Fear and Loathing at St. Louis Civil War History Sites

A few of us at work had an extended conversation today about a Facebook post that is getting attention and making the rounds. The post came from a concerned parent here in St. Louis who visited two public history sites that interpret Civil War history with a school group and came away unimpressed. I urge readers to check out the post. I am not sure how well-versed this person is in Civil War history or museum education initiatives, but she does a pretty good job of highlighting how supposedly “neutral” Civil War sites often end up–whether intentionally or unintentionally–downplaying slavery’s role in the coming of the war while glorifying the Confederacy and lamenting its demise. She also highlights a particularly troubling discussion at one site about Civil War gun bullets that turned into a discussion about the sorts of weapons police officers used during the 2014 events in Ferguson.

For some practitioners and scholars in the field these complaints are nothing new. Indeed, the National Park Service’s efforts to revise its interpretive programs to more accurately discuss the causes, context, and consequences of the Civil War date back to the 1990s when Dwight Pitcaithley was Chief Historian of the agency. But what I see at play here is a continued disconnect between the work of larger federal agencies and non-profits and the work of some smaller publicly- and privately-run museums that are operating on shoestring budgets. Many of these places are run by volunteers or by employees who don’t have the time to dig into professional development sessions or new historical scholarship. They are too busy dealing with budgets, fundraising, outreach efforts, and the daily grind of working in a museum. For example, one time a small museum owner openly admitted to me that not a single employee of his had any sort of training in education or interpretation. I rarely meet people at professional development workshops or the annual National Council on Public History conference who are coming from the small museum world, and I understand why. Mary Rizzo wrote a brief article about small museums in Public History News that further explores the challenges these small sites face.

These challenges don’t excuse teaching bad history to visitors, however.

Two other points stuck out to me in this post. Speaking about parents and teachers on the trip she mentions that “no one wanted to discuss this history and its implications on this history field trip.” That’s a pretty astute comment. Different school groups bring different interest levels with them to these sites, but it’s always tough from my end when I interact with a group where things feel artificial and everyone goes on vacation mode. I blame that mentality partly on teachers and parents who don’t prep students for these trips and partly on public historians who put together bad programs and dull presentations.

The other point I noticed was the general feeling of intimidation students felt while at these sites. “You are told to say, Thank you,” she says. It’s unfortunate whenever someone feels this way while visiting a public history site, and I’m sure there are people in this field that would say the best museum is one with no one in it. But I think we need to be ones saying “thank you” to our visitors. We don’t exist if nobody comes to our sites, and in an age of Netflix, TV, and the internet to distract us 24 hours a day, we should cherish the presence of every visitor who takes time out of their day to visit a cultural institution. And we should do everything in our power to remove any semblance of an artificial hierarchy that puts our visitors in a place of submission or intimidation. You can see how easily this occurred at the two sites mentioned in the Facebook post. Hopefully we in the Park Service can use this opportunity to check our own practices and extend a helping hand to some of the small sites in our area.

Cheers

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5 responses

  1. Nice observation (here and on Twitter) about the professional organizations and their distance from small museum realities. I know that AASLH is the best place to go on these matters… Related is that the public historian dialog–at least the academic-leaning side I am attuned to–wants to only talk about monuments and rarely, if ever, how post-Charleston interpretation of Civil War topics happens in museums and sites using living history, artifacts, buildings, landscapes, and face-to-face methods. Will the upcoming AASLH webinar get beyond monuments? We’ll see.

    As for this concerned citizen… she frustrates me. She is right. I think that the further we get along here (better history education, a population that is detached from the romance of the war, the social media habit of having your voice validated…) the more we are going to have to talk about the war and the Confederacy in ways that she expects. The world of Civil War interpretation at small museums could sure use some forthright talk about slavery, and in an interpretive voice that makes visitors squirm. And what she claims on behalf of her African American students should absolutely give us pause. But her expectations are sadly conventional. She, like any neo-Confederate or any other visitor to any other museum, doesn’t seem to want to learn, she wants her interpretive vision validated. And her interpretive vision is that anything that casts humanity on Confederates is intolerable.

    Fine. That’s not how I do history, but we need to find a way to appeal to her. Looking between the lines of her post, these interpreters were not well trained. Nor were their programs well framed. Here is where your observation that high-level training for this sort of thing is sorely lacking, is right on. Further, I think that most places employing living history methods are sleep-walking through it. First person, like she encountered, is incredibly difficult to pull off without some kind of silliness or miscommunication happening…

    Ok, I’m about to descend into incoherent rambling, so I’m going to stop for now.

    1. This is a really smart comment, and I’m glad I’m not the only who sees a bit of disconnect between the big and small institutions. Your point here is also particularly well taken:

      “her expectations are sadly conventional. She, like any neo-Confederate or any other visitor to any other museum, doesn’t seem to want to learn, she wants her interpretive vision validated. And her interpretive vision is that anything that casts humanity on Confederates is intolerable.”

      I completely agree. I think this concerned parent did a pretty good job of outlining some serious interpretive problems at these museums, but there is room to critique a few of her points, and we do run the risk of going too far the other way by making any mention of a Confederate soldier taboo or offensive.

    2. Where is the evidence that “her interpretive vision is that anything that casts humanity on Confederates is intolerable”? Her complaint at Hanley House is that black people who lived or worked at the site don’t seem to be the subjects of interpretation at all. She also says that white slaveowners were treated uniformly sympathetically at the site without much reflection on their decision to own black people.

      Frankly, I don’t see any reason to take children, black or otherwise, to such a site.

      1. Hi Pat,

        I made that claim based on her apparent impatience with the portrayal of Jenny as grief stricken, and heroic. Those are states that actual Confederate women actually experienced and are part of the historical record. She felt they stood in the way of visitor access to a more accurate portrayal of Jenny’s enslaved women. (I don’t disagree.)

        I admit that I was conflating her interpretation with that of this woman, who had no time for hearing about the experience of Confederate women. http://www.everywhereist.com/the-revisionist-narrative-of-the-north-carolina-museum-of-history-raleigh/

        1. Thanks for the clarification.

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