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.