Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Interpreting Historic Weapons

“Ready.  Aim.  FIRE!”  The crowd applauds with approval as the smoke clears.  “Thank you for visiting the park today, I’ll be around for a few minutes to talk and answer any questions you may have about this weapon” the interpreter in a Civil War uniform tells the visitors as they begin to disperse.  Another historic weapons demonstration in a National Park site concluded.

NPS Historic Weapons Training.  That's me in the
Confederate uniform at center.  Photo: J. Cadoff

 I recently had the opportunity to attend the National Park Service’s Historic Weapons Safety Training program in Anniston, Alabama.  This is one of the premiere training programs in the agency, and numerous state parks and agencies send representatives to this course.  Each NPS site that conducts a historic weapons program is required to have at least one person on staff who has been certified through this training.  Students learn how to safely operate and inspect both small arms and artillery from either the 18th or 19th centuries, depending on their park’s mission.   The emphasis is on safety, and it works - in 2013 there was not a single injury in a National Park site as a result of a historic weapons mishap, an astounding feat considering that there were nearly 10,000 historic weapons programs that reached more than one million visitors.

Instead of simply relying on the guns to get visitors' attention
in hopes that they'll hear the rest of our stories, what if we
use the guns to tell a story?  Photo: C. Barr
After two weeks of thinking about historic weapons in terms of safety and execution, I started thinking about what’s next.  How do we interpret these weapons?  Historic weapons demonstrations are among the most popular programs in the National Park Service, reaching more than a million visitors annually.  Park staff and volunteers conduct many of these programs, while reenactor groups who work with parks do others.  That’s a lot of visitors, volunteers, and partners that form an audience ripe for an interpretive experience.  Thinking back to the dozens of weapons demonstrations I’ve been to, it occurs to me that in almost every one of these the firing of the weapon was the climax of the program.  BANG!  Thanks for visiting.  Where’s the bookstore?  The programs were always safe and gave visitors an idea of how these weapons functioned.  But what if instead of simply interpreting the drill, we started using the weapon to interpret larger stories.
“Let the black man get upon his person the brass letters US, let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.” - Frederick Douglass, 1863.

What a powerful basis for a historic weapons program this is.  The interpreter has the tools he needs handed to him - he is literally carrying everything Douglass described - a musket, a US belt plate, an eagle on his button, and cartridges.  The interpretive program shifts from being a gun demonstration to a powerful program about manhood, citizenship, and the consequences of victory or defeat.  The weapon and its firing are tools to tell that story - firing it becomes a demonstration of claiming citizenship.  What does that armed black soldier represent for the civilian population?

Tearing the cartridge.  Who purchased this cartridge?  What
were their goals in purchasing it?  What does this bullet
represent for both the individual soldier and for the politics
of conflict?  Photo: J. Cadoff
There are a million directions to interpretively take a historic weapons demonstration.  Explore why the soldier is firing this weapon?  What is he defending?  Perhaps instead of interpreting the weapon and the person holding it, talk about the person on the receiving end of the shot.  Every time the weapon is fired tell the story of a child who has lost their father, a woman who is now widowed, a mother who lost their son.  Tell the story of men who are mangled and broken the rest of their lives.  Talk about the dichotomy between the motive of the soldier and the motive of the politicians who purchased his ammunition and sent him to battle.  The weapon firing becomes a demonstration of the political motivation of war and the power to affect an individual.   

Frank, Frederick, & Alice. 
The orphans of Sgt. Humiston,
154th NY, killed at Gettysburg. 
The weapon in the interpreter's
hand killed their father.  LOC Photo
NPS Historic Weapons demonstrations are among the most popular and successful programs in the entire agency.  The infrastructure is in place - trained people are in the field and programs are already scheduled.  Crowds travel from miles around to see and hear the guns.  Let's not just hope that they stick around for something else.  Let's find meaning in those weapons.   

 The opinions expressed in this blog reflect my own personal opinions and observations, and not those of my employers.  This was written on personal time after work.

Chris Barr 

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