I had an interesting and unusual interaction with a visitor to my place of employment (Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site) the other day.
One of the main features in our park is a brief 16-minute film in the site’s Visitor Center theater. We typically run the film on request throughout the day for visitors seeking a basic background on U.S. Grant. The film does a fine job of illuminating Grant’s life experiences, but at the end of the day it’s the most “optional” aspect of the site experience. If you’re running short on time, you can probably skip it and still get a lot out of your experience via the historic house tour and museum.
We temporarily shut down the film for a few hours to accommodate a special program that took place in the theater this weekend. During that time a visitor walked in and immediately asked about watching the film. After telling her that we temporarily shut down the film she became visibly distraught, commenting that “I brought relatives from Denver to visit the site today! Had I known the film would be shut down we wouldn’t have come.”
How do you respond to this visitor in an appropriate manner?
I responded by saying that the historic White Haven estate (pictured above) is the reason the National Park Service is here at this site. There’s only one White Haven where you can learn about and walk in the same house that Ulysses Grant, Julia Dent Grant, Frederick Dent (Julia’s father), and Fredrick’s enslaved people lived and worked. You can watch literally hundreds of films about Grant on TV and online, but there’s only one place where you can take a ranger-led tour and connect important stories about our nation’s history to a tangible artifact like White Haven. The Park Service preserves and interprets history, nature, and culture throughout the United States, and it wouldn’t be around if they only showed films about history. While we regretted that the film was temporarily shut down, we hoped they would stay for a tour and watch the film once we got it going again after the conclusion of this special program.
There was a happy end to the story and the group thankfully took my response to heart. They stayed for a tour, spent time in the museum, and were able to watch the film later in the day. At the end of their visit they left a very kind message about our resources in our guestbook.
I don’t have any grand insights about this interaction, but it reminded me of the importance many visitors place on film as a way of understanding history. For historians like myself who invest a lot of stock in scholarly monographs and journal articles it is easy to forget that most people do not learn about history through those mediums. Feature-length historical dramas, reenactments, and documentaries–regardless of how “accurate” historians deem them to be–captivate wide, diverse audiences who often take them to be “what actually happened” in the past. Millions of people have seen “12 Years a Slave,” “Lincoln,” and/or “Django Unchained” on film over the past few years. By contrast, we will probably interact with about 40,000 visitors at ULSG this year, and maybe a few hundred or 1,000 people will read Ed Baptist’s new book about slavery in the next twelve months. As much as we want a large audience that reads innovate scholarship about the topics we care about, we must acknowledge the myriad ways people come to understand their past beyond books.
Within the context of public history (and more specifically the National Park Service), film plays an important role in helping visitors orient themselves to a site and its mission. Many visitors of all ages come to ULSG without any knowledge of Ulysses S. Grant or the Civil War, while others come with preconceived notions that were shaped by classroom experiences forty, fifty, and sixty years ago. They expect to see an orientation film that provides important information about a site and the history it interprets, and they consider these films an important part of their public history experiences.
P.S.: For those interested, Teresa Bergman’s Exhibiting Patriotism: Creating and Contesting Interpretations of American Historic Sites has some pretty good content about orientation films at public history sites and how they shape the historic narratives told at these places.