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?

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