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.

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