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.