your resources, you have the ability to create an interpretive piece (program, post, video, whatever) that will capture attention and spark further interest. Before you go and pimp, I mean, pander to your audience your knowledge about a site, consider that question. So what?  


P.S. "Because this campaign was important" doesn't work well as an answer to the "so what" question, by the way. It just sounds like an excuse to pander.

And in case there were any questions, yes, I have been there.
Indeed, there are interpretive spaces and content throughout the massive visitor center.






*I would like to acknowledge a point that a friend of mine made in that sometimes social media posts are just there because there is a concept that we need to fill the feeds and sometimes rangers are busy doing ranger-y things and don't necessarily have the time to develop content of substance. I get that. My apologies if that is what this particular example was. However, do we have to post if it isn't a stellar post? A question for a later discussion.
**All opinions here are my own and certainly don't reflect any official stands of my current or past employers. 



Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Weirding the Past

As I wrap up a project I started while working at Andersonville National Historic Site (a site bulletin about The Raiders), I am perplexed about what seems to capture the attention of people. I am also intrigued how often we, as interpreters, use what we know about attention in our telling of the past. Rather than saying "the people of the past were like us," we tend to say "whoa! look how life was different!" What makes better connections with people today?

Instead of "Girls, in the past, you couldn't wear pants!" as a way to catch attention, we might consider conveying to young ladies that women of the past had many of the same character traits or interests. I think that is why the original American Girl book series was so popular. The authors told stories of girls who were smart and engaging and interested in exploring the world around them, who made mistakes, who learned lessons, who had parents and siblings, who were human. The books included historic things, like contemporary events or period clothing (all that skirt(s)? makes it hard to be a rambunctious young lady) but that was not the center of the stories. Girls reading the series (ahem, kids like me) could learn about the past while feeling like she related to that character.

When we tell stories at historic sites, it is easy to fall into the trap of "look! here is a weird story!" It seems to catch attention, right? People react to that story, right? "They didn't have electricity!" [cue the generic "whoaaaa" response]. How about talking about life with what they did have and how they reacted? Fire fueled heat and created light. Fire was common. People didn't think "oh, I wish I had electricity," they adjusted with what they had. That meant places burned and architecture adjusted. That meant women who cooked around fires learned to adjust being around fires. I can't tell you how many house museums I have visited talk about the exorbitant number of women who perished in a fire when their skirts bursted into flames in the kitchen. It might be a house museum rule: you must talk about women dying in fires, petticoat mirrors, and closet taxes. Yes, dying in this manner happened to a few. No, all these notions about women burning to death were just that- notions. The few who died in that manner died tragically and those stories grew. But these folks in the past weren't stupid. They dealt with fire daily; they knew how to act around fire and in the case of fire touching a skirt, natural textile material would not burn so quickly.

The Virginia Historical Society has digitalized some of their collection and it is an amazing resource. Sneden's images are especially helpful. This one is of the gallows for the Raiders at Andersonville.

So back to Andersonville's Raiders. There are six graves that stand isolated from the other over-20,000 graves in the national cemetery at Andersonville. These graves provoke questions. Who were these guys? What did they do to be separated like that? Former interpreters used this story as one of the weird ones, perpetuating myths based on the oddities of the story. They were camp-robbers-turned-killer-criminals! They were ruthless cutthroats who murdered! They hanged for their crimes! They were evil and did not deserve to be buried with the others! But what happens when we take this story (with current research) and convey it so people can relate? Conditions in camp at that time were bad (and yet, not even at its worse). Starvation lurked behind your corner, threatened to take your life at any moment. What would you do to defeat starvation? Would you gamble criminal activity (and potential death) to save yourself from starvation (and potential death)? These men chose stealing and ultimately were put to death for their choice. Maybe there is more to their individual stories, but history is not entirely clear one way or the other who stood as "the bad guys" of the prison population here.

I won't lie: this tool of catching attention with the weirdness from the past is an easy thing to do. But rather than impressing an audience with a quick "ooooooooh," how can you leave them with something more to 1) ponder and 2) engage about?

Friday, May 30, 2014

Bonus Features: The Making of an Interpretive Short Film

I love to read and learn about how films are made.  Whenever I get a new internet device I always bookmark the IMDB first, because I know I'll be referencing it a lot.  I love bonus features and director's commentaries on movies.  It's so cool to learn about the choices the directors, producers, and actors made.  After spending a week and a half working on a series of short interpretive videos for Andersonville National Historic Site's Memorial Day commemorations, one of my colleagues posted a picture of me recording some audio on their Facebook page.

This image sparked a discussion about how to do short videos.
True story: Tossing a blanket over your head and recording
audio on a cell phone yields pretty good results.
It immediately prompted several interpreters from other sites to comment and say "I wish I could do that!" Or "How do you make these videos?"  Elizabeth quickly sent me a message and said "Hey Chris, you should totally do a behind the scenes blog post on how you make these things."  Since the videos went up I've had more than one park ranger contact to me to say "How'd you do that?"   So, here I am in a coffee shop (on my off day) offering up a few thoughts on my experiences with short form interpretive film making.

First things first: You are always an interpreter. Using video is just a tool for your craft.  Let your interpretive thoughts and motivations drive what you do - not necessarily the shot or the effect.

Secondly, as you get started - ask around!  There are a lot of folks out there making short films and many are willing to help you out if you reach out.  Even if you aren't comfortable making a personal request, quite a few of these folks are bloggers and talk a lot about their craft.  Read what they write.  Watch their films.  My personal favorites that I watch are "Yosemite Steve" - who is a filmmaker in Yosemite National Park and produces the wildly popular "Nature Notes" series.  Also, one of my  friends is a media producer at Tufts University, and his videos highlighting research at the school are stellar.  Additionally, you can head over to the Desktop Documentaries blog, which happened to interview my  previously mentioned friend from Tufts about how he makes mini-documentaries.  The more you watch, the more ideas you get for framing shots, or even shots you may try to duplicate to an extent.  Writers tend to read a lot of books and if you're going to be making videos, well you should probably watch a lot of videos.     

Don't pick up the camera until you've planed what you want
to shoot and where you want to shoot.


Here we go, into the nitty gritty (which I'll keep short).

First of all - Your equipment does not have to be fancy.  I use a Nikon dSLR (the d3200 and d5100) with kit lenses to shoot most footage, although I frequently use flipcams and cell phones to capture spontaneous footage - interviews during events, etc...  Even for audio I just use a free app on the cell phone and toss a blanket over my head.





Step 1 - Identify the interpretive connection you wanted to make.  For our Memorial Day videos "A Story in Stone" we wanted to connect people to stories beyond the Civil War prison site.  Then for each grave we selected we identified an interpretive angle for each film.  For example - for our John Jameson video we wanted to convey the idea that every young soldier who died was lost potential.

Step 2 - Write the script.  An interpretive video intended for social media should be kept to 2 minutes or less, if at all possible.  If it is much longer than that people won't watch - most folks won't even start the film if they see that timer say 5 or 6 minutes or longer. That means 5-7 sentences at max by the time you have an intro and an outro.  Script writing is different from long form writing - there's not time or room to elaborate or details or side stories.  Chose each word carefully and make them count.

Step 3 - Plan your shots.  Decide what you want on the screen before you ever pick up the camera.  The pros call this storyboarding, which makes it sound fancier than it really is.  You can use a pre made form like this. I just simply write out my script and over each line jot out a note describing what I want visually on the screen.


Step 4 - Video!   Don't pick up the camera until this point.  Most people get into trouble by shooting and then planning around what they shot.  Nope.  Plan first, then shoot what you planned.  For example, I knew in our Samuel Vernon video I wanted to highlight a girl placing flowers at the grave.  From watching a lot of other videos, I really like the look of somebody back-lit by the sun.  So I planned for our young volunteer to come out to the park one one day when the sun would be at the right angle.  And that's the shot you see at around 1:14 mark.


Step 5 - Edit.  This is probably the most intimidating part for an interpreter trying to create a video.  It shouldn't be.  Digital editing is designed to be easy to grasp even for beginners.  If you've got a Mac, congratulations - you've got a really nice video editor iMovie.  If you're got a PC, congratulations, you've probably got Windows Movie Maker installed.  These will work for sharing an interpretive story to your website or social media page.  Don't start out trying to do crazy titles and edits.  Most consumer video editors have default titles that you can use.  If you've story boarded literally all you're doing is putting your shots in order and exporting to a file format that works (I like .mp4, but there are a lot of others).  If you need drop in appropriate still images - Ken Burns does this really well, and there are a lot of images on the Library of Congress website.  One piece of editing advice - in the world of interpretive web videos, people have really short attention spans, so put all your credits and stuff on the back end, otherwise they'll tune out before they actually get to your video.  I've learned that one from experience.   

A good thumbnail will help spread
your story.  People want to click to
see more. 
Step 6 - Share!  Even if you don't have a site youtube channel you can still put it on the park's website or Facebook page.  Facebook really likes videos in their algorithms for what they share.  You can even schedule the videos for an optimum time and change the thumbnail - which for the record selecting the right thumbnail will do a lot to drive views up.  There's a reason a LOT of people clicked on the Samuel Vernon video.

That's it.  Six easy steps to creating an interpretive video.  Throughout the process - remember you are an interpreter first.  Your video could literally be a single shot of you telling a story and it can still be effective.  Don't believe me?  Check out www.learntheaddress.org

 

       



*As aforementioned, all content produced here has been written in my free time and does not reflect the official opinion of my employer.

Interpretive Videos on a Shoestring Budget

It seems like a common scenario: You work within the field of public history, you're trying to create an interpretive video for your site, and you probably don't have much of a budget.  Maybe the powers at hand don't want to (or can't) allocate the resources until you show you're capable of doing the job.  Or maybe you're just flat broke.  You want to create an interpretive video, but in researching you keep seeing people talk about how they love the Canon C100 - which retails for about $5,000, and that's without any lenses.  Then they talk about all the external mics they like to use for different sound settings.  You don't have that.  Let's face it, I don't have that.  So how do we do this on a shoestring budget?

1. The Camera-  This can be one of your big expenses.  But even that can be mitigated.  Most dSLR cameras shoot HD video now, as most point and shoot cameras can shoot short footage as well.  Chances are your site owns a camera and chances are it already shoots video.  If not, your cell phone probably shoots.  Searching for Sugar Man won an Oscar, and it was shot partially on an iPhone when the production ran out of money.  It can be done.  In fact, there's a good chance your interpretive video will be shot with the phone already in your pocket.  Ours was.  Right now I shoot with a Nikon d3200 camera with the kit lens that came on it.  As far as settings, I "like" to shoot in 720HD (fine for most web) and at 24/25fps.  (But that's just a personal preference.)


2. A Tripod-  Even if you don't have a "great camera" you can still get acceptable footage if it's steady.  You can pick up a tripod for $10.  Or you can make one.  Or set your camera on a level stationary object like a table in a worst case scenario.


3. Sound Recording-  You can buy an external microphone for your camera or external sound recorders.  Or if you don't have the resources to get those - your cell phone has a microphone in it.  In fact, this is what I use to record all of my audio.  I've got an Android phone and I use an app called Miidio Recorder.  It's a free app in the GooglePlay Store.  There are quite a few free sound recorder apps out there for both Android and iOS devices.  I record all of our narrated voiceovers and then email them from my phone in .mp3 format.  If you really want to improve your sound - toss a blanket over your head while you're recording.  It muffles out a lot of external sound and eliminates a lot of echo.  You'll look crazy.  But it works.

4. Editing Software- There are a lot of free editing programs out there.  Some better than others.  iMovie comes on every Mac, and if you're shooting your video on iPhone you can purchase iMovie in the app store for like $5.  If you're in PC world there's Windows movie maker that probably came on your computer.  I use Adobe Premier Elements - you can get it for less than $100.

5. Content Resources-  Your site probably has a nice collection of images or maybe footage in the archives.  But you might want more.  The Library of Congress has a wonderful collection of historic images.  Archive.org has lots of archival newsreel footage and audio recordings. Modern shots of a place can fill a visual, as you show your audience what you are talking about.


Here's the fun part - you can create an interpretive video for free, even if you don't have a camera.  Use the freeware on your computer (iMovie or Windows Movie Maker), use the free sound recorder app, and you can create it as a narrated slideshow of images from your site's collection or from the vast collections of the Library of Congress.  For some reason you don't have the freeware on your computer, you can always create a narrated slideshow. If this is used as a tool, it won't take away from your craft of telling a story.



*Written on my own time. Thoughts and ideas are my own and do not reflect any official opinions.      

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Visual Storytelling as Interpretive Technique

We can all take a minute and appreciate the fact that we don't need this to produce films anymore:

Bonus points if you can identify this building.
Audio and visual production has been around for a while. These past few years, however, technological evolution has provided the means for everyday folk to create and produce their own films. Those little computers we now carry around in our pockets that we often refer to as "phones" have the capability of capturing and sharing the world from our hands. From our hands!

You have the tools (or at least access to the tools). So how do you tell a story? If you are an interpreter, you've been doing this already. Delivering a formal program is a tool, just like a film is a tool. They each have their own positives and should be treated differently. When delivering a program, words (often connected to a space or a thing) drive the story. Film, however, utilizes more than just words. In film, we go beyond telling a story to showing a story.

Here is one way (of all my favorite ways) to show a story. As you watch, make note of all the various visual, audio, and audio visual ways he shows his story:



We are a visual society, inundated with images. Some of these images are still and some move. When thinking about your program or video, what message do you desire to convey? That will help you plan what images you can use. Initially, it might seem images are limited. But let's brainstorm; you might be underestimating your resources.


Stills
No, not those kind of stills. You are working at a historic site, right? Surely, you have historic pictures? Nothing says "historic" like a sepia-colored image. Maybe the pictures are hanging on the wall (a painted portrait, perhaps?). Film it or snap a shot of it. If you don't think it will look good just inserted as an image, think like Ken Burns. There are techniques now built into most editing programs that allow you to slowly zoom in or out or pan across photos for a visual effect. Maybe they are in your collections and need to be scanned. Have you checked local university collections? Maybe county or state archives? How about the Library of Congress? They've got some pretty good stuff, too. The idea here is to convey a scene that your story discusses, whether it be a person, place, or thing. Plenty of historic images from various eras do that.

Video Footage
This can be acquired from modern day cameras and archival footage. Modern shots can capture scenes of places and landscapes. Even a few seconds of live footage from a still shot can allow your viewer to process the place you are talking about. How about the tricks of visual interpretation that modern documentaries use? Maybe it is just the filming of the hemline of a hoop skirt walking around an historic ballroom? Maybe a soldier dressed in blue wool holding a tin cup? Maybe the passing train wheels along a train track? These few seconds of footage do not demand a face, but provide enough imagery for the audience to continue following the story. Never underestimate the powers of archival footage. One of the best places for archival footage is archive.org. Their "Wayback Machine" search engine provides a variety of sources that you can download and use for free; even historic film. Just a few seconds of historic film may help complete your video story.

Audio Sources
The narrator of your film (if you have one) is just one audio source. Think of sounds: birds chirping to indicate nature, firing of weapons to indicate battle, cars to indicate traffic, the hum of a crowded room to indicate many voices. While video is a visual way to tell your story, audio sources complete this endeavor. Old radio broadcasts provide content, various people reading aloud quotes or script provide content, old recordings of oral histories provide content, and even other sources of film can provide content. Many audio bites are available through free websites. As you develop your story, don't forget how sounds provide imagery through the mind's eye.

Text 
A quote against a black screen can introduce an idea well. Let it sit a bit and simmer with your audience. Sometimes, you can insert a quote mid-video for a mindful pause. Let your audience read and absorb. Never be afraid of pauses. Pictures of newspaper articles or advertisements or posters provide visual material AND a place for the mind to rest while listening. What headlines share the statements from the narrative? Can you film text from a monument or memorial to capture the ideas you are conveying?

Documents
While text encompasses a broad range of content, don't forget the primary source documents you have been using for research as a form of visual aid. Letters handwritten show a different era (or sentiment) than those that are type-written). Scan documents to include as a visual aid. Various records may convey different ideas: census records, diary entries, personal letters, tax records, government documents, letterhead, advertisements, even graffiti. Visualizing the words spoken help reinforce the idea.

Modern Scenes
Capture the scene. Maybe you are telling a story about natives using the desert to survive; let your camera film a scene of the desert with the wind gently moving the brush. The audience will process what they hear while watching the twitch of desert grass. Film just the feet of people walking in front of an historic site or a sidewalk: use your visual to convey a story that words cannot capture. Even a shot of an historic building helps tell your story; the movement may just be the wind gently rustling the nearby trees, but it gives your audience something to view as they process your story.

Interviews
Never underestimate the value of a "talking head." Maybe you can talk to one of your staff. Maybe a nearby scholar. Maybe a "history buff" or even a local visitor. These voices can contribute to your film in ways that still pictures or filmed landscapes cannot. They provide a human voice for your audience to connect to.

I may disagree about who he defines as "genius,"
but Shelby Foote helped "make" Ken Burns' Civil War. 

Words
While crafting your script, don't foget how much your audio content will tell. Use words that provide or accompany visual aids. "The soldier fought" may not convey the same as "The soldier's brow poured forth sweat as he pushed forward on a muddy battlefield." Again, never fear a thoughtful pause. Every moment of your film does not need words: let the visual tell the story.

Have I included all the visuals? Not by a long stretch. But one of the most fascinating things about film is that it provides freedom of creativity. What do you have that makes your site or your story unique? How can you convey that on film? It can be done well and with a limited budget. Thanks, Mr. Edison. But now, the Black Maria can be filmed and revealed rather than being the one that produces film.






*The Black Maria was Thomas Edison's moving picture studio. [Image credit: Library of Congress]

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Story in Stone: John Jameson (as an Example)

Andersonville National Historic Site posted several videos this past weekend, including this one:



Watch it in full. The other videos are posted on their YouTube channel and are worth checking out, as well. I struggled with picking a "best" one, but that wasn't really an option. They are all outstanding.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Tools of Trade: Interpreting the Tools or Interpreting With Tools?

One of the biggest challenges facing historical interpreters in the field are the tools we use to interpret our stories.  Often we get hold of the latest new fandangled tools and we allow those to dictate what or how we interpret.  In other words, we have a tendency to interpret to what's in our hands - be it a weapon, or a camera, or a computer, instead of using what's in our hands to help us interpret broader stories.

We see this all the time with historic weapons programs  at federal, state, and private sites all over the country.  It happens with social media too - there's a new trend, service, program, hashtag, or a new meme and we tend to want to jump on board with it "just because" that's what you do.  Like kids at Christmas, we decide to create that new Instagram or Twitter feed.  Next thing you know we're just posting because it's there and not using it to interpret or reach new audiences.

The tool that we (I) are perhaps most guilty of doing this with are our cameras.  We fall into two traps.  The first is that we either think that we cannot create interpretive content for our web presence because we either (1) don't have the right equipment or (2) the talent.  Or the second trap is that we allow those cameras and software to drive what we do instead of using these tools to interpret. 


The first trap is easily overcome.  You have the tools.  We all have the tools.  You have a camera phone or a point-and-shoot camera.  You can get freeware video or photo editing software.  Heck - Elizabeth shot, edited, and shared this video entirely from an iPhone using the less-than-$5 iMovie app.  It can be done.  If you're an interpreter, simply take the interpretive things you're saying or doing and put them on film!

The second trap we fall into is probably easier to slip and more common.  We get that nice camera or software and we suddenly forget how to interpret.  Our tools become a crutch.  We take a pretty picture and our interpretation becomes "LOOK A PRETTY PICTURE!"  I am guilty of it, too.  For evidence of my guilt in doing this see Exhibit A - the quintessential, non interpretive, look-a-pretty-picture post.  We get that new camera - maybe it's a GoPro and it turns into lets just post cool pictures or video from new locations.  And then we keep doing it because people like it.  It's ok to do this occasionally, but what if we make this pictures interpretive?  If I could go back in time the caption for that photo post might read: "While we may enjoy the pretty fall colors, it was a different story in 1864.  The changing of the seasons brought more death as healthy prisoners were evacuated.  Both leaves and men fell by the score."
 
Even an aesthetically-pleasing photograph
can incorporate meaning.
We can overcome these traps.  The technology is available to us.  We can take our content, even the pretty content, and make it interpretive. As interpreters, what if we approach creating videos or photos with the same interpretive goals and language that we would in our formal talks and programs? 

Stay tuned, as we will be using the next several posts here to uncover ways we can use audio and visual resources as interpretive tools.


*As always, all content on here was developed and written on my own, personal time. All opinions shared are my own.
          

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

#Instagramming #History: an #Experiement

I love wearing the green and grey. I sometimes feel naked if I walk outside without my flat hat (even after years of not wearing the uniform). It was refreshing to work at Andersonville with amazing staff and a healthy work environment. However, I am finding I enjoy the freedoms of working beyond the realms of government, too. I can try things and have fewer restrictions. The proverbial oyster is my world. (Or something like that.)

I have always had a tumultuous relationship with social media. I love it. I hate it. I love it again. I hate it some more. I have gone long periods in which I delete accounts and remove myself from the virtual world. Then I get on "my life is an open book and nowadays we call those open books 'blogs'" kicks. As much as some may not like it, there is a place to create relevance in the digital world. So that's what I am going to do.

My current work includes managing a history walking tour company. We have found creating a presence online is nothing but beneficial to the business side of what we do. We have a website, we have a Facebook page, and we have a Twitter handle. The company is a business, but my colleague and I are interested in sharing our passion for Nashville history. Our constant challenge is promoting the business while maintaining that core of enlightening, educating, and sparking interest of the past. Social media is one tool for us to do that.

I recently read somewhere (a tweet? a blog post? a comment on a thread? I can't remember...) a mention that the hashtag #publichistory did not pull up many pictures on Instagram. My initial response is "well, because only public historians use that term, not the actual public interacting with history." So I checked: 384 posts come up with that hashtag. The most recent of those posts was from 4 days ago. That's an eternity in Instagram world. The hashtag #history, however, pulls up over 3.5 million posts. The "insta" in Instagram refers to that instant: you document that moment at that time. How can historians (or public historians, if I am to play along here) use Instagram to engage? Especially if history is the opposite of instant or that moment?

A photo collection from users on Instagram
I feel it is a quality question, especially considering tentative reach. Just today an article published highlights that media's popularity: management anticipates reaching over 1 billion Instagram users. Say whaaa? Yes. The company even incorporates history into its reach. Here they compile instagram users' photos into a visual aid that accompanies a blog post about the Hearst Castle in California.

So what can I do? I know of a few institutions and agencies that have (and regularly use) Instagram. Now Echoes of Nashville has an account and I plan on using it to capture and share the physical that relates to the historical. Again, this is an experiment. I believe, however, if a funny looking dog can have nearly 800,000 followers, surely an active and engaging history account can get a few, too. Let's see where this goes, shall we?



*All thoughts posted here are my own.

**You can follow the experiment at @echoesnashville on Instagram.

***@tunameltsmyheart is one of my favorite Instagram accounts. I mean no offense by calling Tuna "funny looking." It is why he melts my heart.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Our Tendencies to Avert Gazes

I am not going to lie. I found out last night that an editorial in the Nashville Scene quoted something I wrote earlier this week and I proceeded to float for the duration of the evening. Mostly because I am a dork. After I calmed down and reread the the editorial piece, a particular idea struck me:
"I think it's natural to avert your gaze from the site of tragedies, to even not realize that you're averting your gaze."
While we see this natural gaze aversion throughout many visitor interactions with various aspects of history, I most experienced it while working at Andersonville. What happened at that site is nothing but tragedy. Being captured as a prisoner of war is one form of tragedy. Having experienced Andersonville, especially in the later months, is another form of tragedy altogether.* Whether people choose to reflect on the modern beauty of the physical place or dwell on patriotic "ideals" today, a common coping mechanism is gaze aversion.

How do we draw visitors' gazes back to the tragedy? It isn't something easy or flippant, "Oh, the history is just there. If the visitors want to engage or learn about the tragedy, they can." For many historic sites, the central theme is essentially humans can be terrible to each other. Loss. Devastation. Death. Cruelty. Grief. Those things feel abrasive (hence our natural tendency to withdraw or ignore those aspects). So what are methods of dealing with tragedy (or even healing from tragedy)?

I lived in Japan for several years as a kid (I won't even mention the number of decades it has now been, so these memories are a little, hmm, dated). One thing that stuck with me was the many "peace parks" throughout the country. These small, public spaces usually had a decorative garden or water feature and a plaque or pictures hanging around the space. Adorning any hanging spaces were strings upon strings of paper cranes. Those pictures, however, were not pretty pictures. As a kid, some of the pictures seemed pretty shocking and almost gross. The pictures showed some of the human cost of nuclear fallout on the country. Black and white images showed burns and disfigurements and completely leveled buildings. All of that was framed by colorful pieces of paper folded into tiny birds. They were places of grieving, the spaces did not shy away from visually conveying some of the tragedy. But the intention of the parks were also for reconciliation and healing. I remember seeing a number of older Japanese people praying and sometimes weeping at the sites. The parks provided the safety of a beautiful space to allow for visitors to face tragedy without averting one's gaze. It was open, free, and available to come and go as the public desired. Nobody said "hey, look here." Yet, the presentation allowed for people to come and engage in the space, engage in the tragic past.

I remember some of these places being close to where I
lived in Sagamihara. (Photo credit: Chaos and Kanji)
What are other ways you have seen effective means of drawing visitors' gazes into the tragic aspects of history? How about for eras that don't have photographs, videos, or other images? How can sites of those tragedies engage visitors?




*I am not advocating the human desire to compare tragedies. "It's not as bad as..." or "Blank was worse..." Each story carries its own weight. I get that. It was common, however, for visitors to assume what happened at Andersonville was a common story at all Civil War prison camps and that is simply not true.
**Still all my opinions, not any official opinions of anybody else.