Sunday, August 2, 2015

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.

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