Throughout the 1850s, the abolitionist William Still played a crucial role in assisting hundreds of enslaved people seeking freedom along the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. However, Still was unique among Underground Railroad conductors in that he actively took notes on the enslaved freedom seekers who sought refuge with him. The act of note-taking was a very risky move given that the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act mandated that all Northerners living in non-slave states were required to assist the federal government in returning freedom seekers to their enslavers.
In any case, Still compiled his notes and published a book in 1872, The Underground Railroad, to demonstrate the heroism of the freedom seekers who sought refuge with him.
A new biography of Still by William C. Kashatus was published was published just last year with Notre Dame University Press, William Still: The Underground Railroad and the Angel at Philadelphia. Included this book was a very comprehensive appendix with information on nearly 1,000 freedom seekers who sought refuge with Still. This appendix was organized by the late James McGowan and Kashatus. After some personal contemplation, I decided that I wanted to create a downloadable dataset featuring Still’s Underground Railroad in order to make this information more readily available. Using a combination of the McGowan/Kashatus information along with some of my own research, I produced that dataset and recently made it available to the public.
In 2019, the American Historical Association published a fascinating study titled “History, the Past, and Public Culture: Results from a National Survey.” Broken up into ten different chapters, this study saw thousands of people respond to a 40-question survey about their relationship to history. Among other things, the study asked respondents to define what history means to them, what their experiences were like in history classes growing up, and what aspects of history they wanted to learn more about. One of the most fascinating chapters of the study asks respondents to explain what mediums they use to better understand history.
The first thought that came to my mind when seeing this chapter was that the internet had to be the number one source for obtaining information about history. Historians and lay audiences often spend a lot of time online, after all, and scholars of all different disciplines have been pre-occupied with promoting media literacy in recent years given the preponderance of misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories online.
Much to my surprise, however, only 59 percent of respondents stated that they relied on a “non-Wikipedia” source online to learn about history and only 46 percent relied on Wikipedia as a source. In other words, only about six in ten people use the internet as a source for obtaining information history.
Instead, the survey found that the top three sources relied on by respondents were documentary films/TV series (69%), fictional movies/TV series (66%), and TV News (62% – yikes). As the study itself noted, “the top three choices were all video format . . . of note is that such sources are readily available, usually take minimal effort to engage, and may ask for little imagination on the part of the viewer.” For a variety of reasons, televised historical content does the best at reaching people where they are and meeting them on their own terms. Moreover, these results give the impression that casual viewers are more interested in watching content in a visual format rather than reading that content in a digital or print paper form.
I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the implications of this study, but my own TV watching habits led me to an unlikely source of enlightenment: Tony Soprano.
Tony Soprano is a history enthusiast. He cares greatly about his family’s history, his neighborhood’s history, and the history of the United States more broadly. He likes talking about history at the dinner table. He likes to watch old black-and-white movies and History Channel documentaries, particularly about World War II, in his free time. Very perceptively, Tony also distinguishes between history and nostalgia, arguing in one of my favorite lines of the series that “‘Remember when’ is the lowest form of conversation.” Tony’s life is full of chaos, but those rare moments at the TV set provide watching the History Channel provide some sense of normalcy.
Importantly, other sources of information about history—the internet, history books (popular history or academic history), lectures, museums, historic sites, or a formal classroom–do not figure into Tony’s life. After all, he’s a busy guy in a face-to-face industry. There’s been a lot of change with the internet between 2007 and 2022, but I suspect that many people, particular baby boomers and older, still don’t spend a great deal of time online.
I think the point of my thoughts here is that while I am someone who prefers to read historical content with an academic flavor, I am constantly reminded that the vast majority of history enthusiasts do not consume history the same way I do. Public history, as I have said time and time again, is about meeting people where they are. In this case of Tony Soprano, that means working to ensure that historical documentaries convey good information to their audiences. After all, some people who watch these documentaries might “graduate” to learning more online, visiting a historic site, or reading a book, but many viewers like Tony Soprano might never go beyond watching that documentary. I totally get it. I love watching National Geographic documentaries about nature, but I don’t have many books about science in my library. My interest in science is to a large extent centered around the television and an occasional science museum visit. It’s not that I don’t care about science so much as that we all have busy lives that require us to choose what we want to be experts in.
Moving forward, I’m going to try and work on taking more time to study history documentaries and to think more critically about their format and content delivery. I found Brooks Simpson’s review of the History Channel’s 2020 documentary, Grant, to be quite enlightening on this front. I also applaud the work of my colleagues in the history department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who have designed an innovative course on documentary filmmaking for public history graduate students that teaches them the basics of historical interpretation, script writing, and video editing in Adobe Premiere Pro. Such a course could be valuable for public historians wanting to pursue their passion for history through film and television.
Robert E. Lee has had a rough couple years on the commemorative landscape front. His statue in New Orleans was removed in 2017, his statue in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol was removed last year, and his statue in Richmond, Virginia was removed a few days ago. While Lee’s legacy is still celebrated by a large number of Americans, it is clear that his presence within the nation’s public commemoration of the American Civil War through monuments, memorials, and statues is changing. A majority of residents within these local communities have expressed their values through activism and voting and have declared that Lee is no longer worthy of the public commemoration that he has enjoyed for more than 100 years. As our understanding of the past is constantly revised as new evidence comes to life and new interpretations are offered by historians, so too are public icons revised as new understandings of the past emerge.
There are plenty of debates to be had about the merits of Lee’s statues on historical and aesthetic grounds and the process by which these three icons were ordered to be removed through government orders. I am not interested in rehashing those debates here, but the above tweet from David Reaboi of the Claremont Institute did raise my eyebrows for what it had to say about who could participate in debates about Confederate iconography. As can be seen, Reaboi is perplexed by people who have taken a strong view of Confederate iconography but whose families have no direct connection to the Civil War since their families immigrated to the United States after the war. Reaboi labels these people (of which I’m assuming he means people opposed to Lee’s statues) as “self-righteous” and the entire idea of their participation in these debates “gross.”
I find these comments to be troubling, possibly nativist, and “gross” for a number of reasons.
On the most basic level, these comments fly in the face of inclusive commentaries about the place of immigrants and their progeny in American society. Lofty rhetoric about the United States as “A Nation of Immigrants” and legal protections in the 14th Amendment guaranteeing birthright and naturalized citizenship aim to abolish legal and cultural hierarchies between native and foreign-born citizens. In other words, once you are a citizen of the United States, it no longer matters whether you are a lifelong citizen or a citizen who became naturalized today. All citizens have the same legal protections to participate freely in American society and a right to help shape the country’s future. That would also mean the right to participate in what history is commemorated in the public square in the future, contrary to what Reaboi states.
One might also point out that a deep ancestral connection to the United States should not be fetishized. After all, there are plenty of native-born Americans with a very poor understanding of U.S. history and many foreign-born people with a strong understanding of U.S. history. It’s worth remembering, of course, that U.S. history plays an important role in the country’s naturalization test, a test that many native-born citizens would struggle with! Moreover, just because a person is descended from Robert E. Lee does not make them an expert on the American Civil War, nor does it give them an elevated voice on what should be done about Lee’s statue today. An understanding of history does not develop from genetics or through osmosis, but by use of historical methods, research, and interpretation. To say one U.S. citizen’s opinion on the Lee statue is more valid than another’s because of their ancestral origins is preposterous. What difference does it make if my ancestors came to the United States in 1826, 1866, or 2016 if I’ve studied the Civil War and have views about its history?
It is also worth mentioning that Reaboi fails to grapple with the idea that people whose descendants were here long before the American Civil War might also have a negative opinion of Confederate iconography. After all, some of the most vocal opponents of Lee’s statues are the descendants of African Americans, Native Americans, White Americans, and others who have a long ancestral history of living in the United States. The notion that the loudest “self-righteous” critics of Lee’s statues have no familial connections to the Civil War is therefore a strawman in no way rooted in the reality of the situation.
All of this is to say that NO, you do not have to have an ancestor who experienced the American Civil War firsthand in order to form an opinion on Robert E. Lee’s statue. In the end, it’s about the quality of the arguments being made and the evidence used to support those arguments. If you have a compelling argument to make, your ancestral background shouldn’t matter. Focus on the game, not the players.
Finally, I should also mention that Reaboi continued his opinions in another tweet by criticizing “our modern desire to see history as a simple morality play between forces of Progress and Evil.” The irony of this view is that public iconography is often guilty of doing this very thing by reducing complex history to a narrative of national progress and unquestioned hero worship through statuary. And since many Civil War monuments and statues were erected in the late 19th century and early 20th century, we can see that the desire to turn history into a simple morality play of progress and evil is not modern at all. These monuments and statues are actually reflective of a longstanding tradition of using history to promote nationalism, patriotism, and a “consensus” view of history. Many critics of public iconography like Robert E. Lee’s statues have grounded their criticisms on the idea that society needs to ask serious questions not just about history, but how and why we honor certain historical figures and events through public icons. Seen in this light, these critics are actually asking society to take history more seriously.
P.S… Just in case anyone is wondering about my own family connections to American history, I do have a Civil War ancestor. My great-great uncle Charles Brady served in the 49th Missouri Infantry Regiment (Union) during the war.
I took a serious interest in history as a middle schooler in the late 1990s/early 2000s, and read Loewen’s book Lies My Teacher Told Me while I was still in high school. It was probably the first book I ever read that seriously questioned the way history was taught in the classroom. Loewen clearly demonstrated that difficult aspects of U.S. history were often swept under the rug in the interest of promoting a consensus version of history that promoted loyalty to the nation at the expense of historical accuracy, and that trivial facts and rote memorization of dates often replaced discussions of causes, context, and consequences in the history classroom.
High School students hate history. When they list their favorite subjects, history invariably comes in last. Students consider history “the most irrelevant” of twenty-one subjects commonly taught in high school. Bor-r-ring is the adjective they apply to it. When students can, they avoid it, even though most students get higher grades in history than in math, science, or English. Even whey they are forced to take classes in history, they repress what they learn, so every year or two another study decries what our seventeen-year-olds don’t know.
James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, pg. 12
These were the sorts of words that inspired me to originally pursue a history teaching degree in undergrad so that I could be a part of the solution to poor teaching in the history classroom. Of course, that career track did not work out for me (I was even turned down from a position once “because we need a basketball coach”). But as I began pursuing a career in public history, Loewen’s Lies Across America probably played an even bigger role in my career development than Lies My Teacher Told Me. Loewen’s critical interrogation of public monuments, historical markers, and historic sites demonstrated the ways public history sites, just like history classrooms, often left out important stories from U.S. history in the interest of promoting consensus history. I wrote about one particularly influential story Loewen discussed in the book about Louisiana’s “Uncle Jack” statue here a few years ago. His ten questions for historic sites remains an excellent foundation for critically analyzing the interpretive focus of a given site:
Two important insights are worth further mentioning here. One is that Loewen was a gifted writer whose engaging and often humorous style really made the words jump off the page. As evidenced in my own story, a high school student could read his books and understand the arguments he made. The other insight is that many of Loewen’s arguments were not only right at the time these two books were written in the 1990s, but remain relevant to our own conversations today about history education in the classroom and public history across the United States. For example, In Lies My Teacher Told Me Loewen famously criticized the ways Christopher Columbus was hailed as a hero in the history classroom. He convincingly demonstrated the genocidal nature of Columbus’s voyage to the Western Hemisphere and forced readers to challenge their old, mythical understandings European voyages to “The New World.” While Loewen’s interpretation of Columbus has much more credence today, that was not the case in the 1990s. In Lies Across America, Loewen argued that public monuments were more reflective of the moment in which they were erected than the history they tried to commemorate, therefore demonstrating the inherently political/ideological nature of public monuments. Again, this insight is a fairly common talking point among historians today, but Loewen was already on the ball with this type of thinking thirty years ago. It’s easy to read Loewen and think that his books were written a year or two ago and not in the 1990s.
I never met Dr. Loewen personally but I’m grateful for his scholarship, which goes far beyond the two books under discussion here. You can learn more about Dr. Loewen’s scholarship by visiting his website, which had recently been created only a few months ago.
I have been a fan of Chef Gordon Ramsay for a long time, but at the start of this pandemic my wife and I decided to start watching every episode of the American version of “Kitchen Nightmares,” the popular show in which Ramsay takes a week to help a struggling restaurant on the brink of collapse. (The British version is better, but I’ve already seen all of those episodes!). In watching around 60 or 70 of these episodes over the past few months I’ve noticed certain explanations–excuses, perhaps–used by the owners of these failing restaurants that often make me think of the way we talk about struggling public history sites.
A consistent theme of Kitchen Nightmares is that many of the featured restaurants have been left in a time machine. A menu that hasn’t been updated in 30 years. Decor that is smelly and out of date. Disgusting walk-in refrigerators. Frozen food that’s lazily thrown in the microwave (sometimes defensively claimed to be FREEZER-FRESH FOOD). An ownership team that doesn’t communicate with staff, has lowered its standards of excellence, and is quick to cast blame on others. Oftentimes, when Chef Ramsay asks these confused owners why they think their restaurants are struggling, they argue that their food is a 10 out of 10 and that “this town doesn’t appreciate good food.” The old ways of doing things have been working just fine and we don’t want to alienate our loyal customers, they say.
Does any of this rhetoric sound familiar to those of us working in public history? Interpretive programs with content that is out of date and has nothing new to offer visitors. A historic house tour that is really just a glorified furniture tour and does little to tell visitors why history is important and gives no room for visitors to share their own perspectives during the experience. Museum exhibits that feature the same artifacts that were there twenty years ago. A hesitance to revise educational programming at the risk of alienating “loyal” visitors. An ownership team that does not communicate well and is unresponsive to staff needs. A Board of Directors that is out of touch with the struggles of frontline staff and does not respect the ideals of diversity, inclusion, accessibility, and equity. A culture that is anxious to point fingers and cast blame on others rather than taking an honest view inwards. “Young people just don’t respect history! They have to be on a phone all the time.” It’s not us, it’s them!
The term “revisionist” is sometimes used by critics of new approaches towards studying history. These are the people I envision as the disgruntled restaurant owners in Kitchen Nightmares who want everything to be the way it was in 1980. Medical scientists are rarely accused of being revisionists for trying to develop new medicines and cures for deadly diseases, but for a multitude of reasons there is a preference in some quarters for history to be told the same way it was thirty or fifty years ago. In reality, revisionism is fundamental to historical practice. Historians make new primary sources discoveries, revisit old interpretations, and constantly think anew about the many meanings the past may offer for today’s society. The same line of thinking should be embraced in public history as well.
Bruce Catton’s version of Civil War history from the 1950s and 1960s was readable, intriguing, and very popular. His writings influenced a generation of historians to study the American Civil War, and they influenced the way history was interpreted at Civil War battlefields like Gettysburg and Vicksburg for a very long time. I enjoy Catton as much as anyone. But those writings were a product of an earlier time and are now themselves a part of history. And those writings have their own shortcomings. Catton rarely, if ever, discussed the political issues of surrounding the conflict and most certainly avoided discussing slavery except as an issue on the periphery. His analysis of military strategy and tactics has been questioned by subsequent historians. Catton was a lovely author, but his interpretations need revision. Trying to write or interpret history at a public history site the way it was in 1965 is not going to work moving forward.
So . . . the big, broad lesson from Kitchen Nightmares is for public historians to stay up with the latest scholarship, regularly communicate with fellow staff members and colleagues in the field, and to never get too rooted in tradition or the idea that “this is the way we do things around here.” A very crappy 2020 should be the catalyst for change, not the excuse for doing more of the same. Otherwise you could very well find yourself in your own public history nightmare.
My colleagues and I have been discussing strategies for creating interesting museum exhibits. Our museum suffers from many of the same issues experienced at other historic sites: too much text, broken digital technology, outdated content, and a lot of head-scratching about the best path moving forward. During the discussion a suggestion was made to include more digital content in the form of interactive video and audio exhibits. While I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea, I raised a few concerns along the way:
Digital Technology Breaks Down Quickly: From a financial standpoint, digital technology can create new roadblocks for museums. Say what you want about textual exhibit panels, but it’s fair to point out that in most cases those text panels are going to last a long longer than the fancy interactive touchscreen video you just purchased for tens of thousands of dollars. How many times have you visited a museum and you saw a video screen that wasn’t working and an “out of order” sign in front of it? The catch-22 of digital technology is that despite its fanciness and potential for meaningful learning experiences, the technology will break down, oftentimes sooner than later. Any site that invests in this technology must also invest in ongoing maintenance and eventually replacement technology.
It’s also worth mentioning that despite the allure of digital technology, there’s no guarantee people are going to interact with it in a museum space, or that the people who interact with it will get something meaningful from the experience. One example that Andrea Jones pointed out on Twitter was that the use of videotaped oral histories in museums can be isolating and “anti-social.” Digital technology can separate groups as they visit a museum and could ultimately prove to be uninteresting to visitors who either lack the time or simply don’t know the purpose of the technology. In sum, museums have to really think about the intended audience and develop a meaningful strategy behind their digital content.
It’s Too Loud in Here! Our site’s museum, as it currently stands, has no audio descriptions or videos that produce loud noise. But let me tell you, have I ever been to some loud museums before! The role of acoustics in museum exhibit design is always a hot topic within the field, and I admit that some of my hesitation about new technology comes from the potential sound consequences that could adversely affect visitor experiences. I have been to a good number of museums that had things like background audio, videos being played in a loop, and touchscreen computers with loud noises. Sometimes there are exhibits with all three and more going on at the same time. One example is the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which I previously wrote about here. While I enjoyed the museum for the most part, many of the exhibits are way too busy with loud music, looping videos, and visual effects all going on at the same time. At times the noise around me was very disorienting and prevented me from focusing on the exhibit content. Hearing the same video ten times in a row in an exhibit does not make me want to stay in that space and learn more.
What’s Unique About Your Museum Space? I gladly admit that I am a reader. I try to read as much museum text as I can, and I like to spend a lot of time in each room/exhibit of a given museum (my wife usually has to keep me moving when we go to museums together). Not everyone feels the same, and I do believe museums should offer a variety of experiences within their spaces. But what makes museums memorable and unique as tourist destinations? It’s their collections. What will people remember from visiting a given museum? Is it the fancy technology or exhibit text they’ll remember the most, or will it be the unique artifacts and material culture that can’t be seen anywhere else? For many people, the answer will be the latter.
To be sure, I believe digital technology has a place in history museums. But I think technology has to be used in service to the museum’s most unique aspect, which is its historical artifacts. Everything has to point back to the unique content of the museum. When I do museum education programs with students, I don’t share videos or have them read a bunch of text. I have the students look at pictures and artifacts (and what I call “the big words” such as exhibit titles that help orient visitors to the museum content) as a foundation for facilitated dialogue and audience-centered education. Students can read or watch a video about history at home. But when they’re at the museum, they’re seeing content that can’t be seen anywhere else. I want to highlight the collections and use that as a guide for my education programs.
P.S. Happy 15th Amendment Day! The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on this day 150 years ago.
1. I am pleased to announce that my manuscript on Ulysses S. Grant’s relationship with slavery has been published with The Journal of the Civil War Era. I won’t spill all the beans here, but my central thesis is that most Grant biographers and Civil War historians have missed crucial details about Grant’s views towards slavery and experiences while living at his wife’s family plantation in St. Louis, White Haven, from 1854 to 1859. These oversights occurred in large part because scholars have relied too much on Grant’s Personal Memoirs and personal recollections from his St. Louis contemporaries that were conducted in the 1880s and 1890s, long after Grant had lived in St. Louis. By going back to the limited documentation we have from the 1850s and continuing into the first year of the Civil War, we can see how Grant wasn’t necessarily the strong, lifelong anti-slavery advocate he is often portrayed to be in popular scholarship.
If you are not a subscriber to the journal, here’s a direct link to the article for download and purchase if you’re interested in reading it.
2. I have been thinking a lot about visitation to historic sites, particularly the narratives that have emerged about an alleged lack of interest in Civil War historic sites. I interviewed several public historians who work at these sites and shared some of my own thoughts in a blog post for Muster that you can read here.
3. I have another blog post that I’m currently working on for the National Council on Public History’s History@Work blog about inclusive public history. I’m hoping this essay will be published within the next week or so.
4. I joined a group of scholars in proposing a panel for the NCPH 2020 Annual Meeting to be hosted in Atlanta, Georgia. We were interested in looking at public iconography beyond Confederate monuments and I was going to discuss St. Louis’s three monuments to Unionists Edward Bates, Franz Sigel, and Frank Blair that are located in Forest Park. Unfortunately the panel was rejected for the final program. No worries, however! I am changing course and looking into possibly presenting at the Society for Civil War Historians’ conference next summer to discuss my Grant and slavery article and/or blogging for The Journal of the Civil War Era. For the first time since 2014 I will not be attending NCPH’s annual meeting, but I feel like I have an opportunity to expand my professional network and connect with more Civil War scholars if I’m able to get to the SCWH conference. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with my research on the three St. Louis Unionist monuments, but there’s definitely an interesting discussion to be had about them and I will keep working on this little side project in my free time.
5. Finally, I got married earlier this month to my best friend in the whole world. Mrs. Sacco and I met in early 2016 and I proposed to her about a year and a half ago. After lots of planning and several other unrelated life events that have kept us very busy we were finally able to tie the knot and enjoy a wonderful day with our loved ones and best friends. Life is good and we are very blessed!
I recently toured a historic Catholic church in my local area. The church has all the ingredients of a fascinating visit; a historic structure dating back to 1821, loads of artifacts and church records that provide insights into Catholicism’s westward expansion (for better or worse), and an inspiring story of grassroots preservation when the Archdiocese of St. Louis planned to demolish the church in 1958. The local community at that time did not want to see the church demolished, and for the past sixty years it has been run by a private foundation that relies on donations to stay afloat. The lone paid employee mentioned, for example, that the entire church was recently re-plastered after an elderly woman who had visited the church insisted on paying for a professional to do the job. That’s how a lot of small, local sites like this one get by.
What struck me the most during my visit, however, was a comment the employee made about local support. She stated that she was in her sixties and that all of the volunteers who assist at the site are in their eighties and nineties. The resignation in her voice when she quite honestly wondered if the site would be able to continue operating in the next ten or twenty years was palpable. Who would step up in the future to support this historic church and continue the mission of interpreting this history?
As noted in my last post, there’s been a lot of recent soul-searching, anxiety, and discussion among historians about visitation to historic sites throughout the United States. But for the most part this discussion has focused on large institutions with a national following such as Colonial Williamsburg or the Gettysburg Battlefield. By focusing too much on the big national sites, however, we run the risk of forgetting the thousands of small historical societies and sites like this Catholic church that face much more dire circumstances moving forward.
I don’t propose to have solutions for saving this particular church, but I do think a lot of the work must start on the local level. Generally speaking, small sites are not going to show up on the top of a TripAdvisor list and will not be on the radar of someone visiting from out of town. The financial support and patronizing of the site’s resources has to start at the local level with residents who care about the history. I suspect that the particular Catholic church I visited faces some unique challenges thanks to the ongoing struggles of the Catholic religion more broadly and a changing local population that is no longer majority-catholic. Those challenges will be hard to overcome moving forward. The larger point, however, is that just about every community in America can point to some sort of historic site in their area that is going through similar challenges.
To put it simply, I’m more concerned about the future of small local history sites than I am Colonial Williamsburg. We need to keep that mind as we continue this conversation.
I’ve been thinking about visitation to historic sites in recent weeks. I wrote a post for Muster last year about visitation trends at National Park Service Civil War historic sites, but the topic is back in the news with two articles in the Wall Street Journal and Politico lamenting a supposed decline in visitation at both Civil War sites and historic sites more broadly. I’m currently working on a new piece for Muster about what we can do to keep making Civil War sites relevant in the future, but in the meantime I went back and reread John Coski’s opinion essay for The Civil War Monitor (Summer 2018) about the state of Civil War public history. Dr. Coski is an excellent scholar and public historian. He’s also the go-to expert on the history of the Confederate flag. Unfortunately, I disagreed with almost every argument he made in this piece.
Coski contends that public historians at Civil War historic sites have tried to “make the Civil War more attractive and more politically palatable for people who have not been interested in the subject as it was taught in schools and presented at historical sites until recent decades.” While he offers lukewarm support for this goal, he cautiously warns that these efforts can go overboard and potentially alienate people who have long-supported Civil War historic sites. If “traditional” audiences stop visiting and sites continue to struggle with recruiting new audiences, the future of Civil War public history could be in trouble as popular interest in the era continues to wane.
Coski’s argument is understandable and fair, but in making the argument I strongly disagreed with his characterization of public historians and their goals when working at Civil War historic sites.
A common talking point that Coski emphasizes is that “the rise of digital technology” has played a role in declining visitation trends. People can now learn about historic sites online without visiting them, and so they simply choose to stay home. The problem with this argument, however, is that there has been no comprehensive study undertaken to prove a correlation between increased digital technology usage and decreased visitation to historic sites. While both trends can be true independently, it is not at all clear to me that one trend explains the other. Plenty of other historic sites and museums have had no problem with declining visitation. For example, visitation to art museums has experienced a slight increase in recent years, and the popular National World War II Museum smashed its previous visitation record in 2018. In fact, some argue that digital technology actually boosts visitation to museums and historic sites because people see content online and become more motivated to visit in person. This data seems to suggest something besides digital technology as the cause behind sluggish visitation at Civil War sites.
Coski continues by arguing that public historians are trying to attract new audiences by “emphasizing non-military aspects of the conflict and repudiating the Confederate side of the story.” Here again, these claims are questionable. Have Civil War sites placed an increased emphasis on the political aspects of the Civil War? Absolutely. Are many sites more willing to discuss the role of slavery in creating the conditions for armed conflict? Absolutely. But just because non-military topics are discussed more in-depth does not mean that military history has been removed from the story. Moreover, it’s not clear to me what it means to “repudiate” the Confederate side of the story. Is Coski saying that public historians are completely ignoring the Confederacy, or are they just interpreting the history in a way Coski disagrees with?
I have been to Gettysburg, the Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania Court House, and Fort Donelson over the past five years. Every single one of these battlefields discussed military history through programs, wayside markers, and museum exhibits. Gettysburg has an enormous Civil War weapons collection in its museum that rivals anything you’ll see anywhere else. Every single site told stories from the Confederate perspective. Every single site has dedicated public historians who are ready to discuss military history, political history, and Confederate history. Not a single monument has been removed from a Civil War battlefield managed by the National Park Service. I concede that the war’s narrative has most certainly changed (for the better), but when Coski asks, “what about the majority experience? What about the millions of white Americans on both sides who fought and endured the Civil War?” I just have to roll my eyes. Last I checked they were still there.
Coski then expands his discussion of Confederate history at Civil War sites by asking whether “emphasizing ‘relevance’ mean[s] the only legitimate way of studying the war will be as a morality play.” He also contends that the popular backlash to Confederate iconography is a “rejection of Civil War history that accords respect to the fighting men on both sides.” Today’s backlash against Confederate iconography, according to Coski, is unique because the “breadth and depth of anger aimed at the Confederacy, Confederate symbols, and all perceived vestiges of Lost Cause thinking” has led to “a widespread willingness to vilify anything associated with the Confederacy as ‘racist.’ Labeling is becoming a surrogate for understanding.” As such, public historians who emphasize “inclusiveness, tolerance, empathy, and an acceptance of complexity” fail to live up to their own self-defined standards by attacking the Confederacy this way.
Here again there is much to disagree with. For one, striving for relevance does not mean sacrificing historical accuracy or relying solely on emotion to win hearts and minds. Discussing Civil War era politics or the experiences of women and people of color during the war is no more a “morality play” than a narrative that focuses on sectional reconciliation or the shared valor of Union and Confederate soldiers. Striving for relevance means expanding the narrative and creating space for multiple perspectives. It does not mean sacrificing historical accuracy at the expense of so-called identity politics or political correctness.
Second, who among Civil War public historians in their professional life is going around doing nothing but vilifying the Confederacy at their workplace? Do some people get heated on social media about the Civil War? Sure. Do some people want all Confederate monuments taken down? Sure. Do some people feel like Confederate icons are intimidating and that the entire Confederate political experiment was rooted in racism? You bet. But in Coski’s telling of the story, interpretations at Civil War sites nowadays largely consist of visitors being treated to long rants from public historians about how bad and racist the Confederacy was in the interest of attracting new audiences to their sites. Public historians design gimmicky programs, share their personal views, and strip the past of its complexity as historical understanding is placed at the bottom of the food chain. As such, visitors are allegedly treated to an interpretation of the war from an “activist” perspective that is more interested in shaming than understanding. This description may accurately explain the culture of social media interactions on Twitter, but I completely reject this characterization when it comes to describing trained professionals whose job is to provide a compelling, complex, and accurate interpretation of the Civil War. Many public historians today reject the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War because it is largely inaccurate, but that does not mean they also reject a nuanced understanding of the past that acknowledges the complexities of Confederate allegiance and military service.
Here’s the thing. I don’t think the white actors of Civil War history are going anywhere. I don’t think public historians at Civil War historic sites place anything ahead of telling a good, accurate story. I don’t think anyone who’s long been a student of the Civil War should be alarmed by the fact that Civil War scholarship is expanding and changing. I don’t think a “both sides fought for what they believed in” or Lost Cause-inspired interpretation is the solution to bringing back audiences to Civil War historic sites. I don’t think complaining about identity politics today is particularly wise when for a very long time Confederate identity politics dominated the culture surrounding historic interpretation at Civil War sites.
Where we go from here is a difficult question, and I think there’s a lot more evaluation and study needed before we can start to formulate an answer. While I think Coski’s basic wish to remember the traditional audiences of Civil War history is fair, his characterizations of Civil War history and the public historians who interpret it today are badly flawed.
I recently took a historic home tour that was very fascinating and enjoyable. The house was very nice and the furniture was ornate and fancy, classically Victorian all the way through. I suspect most people go through this home and feel very much the same way I did. At the end of the visit, however, I concluded that I hadn’t really learned anything new about the people who lived at this house.
A few years ago I wrote an essay on this website contending that many historic house tours are boring because they lack a human element. Somebody in the comments section complained about “furniture tours” and stated that a sofa has never changed the world. I’ve been thinking about that comment a lot lately.
Many museums that were constructed around the turn of the twentieth century were designed to overwhelm visitors, repeatedly hammering the idea that these places and these things possessed a reverential quality that needed to be respected by all. Jeffrey Trask even points out in Things American: Art Museums and Civic Culture in the Progressive Erathat the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art intentionally limited its operating hours to keep out the mass of working class residents in the city. The museum stayed closed on Sundays for many years during the Progressive Era, even though that was the single day of the week many of those working class residents had off.
I still think a lot of historic homes operate under a similar mentality. The homes are preserved with meticulous care and designed to overwhelm and awe visitors with their beauty. These places are important because they have stuff. But the longer I work in the field of public history and the more home tours I take, the more I yearn to see what’s underneath all of this beauty. An ornately furnished historic home is very difficult to interpret because the guide must fight the urge to make it exclusively a tour of “things.” This table was built by person x and cost this much money and isn’t it just beautiful? The situation is even more complicated because many visitors crave this sort of tour and will go around asking what’s original. It’s not that historic furniture is meaningless, but that too often visitors never learn why any of it matters to our understanding of history.
At the end of the day, a tour about people is always more fascinating to me than a tour about things. As I’ve previously argued, a historic home without people breathes no life.