When Fun and Entertainment Overshadow Understanding at Historical Sites

The McLean House at Oak Ridge, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco
The McLean House at Oak Ridge, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Photo Credit: Nick Sacco

I believe there are three basic ingredients for doing good public history work:

  1. A deep knowledge of historical content and methods
  2. An ability to effectively communicate the stuff of history to diverse audiences
  3. An understanding of visitor motivations – why they visit historical sites in the first place, how they construct knowledge, and what they bring with them and take away from these sites.

If we think of public history as a three-legged stool, we can see that missing any one leg will lead to the whole stool falling apart. I have recently discussed in several posts the potential consequences of leaving any one “stool leg” out of a given interpretive program. In a post about the future of historical reenacting I suggested that programs that are heavy on historical content but offer no opportunity for visitors to contribute their own meanings and perspectives to the experience run the risk of alienating future audiences from reenactments. Conversely, I pointed out in a different post this past June that programs that are light on historical content but heavy on gimmicky activities run the risk of excessively valuing fun and entertainment over understanding and respect for the past. This lesson hit me particularly hard while visiting a number of historical sites during a recent vacation to Germany, where things like historical reenactments seem unconscionable and inappropriate at most sites. And as I suggested in a paper I wrote for a panel at the National Council on Public History’s 2015 meeting, many interpretive programs have no evaluative mechanisms to allow for future program improvements or visitor feedback.

While browsing Twitter yesterday I came across an article from the team at “Museum Hack” about recent efforts to overhaul the interpretive program focus at the Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area. I have followed Museum Hack for a while and like some of their ideas, but unfortunately their program ideas for HCWHA represent what I see as the consequences of embracing excessively gimmicky activities at the expense of historical thinking and understanding.

There are two different programs under discussion here. One covers interpretation on Civil War Battlefields, while the other discusses a historic weapons exhibit within a museum setting. The underlying premise of these revised programs is that “Millennial audiences [don’t] seem to appreciate the historical significance of America’s Civil War as much as previous generations did.” They also note that HCWHA bans historical reenacting at its site. To address these problems for the first program, the Museum Hack team devised a dance routine that mimics troop movements during the battle. A video of that dance is posted on the aforementioned Museum Hack article.

The second program at the historic weapons exhibit conceives Civil War weapons as tools to be used in helping visitors “survive the Zombie Apocalypse.” Here the idea is that social media and pop culture can be utilized to attract younger audiences to Civil War history by challenging them to learn about historic weapons and then choosing one to help them fight zombies in a fashion similar to the show “The Walking Dead.”

I think there are a lot of problems with these interpretive approaches. For one, there are some unfortunate assumptions about so-called “millennials” based on bad research about the way they think about and process information. Most notably these programs assume that interpretation must be super-dooper fun and entertaining in order for young people to be interested in them, and that the old, stuffy way of doing history will not be of any interest to them. “Let’s face it, you ARE competing with Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter,” the team argues. This dichotomy, however, sells millennials short by underestimating their intelligence, emotion, and passion for learning about the world around them, and how technology simultaneously enhances and hinders that effort. Does a millennial need an interpretive dance on a battlefield–a place where somebody’s father, son, brother, or friend died–to understand the deathly carnage and political consequences of the Civil War? Does it not come off as a bit trivializing to talk about Civil War weapons in the context of zombie apocalypses when these weapons were designed for and contributed to the deadliest war in American history? Does a millennial need Walking Dead references and hungry zombies to get into historic weapons? And where’s any discussion of slavery or race in all of this?

To be sure, I’m all for experimenting with a range of interpretive methods. I’ve always argued that public history can’t be done with a one-size-fits-all method, and perhaps someone will get something out of these ideas. But we are living in a world that is slowly but surely being shaped by an emerging millennial generation. It is an age of Black Lives Matter protests, Confederate flags being lowered, intense violence at home and endless war abroad, and harried debates about popular government, citizenship, and belonging in the United States today. The American Civil War has much relevance to these topics and the millennials who are now making their own history. We should let that story shine through in our interpretive programs, but in these particular cases I think that story gets lost in interpretive gimmicks.


6 thoughts on “When Fun and Entertainment Overshadow Understanding at Historical Sites

  1. Hello from Nick at Museum Hack, and thanks for writing about our work! I’ll share your post and comments w/my colleagues as they are way smarter than me. I just wanted to chime in to say thanks for sharing your critique in public and you make some good points.

  2. Interesting insights from the POV of someone on the other side of the tourist visit.

    I am not sure about the reference to battlefield interpretive dance. Why is that problematic? The was an interpretive dance here in NY at the site of the ruins of a mental hospital that attracted a lot of attention to a forgotten site. Wouldn’t events like that bring new visitors and new attention? A lot of people around me understand the world more through art than history. Art invites the person experiencing it to engage and posit meanings connected to the individual’s experience and imagination. That can be a more active engagement than one can have at a lecture or reenactment where the visitor is being asked to accept the interpreter’s narrative or analysis.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Pat. You make a very good point in that art allows people new opportunities to create meaningful experiences that aren’t necessarily filtered through a “sage on the stage.” I watched the video several times and just personally found it gimmicky and awkward. That’s not to say that someone else might get a lot out of the experience – indeed, people create knowledge in many different ways. But I think the context of the dance is crucial. A interpretive program like the play “Hamilton” resonates with many people because it’s a creative way of using art to illustrate some of the central political debates of our nation’s founding. A dance at a mental hospital might highlight the struggles of the patients at that hospital and how they tried to make sense of their lives there. A dance at a Civil War battlefield, I fear, runs the risk of glorifying and/or trivializing something that was quite deadly and consequential. But again, I acknowledge that there are numerous ways to approach interpretive history.

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