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



*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. 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.

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 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.

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?

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.

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. 

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.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Put Your Hands Up (Single or Otherwise)

My husband leaves for work at an insane hour every morning and I often have to choose between going back to bed, staring into space while I think about making coffee, or somehow being productive. Today, I decided to write. I have some things I would like to work on, but wanted to blog to rev my writing engines (for old time's sake).

My initial post idea came as I scrolled through my blog feed:

"Civil War blah blah blah" 
"Sesquicentennial blah blah blah" 
"Civil War blah blah blah"
"Reenactments blah blah blah"
"National Park Service blah blah blah"
"Civil War blah blah blah" 
"History blah blah blah"
"What can we do better blah blah blah" 
"Civil War blah blah blah" 

See what I did there? I replicated my feed obnoxiously. My point, however, is I had planned to illustrate the number of recent articles and posts that contributed to my initial post idea this morning. HOWEVER, a combination of little coffee, little sleep, and the fact that a number of these posts just replicate each other, I decided I shall just jump on in without major hyperlinking.

I read about reenactments, specifically about a viewer's perspective of what makes them "good." For the most part, I agree. I stumbled when I read:

One of the best reenactments I ever saw had no casualties at all. It was at a national park. Since the NPS doesn’t allow casualty reenactments, the soldiers did everything but take hits. They advanced, retreated, yelled, and took cover, but nobody feigned an injury or death, while a ranger narrated the action.  It was both enlightening and entertaining, and the crowd seemed to enjoy it.
That part about rangers narrating the action tripped me right into a whole slew of thoughts. I began cultivating how I would respond via blog post. This whole topic came up quite a bit while I worked at Andersonville and I seriously am behind on writing some living history/reenactment post(s). 

Keep following, I am going somewhere, I promise.

I thought a more simple way to address the concept of battlefield "reenactments" or "living history events" would just be to say if it were me, Elizabeth, a white woman hovering around 30 years of age, married, educated (to some extent), who lived during the Civil War, I would have had nothing to do with a battle. I would not have seen it, I likely would not have experienced it at all. I did not say I would not have experienced war, just not battle. So as a member of the audience, I would be nothing more than a mere spectator without some serious provocation happening by the interpreter. I've seen it in a fair amount of female visitors' faces in the past. *Yawn* I can't believe I have to see another one of these things. It's my husband who likes war and history so much, why do I have to attend?

I was then going to write about on how Civil War historians like to include women (heck! we get our own month and everything!). Guess what, guuuuys. It isn't even March AND I am going to talk about women's history. [Say, whaaaaaaa?] I planned to bring up the fact that just about every Civil War historic site uses particularly generic souls like Kate Cumming or Francis Claylin/Clayton to demonstrate women during the Civil War.*  Since they left behind "stuff" like a picture or a journal, they get remembered. I even planned on including a picture of myself from a while back; I dressed out for a living history event as a young, seasonal ranger who (at the time) felt I should just do what I was told (even if it meant wearing no making and dressing like a boy). Ok, I can still include that:

Guess which one is the girl soldier! 
For the time and event, I dressed out to ensure enough "soldiers" were available to man the cannon crew. Theoretically, I was also there to serve as the token "women-in-war" character, too. I could talk about all those lady soldiers!

As my blog post idea shifted, I thought about writing how living history and interpretation evolved in my life and its contributions to what and how I do things today (hint: dressing in historic costume since I was a kid). I still wanted to keep the core of the blog post about being a woman in the 1860s, trying to reveal what my life would have really included. I wanted to make sure I touched on the severity of life on the "home front" as I sometimes think "home front" is an obscure idea and definitely sweeter sounding than "battlefield." I would mention themes like fear, sorrow, survival, desperation, and starvation. I would mention the complexities of womanhood based on economic situation, environment, and regions. My imagined 1860s self could have many different ways of living and surviving.

Ultimately, I wanted a visual center piece of a woman from the era who looked roughly my age. "Let's all look closely at this photo," I'd propose. "Let us imagine her life and all that she carried with her. Let's think about what she experienced that was likely not battle. She lived an extraordinary life and now remains an unidentified woman in a photo." See, I knew that most photos of the women were likely unidentified. It's like I've done some research before or something. So I headed over to the Library of Congress Digital Collections and searched "Civil War women." That would seem logical, right? I imagine many people search these images for either educational resources or for visual effects. The Library of Congress revealed to me some of the issues of how women are remembered historically, especially from the Civil War. Look at this:

Note all the "Unidentified woman, possibly a nurse" titles. (Library of Congress website)

Just on the first page of the collection, ten of the fourteen women are "possibly a nurse." Talk about generalizing the Civil War experience of women! I understand there may be a reason this collection says that (maybe they are photos from a nursing organization of sorts), but if you were just passing through and found these, what would be your first assumption? The majority of women worked as nurses during the Civil War! That would mean the majority of women experienced battle in one way, shape, or form. Historians' number of nurses vary and the highest number I've seen say that nearly 20,000 women volunteering as nurses. That number reveals statistically the chances of serving as a nurse during the American Civil War was in the single digits, hovering around 5% (and that is only when estimating that generous number of 20,000, not the more likely 5,000 to 8,000 who volunteered as nurses). 

So there we have it. A post that followed my pre-coffee stream of thought about women and living history. There stands a common assumption at Civil War sites that "booms" bring visitors, so living history events should always include cannons or other firearms. Of course, I don't always agree with that notion. If we are being mindful of audiences, how are battle sites capturing their complete audience when "reenactments" include a "ranger narrating the action?" A better question might stand if asked "how are Civil War sites engaging a broader audience when living history events include 'rangers narrating the action?'" It is still the same old thing to the same group of people. 

So, where are the ladies?

*A few notes: I pick on Kate Cummings and Francis Clayton as they are both Western Theater women and I know of many [unnamed] parks and battle sites that include "special programs" on these women. I also limited my discussion to white women, as that would have been my perspective during the war; obviously women of color had even more complex experiences. Additionally, I know of a handful of places that do quality interpretation of women during the Civil War even at living history events, but the majority of Civil War sites do not begin any form of justice to interpretation of women. Finally, I am not saying that women shouldn't dress up as a males in modern interpretation; I am just challenging the content that most battle sites choose to include when they remember to talk about women. (Especially in that required month of March).**Even though I am back to operating as a free agent and not officially for the government, I feel I should keep up my disclaimer. These thoughts and opinions are entirely my non-caffeinated ramblings and do not officially represent any of the National Park Service.