Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Figurative Breaths of Fresh Air

Do you have a cake-hangover from all that celebrating yesterday (and the last three weeks, really)? Whew! Yesterday was the almost-big day for the National Park Service and today is just the day after! So we can get back to our regularly-scheduled programming, right? Sure.

Within the National Park Service, there exists a notion that because the resource is a part of a park it is inherently important. I get it. There is a sense of pride of our parks and from our parks and that sometimes trickles into how we tell the stories at the parks (or what days we choose to celebrate accchh-Founders Day-chhhooo). In most cases, visitors don't question the importance of these places. In some cases, staff don't really question the importance. Most visitors do not show up and say "who were the socially responsible individuals who advocated to preserve this place/story/house/field/glacier/etc.?" and I doubt even less wonder "at what cost?" or "with what agenda?"

I do believe, however, there are still enough people that show up and ask the generic "why?" "Why this site? Why this person? Why this story?" That's good. Staff should know this is coming (just like "where are the restrooms" and "what's a good place to eat around here"). The answer to the "why" should not just be "it is historic." And the answer should not be a canned response that doesn't actually answer the question like "because it was a part of the Civil War." And the answer is certainly not "because it is a part of the National Park Service." Answers like those prompt responses like "who cares?" or "so what?"

When the "why" question is answered with those examples, content that follows is stale. No fresh air, no relevancy. In most cases, however, the places and stories and houses and fields and glaciers were preserved for distinct and special reasons beyond those stale responses. The mandate within the National Park Service is the idea that these sites exist to conserve the resources all provide for the enjoyment for future generations. Does that mean the parks just exist until a generation shows up? When are we the future generation? What do we do with the present generation while waiting for the future?

For starters, a great way to conserve with an eye to the future is being present. As an exercise, ask and answer "why this place, story, house, field, hole in the ground, or glacier?" and then ask and answer it again. Did you get the same response that you got last year and the year before and maybe twenty years ago? Then, it is stale. Now, remove the arrowhead. (It's ok, we will put it back after the exercise). Pretend that the place is not a part of the National Park Service (or state-managed museum or university-funded historic house, etc); what happens when you ask that question again? How does your place, story, house, field, hole in the ground, or glacier help tell the story of the human population that happens to identify itself as "America" today? What happened there that contributed to a larger story? "People died." Why? What did that impact? "They fought in a battle." Why? What did that impact? "A war was won (or lost*)." Why? What did that impact? "Our nation's idea of freedom(s) shifted here." Why? What did that impact? How does this place relate today? If you had a magic pen, what would you write or rewrite as a means of legislation to preserve this place for future generations?

Scholarship and society continually changes. That means how we tell the stories should continually change, too. More people are doing research that can help fuel this present-thinking exercise. What is changing in the scholarship within your field? How society thinks about itself continually changes. How societal members place themselves within a larger context changes. With all these changes, it is only appropriate that your answer to "why" meets people in the present. When you meet visitors where they are, you help them make connections to the resource(s). Your resource is not the arrowhead, it is not the flat hat, it is not the green-shaded space on the map. You have to think beyond that. Once they make their own connections, it is easier for folks to start caring about the site's resource and maybe even take an interest in the grander scheme of things (once they care about what is within, you might even convince them to care about an agency like the National Park Service... not the other way around).

Just think what can happen when visitors engage in parks or historic sites and are able to take a figurative breath of fresh air.

Ok. Go ahead and replace whatever agency icon you momentarily striped away for the sake of this mental exercise.

*Until we acknowledge that there are losers in war, we are always going to keep a heroic association to devastation.
**Yes, yes, my own opinions, my own time, my own photos, etc.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

I'm Not Lame, I'm Just Drawn That Way

In response to being called "lame," I will write twice in one day. Consider this making up for being out of touch for pretty much all last week and all next week.

I wanted to respond to a tweet with a tweet, but 140 characters was not enough. Actually, several tweets weren't going to be enough. Good thing I have all the space I want here.

I consider myself a green and grey fangirl. I used to bleed green and grey, too. But the service is not perfect. Actually, there is a lot that needs to be fixed and soon. Hoisting up the National Park Service on a pedestal is not going to help anything, either. Yes, funding is an issue. No, it is not the only issue.

First, I disagree that the whole of the #CW150 programming was "incredible" although maybe we had different expectations. I took an undergraduate course in Civil War from former chief historian of the National Park Service, Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley in 2002, almost a decade before the sesquicentennial official took off. Thanks to him, I had big hopes and dreams that the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War would serve as The Great Launching Pad for conversations about race, effects of the war, and implications today. I was naïve. Within my first year working at a Civil War park, I realized that was not the general consensus from within battlefield parks; the interpretation still focused on battles. Did parks include African American programs in February? Sure. And programs about women in March! Did they do the minimal required to meet requirements handed down from the top? Usually.

So when the Sesquicentennial launched, there was a boatload of potential. From above there were several initiatives designed to encourage broadening interpretation. That was the time to engage new audiences! That was a time to engage youth! Some programs were designed to highlight history beyond the battlefield (Emancipation Proclamation programs might serve as an example), but across the board, there was not a whole lot of new faces in attendance. There were certainly not a lot of faces that were not white (or older. or male). IF YOU DON'T BELIEVE ME CHECK FACEBOOK. The National Park Service invested in so-called "social media crews" to go and capture and share these events online. Those crews were good at taking a shit-ton of photos. I am not kidding, thousands of photos. They were also good at uploading those photos on Facebook. So if you want to verify for yourself the overall lack of audience diversity, just check Facebook.

Second, while I personally know some out-of-this-world, super fantastic interpreters that work within the National Park Service, you are the naïve one if you think everybody who dawns the flat hat is outstanding. It is a bureaucracy. There are more than just a handful of park rangers who just get by in their government job. And there is no easy way for managers to remove these ones. A shame, really, because I know so many other amazing people who can't seem to break into the ranks of rangers no matter how hard they try.

Did the Civil War Sesquicentennial programs get a boost of visitors? Sure. Were there some programs that made connections for audiences that pushed beyond battlefields? Sure. Was the Sesquicentennial "incredible?" Meh. I'd say if anything, it made the Civil War story even more tired. Across the board, stories weren't really that different than before. I think parks thought they were successful as long as they completed the event checklist: Cannons, check. Military Band, check. Keynote speaker, check.

Yes, some parks did well. Some had the finances (and the "fame") to do so. Some had stellar staff (I personally would have loved to see folks like Emmanuel Dabney or John Hennssey in action! But please don't think they are the norm at Civil War-related parks). But across the board? No.

FINALLY, I wasn't even talking about the #CW150, amazingly enough. If Civil War parks want to rest because they think they did well at an event four years ago, they are wrong. I am talking about consistent interpretation today. I have been to three (3) Civil War parks in the past two months. Do you know what programs were available? Battlefield walks and talks. Not necessarily great ones, either. They didn't push interpretive envelopes, they glorified soldiers. They didn't include stories about civilians (women, enslaved, the murky line of "contraband" people present). Peruse through any of those park's social media sites and as a general rule, they tell a story that either ignores entire audiences or completely alienates them. And yesterday's post on the Stones River National Battlefield Facebook page is just a recent, overly blatant one that doesn't just alienate, it offends. There have been many myopic posts coming from these places over time.

Subjectively glorifying the National Park Service is dangerous. The service has many things it needs fixing from within. The good folk know this and are working to change from within (and from the outside! there are good partners with a desire to help, too!). But they also get hammered down by bureaucratic nonsense and poor management. Unfortunately, I think there is going to be some serious overhauling required before any major changes are made. Or a complete breakdown within the ranks before the public says "enough is enough."

Such ends the end of my lame defense.

Stop Resting on the Warm Fuzzies

As an agency, the National Park Service wears the arrowhead proudly. There are some serious rules and guidelines on use of the arrowhead. (And I mean serious). The arrowhead is often used as a talking point for when park rangers want to talk about what the National Park Service does. It is a favorite Junior Ranger activity ("draw your own arrowhead" or "match the arrowhead parts with their meanings"). An arrowhead is a part of the "Find Your Park" campaign (pretty much the closest that the National Park Service will get to advertising, and it is through the National Park Foundation).

Am I breaking a rule by using this icon in a non-National Park Service place? Possibly. I live on the edge.

Recognize it? The bison represents wildlife, the tree represents the biology, the landscape represents, well, landscapes. Oh, and the arrowhead outline. What does it mean to include the arrowhead? Right. Culture and history (or, the fancy term: cultural resources). Considering the vast majority of parks are historical and cultural parks, the representation of the arrowhead in this emblem is important.

What does it mean that the National Park Service takes care of history and culture? What is included in history and culture?

Yep, houses, battlefields, furniture, forts, archaeological finds, monuments, cliff dwellings, farms, and even tailor shops.

What else? Prison sites, protest sites, plantations and slave quarters, missile beds, internment camps, places of government-approved genocide, even gallows. 

What else? Cultural resources include lots of things we can not see. The history. Stories. Oral histories. Memory. Literature. Artistic or musical portrayals. Research. Scholarship. That means old scholarship that reflected contemporary times, and new scholarship that shows how our society has evolved. Some of the history is painful. Actually, a lot of it is painful. Sorry, that's just part of our story. The history of the United State of America is messy, complex, and complicated. It is filled with things that we used to candy-coat and whitewash (or just outright ignore). Scholarship glorified some parts of the history while outright ignoring others. So the interpretation at these historic sites used to take that candy-coating and spread it around. Warm fuzzies here! Get your warm fuzzies!

Except our history is not filled with warm fuzzies. Interpreters utilizing nostalgia as history are not doing justice to the past. Interpreters scared of somebody questioning scholarship don't need to be working in the public. Interpreters who don't understand that our past is incredibly racialized and are not willing to start talking about it should maybe find a different vocation. It is 2015. It is time to start acting like it.

Battlefield? Yes. But also a place where slaves worked the fields that soldiers would one day run through
and later where former slaves formed a community.
The battle is only one part of a complex narrative that played out on the landscape here.
Now, before you tell me "but you don't know what it is like," I'll tell you that I got stamped with the "Damn Yankee" badge my first summer as a seasonal interpreter. It is still on record on a comment card somewhere. I am of the Dwight Pitcaithley fan club and is my understanding that if you want to interpret well at a Civil War site, you have to talk about causes and/or effects. I made it a part of every program. Ultimately, that meant having some folks wanting to engage me because I talked about slavery at a battlefield. I talked about how the battle and war paved the way for freedom for over four million people. I talked about how "emancipation" was not an overnight thing (nor were most effects of the war). The scholarship reflected it and I had quality trainers help show me the historical evidence to back up the interpretation. So, yes. I have had the face-to-face conversation with many visitors before. Interpretation is about provoking. I did that. It was sometimes difficult, but I did it. I know many interpreters to do it daily. Unfortunately, I also know of interpreters who hide behind the comfort of easy answers and a poor scholarship.

It is easy to rest on the warm fuzzies. I know the excuses. "I'm tired of repeating myself." "I don't want to ruffle feathers." "I don't like arguments." "Confrontation is too difficult." "That's out of my paygrade." "This is easier."

This is a National Park (and people expect more from you).
If you work at a cultural or historic site, especially one managed by the National Park Service, resting on warm fuzzies is not your job. The public trusts the National Park Service to reflect the most current scholarship and to manage these places well. I think it is fair to say most people expect more out of the National Park Service than they would out of private entities. It is a government agency and it is iconic. Whether you interpret a natural site or a cultural site or an historic site or a site that combines all three, your job is to engage and provoke. If you are not willing to include the difficult parts of the past and acknowledge that our history was not always "glorious," then it is time for you to hang up your flat hat and go home. You are only doing a disservice to the public, the agency, the history, and ultimately, that arrowhead you wear.

*Yes, this is written on my own (limited) free time.
**Yes, these are just opinions from the member of the public (me).
***Dwight Pitcaithley Fan Club, who wants to join?
****Yes, this is very much so a continuation of what I wrote yesterday. No, I'm not done, yet.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Expanding Consciousness About Narrow-Mindedness

First, check out this article over at the Boeskool. Go ahead. I'll wait.

A friend of mine shared that this morning, so it is kind of what has framed my thoughts today.

We must remember what it was like for us when our consciousness was growing–When (whether it was from ignorance or indifference or just plain old selfishness) we didn’t care as much as we should have. And we can congratulate–we can cheer on–those other people whose souls are learning to love…. Whose souls are growing…. Whose consciousnesses are expanding. That is something to celebrate.

I boarded an airplane chewing on that idea. I know I get incredibly frustrated when I see folks with a lack of compassion or just sheer meanness. It made me think about my own journey of where I am today and the types of conversations or books or simple ideas have influenced me. I did not arrive here naturally. How can I expand my own consciousness?

It was a good thing I was trying to be generous and compassionate, because then this popped up on my radar:

I chose not to embed this one. The text reads: "Ranger Jim had a pleasant chat with a group of visitors sharing their opinion on the debate surrounding the Confederate battle flag by simply driving around the park. This peaceful show of support for this controversial symbol stands in stark contrast to recent events at Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site (, reminding us that symbols acquire meanings based on their use and the motivations of the people who use them."

I'm sorry, whaaaa?

OK. I am trying to consider where this post is coming from. I am trying to be compassionate. I am trying to be understanding. Expand my consciousness! I am trying to find the positive. But there is not any. Well, except to maybe learn from it.

Social media is a tool. So why do we (we, for the sake of this post, can be historic sites, parks, museums, and the like) use it? If you are a National Park Service site, you have a social media plan in place. I know this because I wrote one for a park where I used to work; it was a requirement for each park to get approval. So, you have your mission statement or purpose written somewhere. Even if you can't find that bureaucratic hoop, seriously ask yourself: why?

Why was this written and shared? To gain "likes." To get approval from those who are already aware of the park. To pander to your white friends.

That's right. I'm calling it like I see it. This post was written from a privileged white worker at a privileged white park. They are privileged because they are white. They are privileged in that they don't know they are privileged. The most upsetting thing to me, however, is that the history of this flag is a racist history. White supremacists used this flag as a means to show power over people of color throughout the 20th century. That is the history. Maybe the "peaceful" protesters had "peaceful" intentions, but what does it say when a group of white people stand around with Confederate flags? Welcome? No, not it does not. In fact, this display does the opposite.

Once upon a time, parks actively did not welcome people of color. At Stones River National Military Park (now the National Battlefield), a deliberate decision was made when the park was founded in the late 1920s to not build bathrooms because that would require building two sets of bathrooms: one for whites and one for "coloreds." The managers did not want to deal with people who were not white, so they did not provide any amenities. To establish this park, the government removed an African American community, knew there was still a presence around the park of people with darker pigmented skin, and made management decisions that actively did not welcome folks who were not white. Do you know why that flag was waved about then? To show off these beliefs of white supremacy. It happened again in the middle of the twentieth century when the Civil Rights movement really took off; white supremacists waved that flag heartily.

Another example happened over at Platt National park in the 1920s. Look:

"The (Klan) Playground of the South West." What was once acceptable is not anymore. Should not be anymore.

These events were nearly a century ago and not limited to one geographic region! We understand that these things are wrong today. You would think we would have progressed since we look back and say "that was wrong," but evidently not. First, allowing this demonstration to happen at the park is not welcoming to all audiences (First Amendment, yadda yadda; I get it, but did these demonstrators go through the official channels and get their special use permit in accordance with NPS Management Policies 8.6.3? It is a valid question.). Second, to pretend that this activity is rooted in history that is anything but racist history is bad interpretation. But to take this and promote it on your social media outlets as a positive thing? All you are doing is refusing to build bathrooms. You are actively alienating audiences as a means to pander to another audience. For what? Likes? Shares? Retweets?


Maybe next time, before you press "publish" or "tweet" or "send," ask yourself why are you as an interpreter sharing? Better question, for whom?

For you?

*I wrote this on my own time and these are my own opinions.
**I know there are many different issues presented here, and I only offer one take of one issue.
*** This can also easily be analyzed in light of NPS Management Policies 8.2 and but who is counting?
****I have smart friends who help me expand my own consciousness. I bet some of you know who you are. Probably others have no clue. But I appreciate each and every one of you.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Set Me Free to Find My Calling

I like seeing other interpreters in action. Throughout my week, I interact with many type of interpreters who have many strengths (and different focuses). I watch and think about what seems to be effective with different audiences. I usually anticipate to learn something, although I rarely expect to be moved.
This guy could be a ranger with
all that pointing.
Today’s portion of the trip that I lead weekly is a float down the Colorado River, from the Glen Canyon Dam to Lee’s Ferry. It is a 15 mile stretch of flowing water that generally reminds me of my size. I am small. I have done this trip several times, each with a different river guide. Each guide does a good job sharing things about specifically strikes her or him. Each guide shares about the importance of the Colorado River. Today, our guide did that. But he also did more.
First, I was impressed with the guide’s use of silence. He would make a suggestion or statement, then let it sit. I am personally a fan of that interpretive tool and attempt to use it, often forgetting because I remembered something else (being quiet is a challenge for me). Let your resource speak in the silence! The resource could be cliffs or a river. It can also be a line from your story. Let that silence sink in. Our generation doesn’t have much opportunity for silence, so the brain is making all sorts of jumps in those moments. Let it make those jumps.
At one point along the ride, our guide turned off the motor and we floated quietly for a bit. I loved it. He told a story about John Wesley Powell earlier, then read a line from one of Powell’s entries. The particular entry demonstrated Powell’s own uncertainty of his travels ahead. Primary source material on what is a natural setting? Sign me up. We floated for a bit and had an opportunity to think about Powell’s trek along the Colorado and how he had no idea what was just around the riverbend.
At a final stop, around yet another stunning and peaceful setting, our guide turned off the motor. He mentioned singing earlier in the tour and said “I’d like to sing for you.” And he did.
In the quiet misty morning, when the moon has gone to bed,
When the sparrows stop their singing and the sky is clear and red,
When the summer’s ceased its gleaming, when the corn is past its prime,
When adventure’s lost its meaning, I’ll be homeward bound in time.
Bind me not to the pasture. Chain me not to the plow.
Set me free to find my calling and I’ll return to you somehow.
If you find it’s me you’re missing, if you’re hoping I’ll return,
To your thought I’ll soon be list’ning; in the road I’ll stop and turn.
Then the wind will set me racing as my journey nears its end,
And the path I’ll be retracing when I’m homeward bound again.
Bind me not to the pasture. Chain me not to the plow.
Set me free to find my calling and I’ll return to you somehow.
In the quiet misty morning when the moon has gone to bed,
When the sparrows stop their singing, I’ll be homeward bound again.

His voice resonated within the canyon. The lyrics resonated with us. We are travelers, maybe feeling the urge to roam. But then home is a big theme. Searching for home, what is home, returning home. A mention of homeplace whilst floating along this wild and untamed river was an amazing contrast.
I know myself and the rest of the folks will remember the singing because it stood out as something different and unexpected. But I also believe folks will think back and not just remember the song, but what the song stirred up inside of each of us. It was a shared experience and fiercely personal all at the same time.
 One day, I hope to be able to stir up somebody in the same way that guide did to me today.
*Written on my own time (while overlooking a ponderosa pine forest, if you must know)
**Song is Homeward Bound by Marta Keen. There are some pretty fantastic renditions online, if you care for a listen.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Everything New This Season (Except the Name)

If you saw the number of drafts I have started, outlined, spewed forth, scrawled out, etc. etc. you might be surprised. It is hard to get back into a writing groove. I have been wanting to write and post, but then Twitter distracts me. I want to share things, but then I sometimes doubt myself. Actually, a lot of times I doubt myself.

I also waded into a world where I wasn't as actively constructive as I could be before. I imagined myself an instrument for good and I kind of just stopped. When I handed in my park ranger badge, I thought of all the different ways I could still influence and contribute to the world of history (and interpretation). I have done a little. I'd like to do more.

This is pretty much how I feel.
As a way to reintroduce myself into this wild world of blogging, I'll start by saying what I do for money (sometimes called "work") has changed. I still work with an historic walking tour company downtown Nashville. But now seasonally, I work as a tour director. Think Tour Guide Barbie who also shares about local history, culture, food, and people while keeping 40+ people organized on the road for weeks at a time.

This is pretty much me four months out of the year now.
The tours take me many places, but I am currently concentrated in the desert southwest of the United States. I'll be here at least another six weeks. It works out well, as I visit several National Park Service sites with the group during these trips AND I get to pull on my way-back-when studies of the American West.

Fun Fact About Elizabeth: my previous research has included the geography of the American West, the history of tourism in the United States, and cultural landscape studies related to touristy sites in the American West. Oh, and prostitution, but that was not just restricted to the American West.

"Can you say 'Saguaro? Say it with me: Sa-WAR-Row."
Yes, this particular line of work fits me well. Yes, in many ways it is a dream job. No, it is not easy. I work between 10 and 14 hour days and don't really get days off while on the road. Keeping 40+ people happy alladatime is stressful. Shoot, just keeping track of 50 pieces of luggage every day is stressful. But I enjoy it. I am writing this as a preface of sorts for my upcoming posts. While on the road I have loads of raw data I am planning on working through related to research back in Tennessee. I plan on writing about some of that here. I will likely share thoughts about interpretation on the road. That means my writings will likely swing from racial relations in post-Civil War Tennessee to cacti, from what an inky page from over 145 years ago might mean to geology. Oh, and prostitution (again, not restricted to the American West). I think it is fair to share a disclaimer that sometimes I feel incoherent (lack of sleep and all) so maybe I will sound incoherent. Also, there is this:
At least there is a dinosaur to sooth my frustrations.
Connectivity is weird on the road, especially in parks. I know, I know: I am supposed to connect with nature! Between cell phone reception and internet, I don't always have access to sharing or posting. It's a real bummer sometimes. But I will try.  
So that's that. Here's to Everything New This Season, including the costumes.
DISCLAIMER: I still wrote all this nonsense on my own time and these are all my own thoughts! I could have been napping, but I am not!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Interpretation and Relevancy in the Aftermath of the Charleston Attack.

Before I begin, I want to offer up a full disclaimer that I'm writing on my own time on one of my off days. 

One of the great challenges for any historic site or historian is "how do we make this relevant?" In my previous career as a high school history teacher, my students used to ask, "Why do I need to know this?" The cliché answers about learning from the past never seemed to cut it. How is history relevant? 

A week ago, as you've no doubt heard, Dylann Roof, a twenty one year old self-avowed white supremacist walked into a historic African American church in Charleston and murdered nine people. At first, the national conversation was about guns. President Obama's initial statement on the attack emphasized how easy it is for people to get guns and the frequency of mass violence in this nation. Then the conversation shifted to Roof's motive. Was this an incident of mental health? Typically with these mass shootings people make the case that the real issue isn't guns, but mental health. But in this case, evidence began to emerge that this was a well planned out attack motivated by race and intended to instill terror in the black community. From there the topic shifted to race - why is it that when people of color go on politically motivated rampages it's thuggery or terrorism, but when a white kid does it it's a mental health issue? 

The Confederate flag flies at full staff (Wall St. Journal photo)

As the city of Charleston began to mourn, Governor Nikki Haley ordered state and national flags in South Carolina lowered to half staff - all except one. By state law, the Confederate flag that flies on the state house grounds cannot be raised or lowered without the approval of 2/3 of the legislature. So we have a situation where flags are symbolically at half staff in mourning for the victims of racial violence, but the most racially charged symbol in the city remained proudly waving at full staff. From there, the internet exploded and calls to take down Confederate flags and symbols reached a fever pitch. In less than a week the national debate shifted from gun control to mental health to race to the Confederate flag. Politicians started coming out in support of taking down the Confederate flag - even Strom Thurmond's son spoke out. Major retailers announced that they'd no longer carry Confederate flags for sale. The governor of Alabama even ordered the flags removed from the state house there. They've come a long way since George Wallace. 

Seemingly everybody has an opinion on what's going on. Many see this as an assault on their southern heritage or the relentless assault of the PC police. Still others view this as a long awaited victory and a small time towards racial justice and equality. People debate, with varying degrees of understanding, the role of race and slavery in the Civil War and Reconstruction. The things we talk about everyday in our sites - slavery, states rights, motives of Union and Confederate soldiers - are suddenly all over Facebook, Twitter, social media, dinner table conversations. You could say that the Civil War has gone "viral." One of my Facebook friends, irritated with the fevered debates posted, "I didn't realize so many of my facebook friends had attended college and studied History, specializing in Nineteenth Century American History and Reconstruction in the post-war south... So for those of you who have, speak on, for the rest of you, isn't Maury on?" I jokingly chimed in on his post, "Hey, I did!" 

And that brings me back to where I started - relevancy. (Relevancy; noun: the condition of being relevantor connected with the matter at hand) 

For years, historic sites and interpreters have struggled with this idea - How do we remain relevant? We've tried everything from social media outreach to kids camps. We've created huge campaigns or events to attract new audiences. We've long held an attitude of "If you build it they will come," with varying degrees of limited success. Suddenly, and without prompting from us, the entire nation is talking about the Civil War and its legacy. Our sites and our stories are relevant in ways that they've never been before. Why are we important has never been so clear for so many people on both sides of this debate. The sites where thousands of men fought and died are inextricably "connected with the matter at hand," whether we want them to be or not. The choice we as interpreters are confronted with is "What do we do now?" Do we continue to do the same programs as if nothing has changed? Will we still focus almost exclusively on the movements and positioning of men and material on a landscape? Will we simply describe the process by which a weapon is loaded and fired? Will we bury our heads in the sand as if nothing is happening? Will we quietly change the subject when somebody starts ranting or asking questions? Will we agree with them, or argue with them? Will we grumble in paranoia that "they" (whoever that is) will make us stop doing Confederate living history programs? The academic historian community has been out there the last week - posting blogs, giving interviews, they even got a topic trending on Twitter - #CharlestonSyllabus. Where have our historic sites and interpreters been? We don't have to take sides on the issue, but we can at least facilitate a conversation.

It may feel crass to think about what are we going to do as interpreters in our sites. Nine people are being buried this weekend. But the parks aren't closing down just because of the tragedy. We aren't canceling programs. Whether we're ready or not, Saturday is coming, and with it hundreds or thousands of people, nearly all of whom have been glued to news the last week and they're looking for answers, places to vent, places to talk, or places to escape. We can't just pretend that doesn't exist and point at red and blue lines on a map.

*Once again - the opinions expressed in this blog are mine do not reflect that of my employer or colleagues. This was written on my day off while sitting at home on my own time.  

Friday, April 24, 2015

Shifting the Narrative

Yesterday, I bumped into a long-time, long-distance buddy of mine at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. It was serendipity, to say the least; he lives in Maryland and I only found myself at the archives because a school group was late, so I had a little bit of free time. During our short chat, he reminded me that sometimes the most harmful kind of censorship is self-censorship. Honesty moment: sometimes I don't want to share things on here because I am afraid of sharing my own weaknesses or sounding basic or feeling inadequate. I like to think that this is "my space" and I can say what I want, but sometimes, I don't. So with his words in mind, I modified this post that I wrote last week and will share it today:

The National Council on Public History had its annual meeting in Nashville last week (was that just last week??). In many ways, I had been preparing for the conference for nearly a year; the tour company I co-manage sponsored the meeting and had a variety of tours available for attendees. So technically, I was working the conference, though I tried to fit in as much attending as I could. The limited amount of time I had in sessions provoked a variety of thoughts; I have several pages of scrawling ideas to sort through in the near future. I think I had an NCPH hangover; all of those ideas hung in my head like a fog and I am just now feeling enough clarity to pick up the projects I had set aside for the conference.

 However, even amongst the waves upon waves of ideas, questions, and engagement, it was the question of a 10 year old boy that got me a'thinkin:

Student groups are my heart; I love the engagement, intrigue, and insight of these young minds.

During the conference, our regularly-scheduled tours went in addition to the to the conference tours. We had one group of nearly 90 fourth graders out to explore the history of downtown Nashville by taking a hike through it. The students as a group were great- well behaved, high-energy, willing to participate. At one point, right after I finished talking about the suffrage movement in Nashville leading up to the year 1920, I opened up for questions. The students had good questions (many asked "why" and "why did that happen" and that warmed my humanities heart... keep asking, kids!). One boy raised his hand and asked "I don't want to seem rude, but back then didn't people of different skin get treated differently? Did that mean black women were allowed to vote, or just white women?"

Do you know, I have given this tour hundreds of times to a variety of audiences and never has anybody asked me that? I answered to boy as honestly as I could. Yes, they did but there were still people at that time who tried to restrict their access to votes.  In fact, prior to the 19th amendment taking affect, there were meetings by white women in Nashville who expressed their own concern if the women of color also got the vote.

That boy's question has been churning in me ever since. As I tell stories of the past, I still gravitate toward a narrative that focuses on the white experience as the "core" and weave other people groups and stories throughout. I use the word "enslaved" when I am talking about "enslaved." I make sure to talk about immigrants, and immigrant contributions, (an easy thing to do when talking about various labor forces in Nashville history). I even use the interpretive tool of suggesting what would life be like in "their shoes" (referring to a variety of folk of a variety of ages, colors, and genders, not just major white characters). I remind visitors that people were here before the white settlement, that civilizations were here before whites even had an eye on this land. I am always asking myself "how can I do better?" and I am constantly reassessing how a story can be told to better convey the richness of the past. When I tell a story about the suffrage movement and one city's contributions, I have to remember that not everybody had the same experience.

That hit me especially hard when the next student group I worked with was a diverse high school group from Georgia. During the tour, the only thing I could think about what the diversity of theoretical pasts. Depending on the era I was talking about, each student would have had a totally different experience. It was jolting for me as a story teller.

Now, before you go and say, "duh, Elizabeth, everybody knows that," I want to be honest.

I have been dealing with a lot of "do-over" ideas the past few weeks, including how to best share an inclusive story. The concept of how we do history is more of a reflection of our generation is something I "learned" in school but that I am continually re-understanding, re-absorbing. The idea that white people aren't the only people is something I learned way back in second grade (my generation is the one who grew up with boxes of crayons produced by Crayola that included only shades of skin tone as a means of encouraging diversity). How do we shift that commonly-told narrative? When the lens has been set one way for so long, how do we readjust the focal point? When do we stop celebrating various groups in their assigned "History Month(s)" and start incorporating them consistently into the core?

The complexity of history challenges, confounds, and surprises. I have a sneaking suspicion that that is never going to change.

And before you ask, I am working on my own shifts in how I share history. It is a process.

*As with all my writings on this blog, I write this on my own time. These thoughts are my own and do not represent any of the companies or organizations of which I affiliate.

**I see hope in the future if those are the types of questions that fourth graders ask.

***I am still pretty stoked about that serendipitous meeting yesterday. Of all the days and all the people! Thanks for the encouragement, Mr. M!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Paid in Sunsets, Sort of.

I am going to be up front here. Once upon a time, while I still worked for the National Park Service, I wrote a post on this very blog. The next day, (on my day off) I received a call from my supervisor because she had received a call from the superintendent because she had received a call from somebody in the Washington Office. Do you know the level of stress that smothered me? The one activity where I found solace (blogging) in a tough place put me on a hot plate. I was doing nothing wrong (I only wrote on my days off and my bio stated that my opinions were my own). I was told, however, I needed to do a better job of making it clear that what I was writing did not reflect the opinions of the National Park Service and that writing could get me into trouble. It was bullshit then, it is bullshit now. If anything, my supervisor should have been happy to know one of her employees loved what she did so much, she continued to explore these ideas even in her off time. If anything, the National Park Service should have been happy to have somebody willing to share how some of the program development (even the criticism part) operates. I was a lowly GS-05 park guide. What harm could I do?

Now, I don't work for the National Park Service. I advocate for parks, I research for parks. Sometimes, I even visit parks just to visit them. I don't worry about getting a call about what I write. I don't worry about getting reprimanded for work that ultimately also earned me an award (true story). I don't worry that what I write here might impede my getting hired later. This is my space. I can ramble on all I want and you don't have to read it. I can delete everything and you don't have to care. In my past, I remained incredibly vague about the struggles I had while working with the park service. It got to the point where I had more shitty days than good ones and nothing is worth the mental or emotional drain; even a "dream" job. With all that being said, here come some reflections that I have kept inside for many years.

Yesterday, somebody tagged me about a Call for Papers issued by the National Park Traveler Publication. Yes, two and a half years after my official "good-bye," the green and grey identity follows me. It got me thinking. If I were to write something, there is so much I could address: poor hiring practices, "do less with less," even how this publication clearly understands "parks" as natural sites when there are far more historic resources managed by the service. After the brief moment of "coulds," I went about my day as I usually do: chores, work, more chores, more work. While I am still intrigued about the National Park Service (one does not study the history of the National Park Service and then work for the National Park Service without still feeling a little connection to the National Park Service), it did not consume my day. Later in the evening, however, I saw Abbi on twitter make mention of being a "recovering park ranger." I am that! I am one of those! I have never met Abbi, I just follow her on the Twitterverse and replied to one of her tweets last night. Little did I know her comment would open a flood of conversation on Twitter by a series of current and former folks associated with the National Park Service.

First, it made me sad to see others experiencing the same struggles I did when I worked for the National Park Service. There is a disparate understanding of the National Park Service depending on the viewer. The average visitor sees a friendly park ranger and fields or historic homes or forests or rivers and says "wow, this is a great job with great benefits." However, the National Park Service ranks 213th in employee satisfaction out of the 314 comparable federal government agencies. That's not good. How employees feel, are even told how to feel, and what the public's perception are very different things.

Yes, when I worked for the National Park Service, I was told about our "benefits." Early in my career, with my bells on my toes and stars in my eyes, I was entirely ok with working hard to earn my way up the career ladder. I did work well above my pay-grade and ultimately, it paid off. Through the "SCEP" program, I eventually got a permanent job. It was a GS-05 park guide job, but it was permanent. That's the dream, right? Be a permanent park ranger? Oh, except I was a "guide" and was reminded more than once that there is a difference. Oh, and I was runner up to several jobs; in several cases the candidate hired knew the supervisor (or supervisor knew the candidate). That's ok, I thought. It just means keep trying harder. Even if you drive yourself into the ground because the system is not built to encourage and cultivate innovative or quality work. It is still a bureaucracy. It just happens to be a cultish bureaucracy that "pays in sunsets."

From my first season, a friend of mine captured the
quintessential park ranger (not pointing at things).

The cult of the National Park Service starts with identity. Wearing the green and grey is your honor, your duty, your identity. We come from a long line of park rangers! It is a noble job! The mountains are calling yadda, yadda, yadda! This cult also cultivates a sense that the National Park Service is all there is. I know many people and parks within the agency who have a hard time with being true partners because they believe the NPS is the only way. No other agency, organization, or group can do it better than the NPS. This notion ultimately bleeds back into the identity. If there is no National Park Service, then what is there?! People thinking of leaving the National Park Service must be crazy and what else is there?!

I know where this question was coming from, but I was recently asked if I was happy after leaving the National Park Service. Yes. Yes, it is possible to exist outside the National Park Service and be happy. In fact, it is possible to exist outside the National Park Service AND be happy AND still advocate for parks. Weird, right?

 It also took me a while to figure out I could also do other things. I dedicated several years and much energy (and invested a great deal of money into a degree) for what I wanted to be my end goal. Ultimately, my wants and goals changed the more I worked for the National Park Service. It did not work out the way I originally intended, but I am at peace with it. It saddens me that the struggle is real for others, though. You have to give yourself permission to live life on your own terms. If that means stepping away from the National Park Service, then step away. If it means finding another federal agency, find another agency. If it means an entire career switch, switch careers. I knew I would encounter questions and even some resistance when I left. One person even told me "aren't you like 'Miss NPS,' how can you just leave?" teasing about my complete passion for what I did. I knew I would struggle after leaving, but I also knew my identity was not tied to the green and grey.

Some people who work for the NPS might read this now and think "that doesn't sound like me, I love my job/co-workers/park/resources/uniformed mom pants." That's ok, too. But may I suggest you appreciate that because it is not service-wide. And maybe some who work for the NPS right now will read this and not want to think about how the agency you love has also systematically screwed over countless quality workers. There is still a lot that needs to be said. There is a lot that the NPS needs to hear.

While sometimes I feel like the relationship I have with the National Park Service
is like that of one with a bad ex-boyfriend, it does not stop me from reminiscing.

I still have more to say about why people struggle. I still have my thoughts on the hiring practices that are not always effective. I still have thoughts about how the National Park Service works as a machine, assuming that people are likes cogs and wheels and easily interchangeable. I still have thoughts about how the service that I hold dear to my heart has burned so many good workers. Maybe I will write an essay for that call of papers. Maybe I will write those thoughts here. Or maybe not. Just know this: recovering park rangers are never alone.

 *Hells to the yes, I am adding an additional disclaimer about how I am NOT an employee of the National Park Service and these thoughts are MINE all MINE. Why would I break that over-three-year-old trend?

**I am still trying to figure out how to use Storify to capture the essence of the conversation that happened on the Twitters. It was a good one. If I get around to it, I will share it here. If I don't, you should be able to roughly follow along via my feed and the shared tweets.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

When Capes and Cloaks Go On Display

History is messy. There is no easy way around that. Museums and other public sites have to take that messy history and present it in a way that is compartmentalized (often by space, whether it is wall space, room space, or case space). These places have to present all of this in a manner that is accessible and makes sense (often the linear story- this happened, then this, then this...). And, of course, collection items should be included (the "stuff" is important! people like stuff!) to help visually tell the story.

I meandered through the Tennessee State Museum the other day; I knew they had their Reconstruction Era exhibit out (I pass the building on foot several times a week and they have a banner advertising such). "What is to Become of the People: The Civil War and Reconstruction in Tennessee" will be on display until June. I also knew that the museum had Ku Klux Klan regalia in the collection and years ago (possibly even as an exercise as a graduate student) I had a conversation about whether or not it would be a good idea to display this robe. No, controversy. Yes, education. No, it represents a poor part of our history. Yes, it can ignite a dialogue. There is no doubt in my mind that there was plenty of conversations about this amongst museum staff in planning meetings for this exhibit. So when I went through the exhibit, I was entirely intrigued if and how they would handle this part of their collection and story.

It did not occur to me that the title of exhibit did not say "Reconstruction" outright. Initially, I was confused why the first two rooms talked about life leading up to the war and then life during the war. Ok, so the TSM decided it needed to talk about the war to contextualize the Reconstruction. In the third-ish room, images and text finally gets around to Reconstruction-y stuff, including a replicated display of a schoolroom for newly free people of color. (Remember? Stuff. People like stuff. Chalkboards count as stuff.) There is information about the struggles for newly-freed folks, for poor white folks, for isolated populations, and rural places.

As I turned the corner to the almost-final room, I saw it. While I knew exactly what it was from afar, I tried to pretend I did not know what that garment represented. It was my own attempt at pretending to be a visitor.

I read some of the panels of the walls, first. How was the museum going to treat this portion of Reconstruction? The panels included scenes of some of the violence like the contemporary newspapers.

Caption reads: "Scenes in Memphis, Tennessee, during the riot --
Shooting down negroes on the morning of May 2, 1866. -- [Sketched by A.R.K.]"
Titles like "Epidemic of Violence" and "The Politics of Terror" hovered above printed paragraphs on the wall. There were some illustrative stories and a few statistics. The text in one panel states that while there is no sure way to know, the 1868 Tennessee legislative committee tasked with investigating the crimes of the Klan estimated that "from March through August of that year, the Klan had murdered an average of one person a day." And then when you look at the associated display, there is this:

The Klan robe, a photo of a Klansmen, a political cartoon, and a few associated pieces (including a KKK pin that acknowledged Nathan Bedford Forrest as a leader) are displayed with accompanying informational text. In the corner of the basement of the state museum is displayed one of the most atrocious, festering, blistering scars in our nation's history, brazenly quiet. I want to applaud the museum for putting it out, but I also hang my head in how it just leaves this whole issue wide open with neither provocation nor questions. Missed potential by a public institution, yet again!

While thinking about what was there, what was missing, and what maybe could have been included to strengthen this exhibit, I wandered about the room to see what other items were on display. I saw this:

What is it, you ask? Why, it is Mary Bedford's cape! Who is Mary Bedford? Why, she is Nathan Bedford Forrest's wife! Who is Nathan Bedford Forrest? I'll try to be objective here: murderer, slave trader, racist, and wait for it, considered the first leader (possibly founder) of the Ku Klux Klan. That's right, one of the more notorious white supremacy groups that terrorized folks (mostly folks of color) after the American Civil War. So actually, an appropriate term that I can apply to Forrest is "terrorist." He was an American born-and-bred terrorist. I have tried to rack through every potential reason of why displaying this cloak would be appropriate and I can't find any reason. (Maybe because it is "stuff" and people like "stuff"). The text talks about how Forrest bought this for Mary in New York when he was president of a railroad in 1870. There is no connection to this piece and other things on display (including the Governor Brownlow's inauguration jacket).

This room contains very distinct fibers woven in very distinct ways. These fibers were cut and sewn in manners to portray very specific things. A mask like this is meant to instill fear while allowing the person wearing it to act in full-cowardice mode:

The fancy cape was designed to show off wealth (mass-produced clothing had not happened, yet... let me assure you that she was not wearing any version of a "knock-off brand"). Completely from a logical standpoint, what purpose does it serve that these pieces are displayed, especially in a room together? Cue my Tour Guide Barbie voice: "Over here we have a garment worn by men who murdered and mutilated easily hundreds of souls during the years after the Civil War. And if you look over here, we have a fancy cape of the wife of the leader of the men who murdered and mutilated easily hundreds of souls during the years after the Civil War. The surprising clean condition of the white cape shows a stark contrast to the amount of blood spilled during the time she was alive but you won't find that in any of the text!"

What I was most surprised about the whole exhibit was "The End." Wait for it... That was "The End." There was a little more text about some of the legal stuff and the nation moving along. A whole lot of loose ends strewn about as I passed through the next doorway. The final room was an art exhibit (art reflecting the Civil War by Red Grooms... it was in itself an engaging exhibit but a complete disjointed jolt from what is going on in the other room). So we had a replica school and a robe. We had mentions of violence and a few images. Oh, and a misplaced cape. No conclusions, no provoking questions, no unsettling of basic understandings (or misunderstandings) of American history during the years following a civil war.

History is messy. We don't get to change that. However, we do have a choice on how we deal with the messy, especially when interacting with the public. Provocation leads to conversations. Provocation leads to further investigation. Provocation leads to questioning. Hell, provocation might lead to news stories published and people losing their minds (which is what I think encouraged the great deal of reservation exercised in the development of this exhibit). But that can also lead to more people engaging and more people visiting and more people joining this conversation. Put that robe on display in the middle, put it on a mannequin that looked like it was doing something. If you can have props like a chalkboard, why not have props like a noose? People like stuff and stuff can convey greater meanings. It is 2015. We aren't hiding behind "oh, it is in the past" anymore. We aren't even hiding behind "oh, only the prettier parts of the past should be on display." Hell, even "put it in the text, but use passive voice to break it to our audience gently," doesn't work. The violence was real and had long-lasting consequences. Public spaces are meant for engagement and hiding the robe in the corner isn't going to do much engaging.

Historians who engage with the public, whether front line interpreters or exhibit designers have a great deal of potential and responsibility. Our first step: acknowledging the messy. Our second step: facilitating the messy. It might be a struggle, but it is our challenge. Maybe it means historians standing up and being brave about this messy history. In the words of Sara Bareilles: "I want to see you be brave."

*For my annoying disclaimer, I wrote this on my own time and visited the museum on my own time as a member of the public. I am not associated with the Tennessee State Museum although I am constantly suggesting to visitors from out-of-town to visit. And I want to acknowledge the challenges of doing history within government-y confines (I have been there, done that). Envelope-pushing is still allowed, though.

**Edit: I changed the date of the Tennessee legislative committee to reflect the accurate year.