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.