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.

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