The Westmoreland County Historical Society responded to my email about their mock hanging reenactment yesterday. There is good news, on the one hand, as the organization has decided to no longer engage in this particular reenactment in the future. On the other hand, the email was a pre-written pseudo apology, and it’s evident that my message (and probably anyone else who wrote one) was not read by any staff members. This is a particularly disingenuous action given the fact that the organization’s previous Facebook statement encouraged discussion about “this sensitive aspect of American history in a constructive way.” Why encourage constructive feedback but then ignore that feedback and write a second pre-written statement?
Here is the email response in full:
I don’t want to belabor my complaints here, but really? “We deeply regret that people were offended” instead of simply apologizing and/or acknowledging that engaging in a public hanging reenactment might be problematic. Also, the person who posted the video to YouTube is truly at fault because the video took things out of context. Everything would make sense if it weren’t for this video. Really?
Once again, the historical society gets it wrong by defending their program through harping on their obligation to discuss “sensitive” aspects of history, “even those that are unacceptable to our modern sensibilities.” No one is questioning that obligation. Most visitors can handle programs about sensitive topics and public historians in the field applaud that approach, as we have an obligation to discuss difficult topics in human history. The problem that the critics had was with how the program was organized, the medium by which it was conducted, and the lack of an explanation about the educational purpose a mock hanging serves towards understanding this particular event in American history.
As I mentioned in my email, there are many different ways public history institutions can discuss difficult topics like slavery, genocide, the Holocaust, or a public hanging without having to literally reenact the particular event. I can visit Manzanar National Historic Site and understand the significance of the site without having to watch a reenactment of a Japanese American family being thrown into an internment camp. I can read a historic marker commemorating the 1866 Memphis Massacre and understand the significance of the event without living history performers reenacting a scene of angry whites torching the homes of black neighbors and then firing gunshots into those homes when their inhabitants tried to get out. I can visit a place like the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, as I did in 2015, and engage in thoughtful discussions with fellow visitors and staff about sensitive aspects of history without watching performers reenacting SS guards torturing the camp’s inmates.
In sum, a living history reenactment of someone’s death is a tasteless, wholly unnecessary exercise that does little to enhance understanding or empathy of a given historical topic.
The online publication Indian Country Media Network recently reported on a public history site that engaged in a public hanging reenactment of a Native American man this past summer. The article garnered some attention among public historians on social media, many of which expressed serious concerns about the appropriateness of this program. The Westmoreland County Historical Society attempted to defend their program with the following statement on Facebook:
I decided to respond to this statement. Here’s my email to the organization:
To whom it may concern at the Westmoreland Historical Society,
This message is in response to your statement on Facebook about a recent program your institution hosted in which living history performers reenacted an eighteenth century court case, including the gruesome hanging of the Native American Mamachtaga. I am a public historian who occasionally participates in living history programs, and I heard about this particular program through social media. While I respect your dedication to educating visitors about eighteenth century American history—particularly complex legal cases that involve thorny issues of race, gender, and indigenous rights—I have serious concerns about your institution continuing to engage in this mock hanging and similar reenactments in the future.
I found your Facebook statement in defense of your institution’s program to be inadequate. The statement appears to fundamentally misunderstand what many critics of this program are saying. Several Facebook users who commented on your statement also missed the point. The genesis of your statement is that your institution worked very hard to present a historically accurate program; your team engaged in primary source research and worked to provide context for the “historic political climate and social attitudes as well.” That’s good, but it’s not enough.
By focusing your statement on the historical accuracy of the program, you seem to suggest that your critics must either have a problem with the idea of doing any program on the Mamachtaga case, or that they can’t handle the idea of a historic education program that focuses on the “bad” parts of history. In any case, the program was historically accurate, so what’s the problem? That is a mistaken argument. On the contrary, few professionals in the public history field would have any problem with doing a program about Mamachtaga or similar cases like his. The problem that many of us have with your program is the lack of consideration about how the story is being told and the interpretive medium in which it is being told.
Interpretive programs take many shapes and forms, including tours led by trained guides, public lectures, video presentations, historical markers, digital presentations, living history programs, and other mediums. As educators, we want these programs to foster understanding and appreciation for history and the role it shapes in our daily lives. But what educational value does a hanging reenactment offer for the visitors who come to your site? What is it that you want your visitors to take away from this program?
There are have been numerous controversial living history programs about slavery in recent years that you may have heard about. In 2011, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri, hosted a “slave auction” reenactment on the steps of the Old Courthouse, and Conner Prairie Interactive History Park in Fishers, Indiana, hosts an award-winning living history program about the Underground Railroad entitled “Follow the North Star.” These programs have received both praise and criticism, which I think is fair. The problem with any program that attempts to literally “reenact” a historical experience like slavery, genocide, the Holocaust, or in this case a hanging, is that such a program cannot be accurately recreated for a modern audience, which in turn trivializes the experience. Furthermore, such a program runs the risk of de-humanizing the historical figures these performers are attempting to portray, and they can be emotionally hurtful to people who are watching regardless of what their particular background may be.
What makes the Old Courthouse slave auction and “Follow the North Star” largely successful, however, is that they incorporate pre- and post-event activities to allow people a chance to become emotionally prepared for what they are about to see and then share their feelings with a trained professional in a facilitated dialogue setting afterwards. Rather than coming to the site unprepared and leaving with a bunch of bottled-up emotions, these dialogue activities allow people to unwind and feel welcome in an environment that promotes learning and inclusiveness. Attendance in these activities is mandatory for visitors who want to participate in the main event. Your statement does not indicate whether or not such activities were incorporated into your program.
I have no doubt that the Westmoreland Historical Society is dedicated to conveying accurate history to its audiences. But at the end of the day, making sure that living history programs are historically accurate is only half the challenge of creating a successful program. Considerations of audience, setting, and interpretive medium must also be considered, and I believe the Mamachtaga program failed to account for these considerations. I believe a living history program focused on the hanging of a Native American or anyone else distracts from the history you want to impart on your audiences and is ultimately a program in poor taste. American history is drenched in the blood of victims of state violence, whether that be the largest mass hanging in U.S. history after the Dakota Uprising in 1862, the Memphis Massacre of 1866, the East St. Louis riots of 1919, or any other countless instances of bloodshed. Must we reenact these stories in a literal fashion in order to attract visitors and dollars? In the future, I hope you reconsider the merits of doing a mock hanging and consider other ways of bringing American history to life.
One of the last things I did in 2016 involved taking a short trip to New Orleans, Louisiana, to visit a good friend of mine and explore some of the historical sites in the area. The trip was wonderful and I also enjoyed the eighty-degree temperature outside, a nice contrast to winter in the Midwest.
About three years ago I had the opportunity to visit the National World War I museum in Kansas City. The National World War II museum just so happens to be located in New Orleans, and we made a point of spending nearly an entire day visiting the site. I came away from the World War II museum impressed with some aspects and less impressed with others. I’ve been thinking about the similarities and differences of my experiences at both museums since the trip, and what follows are some rough thoughts on those experiences.
One of the major aspects of the World War II museum is its use of technology throughout the museum. Upon arriving at the museum, visitors have the option of obtaining a “Dog Tag” card that looks like a credit card. Computer stations throughout the museum have a spot where you can put your card on a scanner, upon which the computer shows a short video of a World War II solider who is assigned to your card. Five stations throughout the museum tell a different aspect of your soldier’s experiences before, during, and after the war (if they survived it). Notwithstanding the difficulty of finding some of the computer stations (I missed two of them) and the lack of available computers (I don’t think I’ve been to a museum that was so busy and people were almost always hounded around the computers), I though the activity was thoughtful and educational. My “Dog Tag” had the story of four-star General Benjamin O. Davis, who happens to be an extremely important and heroic figure in U.S. military history. Elsewhere there was an interactive activity about the USS Tang, a ship that sunk thirty-three enemy ships during the war, that was immersive and interesting. Visitors were assigned to a station within a recreated model of the Tang and given a specific duty on the ship to complete during a mission.
Other uses of technology in the World War II museum were not as successful, in my opinion. The museum was full of videos throughout the exhibits, all of which had sound. The sounds from each of the videos often bled into each other, creating a wall of cacophonous sound that distracted from the exhibit text and artifacts in a given area. Equally frustrating was how the walkways throughout the exhibits were not large enough to isolate video-watchers from the rest of the crowd. People would stop to watch the videos and block the walkways for other museum-goers, creating cramped hallways and little breathing room to maneuver through the museum. The World War I museum, by contrast, doesn’t utilize as much digital technology in its exhibits but uses its resources in ways that are more user-friendly. Videos about the political situation in the 1910s, the coming of World War I, and the United States’ decision to enter the war are isolated from the rest of the museum exhibits, allowing visitors who want to see the videos the freedom to do so while not distracting from others who want to visit the museum’s other exhibits. While the World War I museum doesn’t offer a “Dog Tag”-type activity for visitors, it did offer one interactive activity in which visitors created their own propaganda posters using graphics and artwork from posters used in various countries at the time.
The other noticeable aspect of both museums is the role of politics in their interpretive exhibits. The World War I museum does a masterful job in both its exhibits and videos of analyzing the political conditions that existed in Europe before the coming of the Great War. Topics such as nationalism, colonialism, imperialism, racism, and entangling alliances are explained with clarity and precision without sacrificing complexity. Equally important, the World War I museum places particular interpretive emphasis on conditions in Europe, not the United States. I believe this distinction is really important. While the museum is tasked with educating visitors about the American role in war, the staff at the museum astutely understand that this role must be fit within a larger story that spends several years in Germany, England, France, Austria-Hungary, Serbia, and the rest of Europe before the U.S. became a leading actor. The museum’s splitting into two sections between the years of 1914-1916 and 1917-1918 (when the U.S. entered the war) reinforces the importance of not focusing on the war’s history through too strong of an American lens.
The World War II museum, however, struggles to address the equally messy politics of that conflict. The exhibits throughout the museum barely touch political matters beyond the interactions between politicians and generals with regards to military strategy and tactics. A film narrated by the actor Tom Hanks does acknowledge that the U.S. faced two growing enemies in fascist Europe and imperial Japan, but doesn’t explain how these two forces came to be. Visitors are told, for example, that the Nazi party ruled Germany through the ideological lens of hatred and Aryan racial purity, but doesn’t explain how the Nazi party appealed to a wide swath of German voters or point out that Hitler was democratically elected. Likewise, Japan is portrayed as a militaristic, land- and -resource-hungry empire bent on conquering all of Asia, but why Japan held these ambitions and how they gained such power in the first place is left unexplained.
Another contrast of equal interest is the use of patriotic themes through these museums. The World War I museum takes a somber, reflective tone throughout its exhibits. The most notable example is the Paul Sunderland Glass Bridge. Underneath the bridge lies 9,000 poppy flowers in a field. Each flower represents 1,000 deaths during World War I, symbolizing the nine million people worldwide (not just Americans) who died in that conflict. No such display is exhibited in the World War II museum, and while the Tom Hanks film points out that 65 million people worldwide died in World War II, it becomes evident in the film and surrounding exhibits that the 400,000-plus Americans who died during the war will get particular attention in the interpretive programs. Nothing demonstrated this fact more than a musical program in one of the World War II museum’s buildings. Three women in 1940s-style dresses–one red, one white, and one blue–sang patriotic songs for roughly thirty minutes, including the songs of each military branch and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” During Greenwood’s song the women pulled out a U.S. flag, which in turn led to rancorous applause among the museum’s visitors. This exercise isn’t necessarily wrong or out of place at a museum of American history, but I can’t help but feel like such a display would feel unusual at the World War I museum. Likewise, similar exercises would feel awkward in a German museum like the Jewish Museum, Berlin, or the German Historical Museum, both of which I visited in 2015, where such open displays of patriotism and nationalism are fraught with their own difficulties and historical baggage. The musical program reinforces the history of World War II as a “Good War” in American memory, as historian John Bodnar explains in his 2010 book on the topic. U.S. involvement in World War II was good, of course, but the story is more complicated than singing a Lee Greenwood song.
In sum, the interpretive focus of the World War I Museum is a warning in the dangers of excessive nationalist sentiment and an elegiac meditation on the destructiveness of war, particularly one in which modern technology further amplifies the killing. Conversely, the interpretive focus of the World War II Museum is openly nationalist, Ameri-centric, and a borderline glorification of war. The World War I museum explains the causes of the war, its effect on world affairs, and the consequences of an inadequate peace treaty that helped foster another tragic world war just a few decades later. The World War II museum only mentions the causes of the war in passing through a video. While it does highlight the bloodshed of the war, particularly the blood shed by American soldiers, it struggles to tie in the conflict with other global affairs and chooses to stop at the war itself. The messy politics of the Cold War are put to the side in favor of a simple narrative of American progress and freedom.
I enjoyed both museums and believe that everyone would benefit from visiting both, but I believe that the World War I museum is superior in its interpretive programming and educational themes. It remains one of the best museums I have ever visited.
Public historians who work in interpretation and education often find themselves in a uniquely different setting from that of a classroom history teacher. A classroom teacher typically has at least sixteen weeks to learn about his or her students and to build a relationship with them. The teacher typically works with those students from sixty to ninety minutes per classroom session, and the really good ones blend a range of pedagogical techniques throughout the semester that simultaneously foster teamwork, historical empathy, a better understanding of historical content for a given time period, enhanced reading, writing, and research skills, and a heightened appreciation of the importance of history in our daily lives.
Public historians share many of these same goals when working with their many publics, but the amount of time we have to communicate with them is much shorter. In my work with the National Park Service I typically get one ten-minute introductory talk to build a relationship with visitors of all different backgrounds and spark an interest in history within them. My interpretive narrative changes and evolves with each group I work with in the hope that I can meet people where they are on their own journey through history. In the public history world you must quickly learn how to work in small time spaces like mine. Moreover, you never know who will walk through that door to visit your site on a given day, which is simultaneously exciting and nerve-racking.
Those who work the front lines with their many publics are often trained to study historical content, put together an interpretive program based on a knowledge of that content, focus on exposing “multiple perspectives” to the past through the eyes of various historical actors and, if possible, make connections to present-day circumstances. These objectives are noble and challenging, especially because the historical content we interpret and the present-day connections we make are inherently political. If you work in public history long enough, you will run into a visitor who will object to the historical content you share, your intent to go beyond the historical perspective of White Anglo Saxon men, and the connections you make between the past and the present. These interactions can be difficult and emotionally draining. The recent news of increasingly hostile anti-immigrant comments from visitors to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City is but one example of tour guides experiencing a great deal of challenging visitor feedback about their interpretive stories and the messy politics of the present.
We are trained to understand the past but less often trained to deal with the present. While public historians should be prepared for confrontational visitors, how to work with these visitors to turn heated confrontations into meaningful interactions that promote learning and understanding is often left unsaid. What follows are a few simple tips that I’ve employed in my own interactions with confrontational visitors over the years.
Respectfully challenge visitors to further explain and defend their claims.
The purpose of education in my view is to encourage learning, which I broadly define as a change in thinking about and understanding of the world through experience, study, and interaction. When I experience a confrontational visitor, my first desire is to turn the interaction into a learning opportunity through dialogue. Public historians need to be well-versed in historical content and methods, but they also need to be effective conversationalists. Good public history practice is as much about being a respectful, attentive listener to visitor feedback as it is about effectively communicating historical content. When public historians demonstrate their willingness to listen, they establish trust with visitors and open the door for respectful interactions. They might also learn something from a visitor during the process!
When a visitor says something I might disagree with, I try to respectfully challenge that claim by encouraging the visitor to keep talking rather than telling them outright that they’re wrong. I like to use the following prompts:
“Tell me more.”
“What sources did you rely on to make that conclusion?”
“Where did you hear that claim? I’ve heard a few different viewpoints on this topic.”
“I want to better understand your perspective. What you do mean when you say…”
“There’s been a lot of debate about this topic. Have you read [enter a relevant work of scholarship] before? It might offer a different perspective worth considering.”
“Thanks for sharing your perspective. What made you interested in this topic?”
Each of these prompts challenges visitors to defend their position while also encouraging them to continue sharing their perspective with someone who’s willing to respectfully listen to them. I particularly like “tell me more” and “what sources did you rely on” because they put the onus on the visitor to explain and defend themselves. After listening and providing a few prompts to get the visitor talking, you then put yourself in a position to share your perspective and use your historical knowledge to direct the visitor towards resources they can use to learn more after the interaction has taken place. None of this is rocket science, but these prompts have been my best tools for challenging confrontational visitors.
Different circumstances require different sorts of responses from public historians.
While public historians should always strive to encourage visitor feedback and constructive dialogue, there are times when the best option is to stop the conversation and let it go. Some visitors will simply refuse to listen to you or give you the respect you deserve as an educator and scholar. Your emotions, self-respect, and dignity come first, and sometimes saying “we’ll just have to agree to disagree” is the only path forward.
There are other times where clearing up misinformation and historical inaccuracies stated by visitors requires a response more forceful than a dialogic method. For example, a visitor once argued to me that Abraham Lincoln was a slaveholder. It was necessary, in my view, to simply state right off the bat that such a claim is inaccurate and to explain that Lincoln lived in free states his entire adult life save for his time in Washington, D.C. I felt like we needed to be on the same page on this matter before engaging in a dialogue about Lincoln’s political views towards slavery.
So, in sum, each individual interaction with a visitor has unique circumstances attached to it. Public historians must determine on an individual basis how they’ll respond to the confrontational visitor, whether that be through dialogue, a more assertive approach that corrects inaccurate information, or a decision that the conversation is too heated and should be ended.
Never put labels on visitors. Challenge what they say and do rather than making claims about who they are.
The social commentator Jay Smooth says it best in the below video when he argues that if you hope to get through to a person and give yourself a chance to change their perspective, it’s more effective to focus on what they say then making claims about who they are. We don’t know the personal lives of our visitors or how their life experiences have shaped their particular perspective of the world. When the focus is on speculating about someone’s motives or putting labels on that person, the conversation turns into name-calling and the potential for a genuine learning opportunity is lost. Furthermore, your ability to hold someone accountable for their views becomes much tougher when you focus on names instead of words and actions. In my own work I often encounter visitors who believe the American Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. The easy response would be to call out the person’s incorrect view and accuse them of being a neo-Confederate. A more productive response would challenge that person using the above prompts to ask them how they came to that conclusion. Rather that saying that the person is a neo-Confederate, I can respectuflly state, using my knowledge of historical scholarship and contemporary debate, that what they’re arguing sounds like something a neo-Confederate might say.
What do you think? What strategies and technique do you utilize for working with confrontational visitors?
During the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, the National Park Service undertook an ambitious plan to commemorate and educate people about the war’s history and connect it to the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. “Civil War to Civil Rights” included more than 100 units of the NPS and lasted from 2011 until 2015. The NPS recently published its summary report of the commemoration and you can read it here.
My own perspective on what happened across the agency during the Sesquicentennial is fairly limited. For most of the commemoration I was away from the agency working as a teacher and going to graduate school; I only started working for the NPS during the last year of the Sesquicentennial. Nevertheless, there are a few broad takeaways I have about this report and the program as a whole:
- I had issues with the “Civil War to Civil Rights” theme, which I previously wrote about here. Overall I thought the theme was too limiting and exclusionary in that it tended to focus on the Black freedom struggle without giving appropriate attention to other important stories about gender, immigration, indigenous rights, and the very meaning of the Union and why it was worth fighting for. To cite one example, the story of this nation’s indigenous peoples is not one of “Civil War to Civil Rights” and does not fit nicely into that interpretive box. By extension, the time period from roughly 1880 to 1950 was largely overlooked. For most visitors I suspect that they made the connection between 1860 and 1960 but never thought too much about what happened during the bulk of the time in between those years. Connecting those dots, particularly with regards to the Reconstruction Era, will be another challenge to face moving forward.
- At the same time, I thought the Park Service did a nice job (and continues to do a nice job) of interpreting the role of slavery in the coming of the Civil War. I am currently reading Robert J. Cook’s publication on the Civil War Centennial commemoration from 1961-1965, which convincingly shows that the Civil War Centennial Commission tasked by the federal government to commemorate the Civil War during that era largely ignored the stories of slavery and emancipation in favor of a “consensus” interpretation that extolled the mutual valor of soldiers on both sides of the conflict. We have thankfully moved beyond that interpretive model today.
- During the Sesquicentennial I did some preliminary research on visitation to Civil War battlefields and related historic sites and found that overall attendance was up at many sites during the commemoration. The NPS final report seems to validate my findings. We don’t know what exactly each visitor took away from their experience and we still have much work to do in bringing new audiences to NPS Civil War sites, but overall I think it should be no surprise that the Sesquicentennial brought a much more diverse audience pool to these sites thanks to a more inclusive and accurate interpretation of the war and an expansive educational initiative that went beyond military tactics into the realms of economics, politics, and culture.
- I can’t say that I saw a lot of radically dynamic programs within the agency that really broke the mold of traditional education/entertainment interpretive programs (e.g. battle reenactments, ranger-led talks, school and scout programs), but the agency did engage in a lot of thoughtful programming and updated its museum panels and technological media to reflect contemporary historical scholarship on the war.
- This NPS report and a lot of the rhetoric within the interpretation and education wing of the agency has focused around talk of “multiple perspectives,” “moving beyond facts,” and “relevant” stories that speak to contemporary issues. In particular the ascension of facilitated dialogue as a legitimate form of educational programming was notable during the Sesquicentennial, although I think there are a lot of sites that continue to solely rely on traditional ranger-led interpretive programming. I believe these developments are good, but only to an extent. The root of any educational program must be planted on a foundation of historical scholarship and primary source evidence. It all starts with educating people about the actual history itself and the importance of studying the past today. I want to have good, meaningful dialogues with people, but if someone shares a perspective rooted in misinformation (“Thousands of blacks fought for the Confederacy”; “Abraham Lincoln started the Civil War”; “Ulysses S. Grant is a terrorist”), I will call them out on it. Doing so, however, means I need to have an understanding of the evidence at hand. Having an ability to do interpretive programs like facilitated dialogue without an understanding of the history involved in the discussion is meaningless to me.
- The overall cultural influence of the Civil War Sesquicentennial was shaped by two remarkable developments outside the agency. One is the emergence of the internet as a medium for learning, discussing, and writing about the war. For any contribution the NPS offered in enhancing the nation’s collective understanding of the war, the internet contributed in ways both good and bad on a level that far exceeded the reach of the NPS’s educational offerings. The second remarkable development was the rise of explosive contemporary events that accompanied the Sesquicentennial. The Ferguson unrest began a mere 30 minutes from where I work at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site and I imagine that it introduced a great number of people to the histories of racial violence, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement who may have not taken an interest if not for contemporary events. The shining moment for us at ULSG was most likely the effort to bring every eighth grader from the Ferguson-Florissant School District to the site to discuss these topics in early 2015, which I thought was pretty successful. Likewise, the Charleston shooting ignited a firestorm over the appropriate displaying of the Confederate flag in today’s society. Visitors were not hesitant to share their thoughts with me on that topic, which in turn led to (mostly) good conversations about the meaning of the flag and the origins of the Confederacy. Ultimately I believe the NPS’s Sesquicentennial events were successful, but were in many ways overshadowed by what was going on in the larger world.
We’ve still got a lot of work to do – let’s keep it up.
In looking back at this recent and torturous U.S. Presidential election, I believe the blatant and irresponsible sharing of fake news, inaccurate memes, and outright propaganda, combined with a general lack of civility and informed online conversation, contributed in some way to Donald Trump’s electoral victory. I do not mean to suggest that there were no other factors that contributed to this particular outcome or that people on the left side of the political spectrum don’t also share fake news and stupid memes – they do. But evidence is mounting that fake and inaccurate news–particularly Pro-Trump news–is widespread on social media and that many people regardless of political preference take misinformation seriously if it lines up with their own personal and political views. Facebook is especially bad in this regard. The chances are good that many voters who are also Facebook users went to the polls and made their respective decision based partly on false information gleaned from articles shared on their news feed.
Professor Mike Caulfield’s particularly sobering analysis of fake articles created by a fake paper, the “Denver Guardian,” that spread like wildfire across Facebook demonstrate how easy it is to get duped by someone with an agenda and basic computing skills. Friends and family that I care about have also engaged in this sharing of fake news on Facebook, which I find deeply troubling. Facebook has evolved into a news-sharing website without creating a mechanism for effectively moderating fact from fiction, and at the end of the day the site isn’t fun anymore. I haven’t checked my account since the election.
As a historian and educator I have stressed on this website the importance of teaching not just historical content in the classroom but also historical methods. When we teach both content and methods, we convey to students the idea that history is not just a mess of names, dates, and dead people, but also a process that enables students to conduct research, interpret reliable primary and secondary source documents, and ultimately become better writers, readers, and thinkers in their own lives. I think that now more than ever these skills need to be taught not just for their utility in understanding the past but for also parsing through the vast multitudes of information that bombard our social media feeds on a daily basis. Historians have much to contribute to contemporary society and they should lead the way in accomplishing this important work. When we learn to think historically, we enable ourselves to become more informed citizens who have the ability to participate in electoral politics with an understanding of the issues at hand and how our system of government operates.
I am interested in hearing from history teachers about what methods, tools, and practices they employ when teaching students how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources and how to interpret these sources to construct informed arguments and narratives. Sam Wineburg’s scholarship has been instrumental in my own thinking about these topics, and I believe everyone should listen to or read his keynote address at the 2015 meeting of the American Association for State and Local History. I have also utilized historian Kalani Craig’s guide on the 5 “Ps” of reading primary sources, which is equally relevant when assessing sources on contemporary topics.
What has worked for you when teaching others how to assess and interpret documentary sources? Please let me know in the comments.
There’s a lot of buzz within the public history and museum fields about Franklin Vagnone and Deborah Ryan’s new book, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. I’d been waiting for a while to have a chance to read the book, and I finally got around to it this week. Overall the book aims to challenge standard practices at historic house museums in regards to interpretation, education, and preservation at these places, and it will definitely provoke new conversations within the field about how and why historic house museums are important for understanding and appreciating the past.
I finished Anarchist’s Guide feeling underwhelmed. While I found the book’s appendices useful for researching visitor feedback and evaluating a given site’s standard practices, I felt like most of Anarchist’s Guide’s conclusions were neither revolutionary, radical, nor original. I might expand upon these thoughts in a future blog post. Nevertheless, I do agree with one central argument made by Vagnone and Ryan that should be repeated to all house museum professionals, however: historic house museums are first and foremost about the people, past AND present, who occupy the house’s space. As Vagnone argues, “the breath of a house is the living that takes place within it, not the structure or its contents” (21). Hear! Hear!
With the National Park Service–at least among those of us who work at historic homes–there is a running joke about the dreaded “furniture tour.” You arrive for the tour and the guide that accompanies the group room-by-room focuses almost exclusively on the furniture pieces of the room and the minute details of each piece that no one will remember when the tour concludes: what year this chair was produced, what state this table came from, how thankful we tourists should be for the good museum professionals who’ve preserved all this furniture for us today. What often goes missing from these tours is the humanity of it all. Why is any of this furniture important? Who are the people who owned this furniture, and why did they buy it? What is so important about this house and why should we continue preserving it? Why should we care about this place today?
To be sure, there is an important place for material culture analyses at historic homes. A gifted interpreter can take a historic artifact and tell nuanced stories about the people who owned it and that artifact’s cultural, economic, and political history. Who built this artifact? Why was this artifact valuable at the time and why did the owner purchase it in the first place? What can this artifact tell us about the times in which its owner lived? When historical artifacts act as tools towards the end goal of better understanding and appreciating the past and the people who lived in it, visitors leave with a better sense of empathy and the humanity of the past. Conversely, tours end up becoming boring and stale when historical artifacts become ends within themselves, reinforcing the idea that the study of history is primarily one of rote memorization and filling the “empty” minds of visitors with dates and facts.
The situation at my own workplace is somewhat unique in regard to historic artifacts. At the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site we have no original furniture inside the historic White Haven estate. While the structure itself is still mostly original today, the lack of original furniture disappoints some visitors. This feeling is understandable, and by no means do I consider such a sentiment misplaced or silly. We all visit historic homes partly because we are curious to see what they look like inside, and at first blush an empty room is nothing to be too excited about. But I take pains to point out to visitors that the National Park Service didn’t choose to preserve this particular house because it was old or because of the way it was designed, but because of the people who lived in it. The house, to paraphrase Vagnone, breathes life because of the people who were there during its 170-year existence as a private residence and the people who still visit it as a National Historic Site today. If the house and its original structural elements were to be completely destroyed tomorrow, the National Park Service would continue to oversee the site and tell the stories of the people who lived there, even if there was nothing original to actually see. But if people stopped coming to the site and the house became an empty hole of nothing beyond a historic structure, what would be the point of the NPS staying to preserve the site? It wouldn’t matter if each room had an abundance of historic artifacts – no one would be there to see it.
A historic house without any people in it breathes no life. Anyone who holds a leadership position at a historic house museum ought to remember that when designing interpretive programs or explaining to stakeholders why their particular site is important and worth preserving.
There remains much scholarly work to do when it comes to assessing the educational value of historical markers at public history sites. What do people take away from these markers? Do they even read them? What is an appropriate text length for a given marker, and how does the interpretive text writer balance the need to communicate historical content and nuanced interpretation while maintaining textual brevity? When markers accompany a controversial monument, statue, memorial, or other icon, do they ultimately provide an enhanced understanding of a given topic, or is it all a big waste of time? There are no easy answers and ultimately I have a love/hate relationship with the way most historical markers interpret history and provide educational value to viewers.
It’s been a really nice day today here in St. Louis, so I decided to take a stroll to nearby St. Charles, Missouri, to take a walk and look at a popular Lewis and Clark statue with accompanying historical markers. Downtown St. Charles is one of my favorite spots in the St. Louis area. Nestled along the Missouri River and not far from the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, the area offers numerous historic homes, museums, and markers that cover a range of local and state history. While there is a lack of historical materials interpreting the experiences of the area’s indigenous peoples, particularly the Missouri and Osage Indian tribes, I really like the fact that the sites in downtown St. Charles cover a wide historical time period ranging from early white European settlement and the 1804 Lewis and Clark voyage through St. Charles to the development of a railroad infrastructure and population boom in the last half of the nineteenth century. I took a few pictures while I was there:
Here are two pictures of the Lewis and Clark monument. The monument features William Clark (left), Meriwether Lewis (right), and Lewis’s Newfoundland dog “Seaman” (center).
The two historical markers for this monument leave much to be desired, in my opinion.
A number of questions arise in this first marker. The first and most important question is why does this topic matter? We learn that the Corps of Discovery is led by Lewis and Clark (and perhaps Seaman?), but we don’t learn why this expedition was organized, who organized it, why it came to St. Charles, or why we should care that any of this happened in the first place. Moreover, while the “brave men” of the Corps get an acknowledgement of their service, no mention is given to the enslaved labor that helped with the expedition, particularly Clark’s slave York. This marker seems primarily focused with acknowledging the various individuals and groups who worked to have the monument erected in the first place in 2003. The monument is very nice, but so far its educational value is rather dubious to me.
This second marker is nice but likewise lacks sufficient detail, in my opinion. We learn that the Corps of Discovery was here in May 1804 and that a ball was held for the expedition team while they were in town, but we still don’t know the purpose of this expedition except for a vague allusion to travels towards an “unknown West” (unknown to white Europeans, that is) and “great discoveries” they make on the trip, whatever those may be.
I don’t aim to denigrate anyone who may have worked on these marker texts. Rather, I aim to point out just how difficult it is to write historical marker texts that are educational, nuanced, and brief all at the same time. The work of putting these texts together is some of the most difficult work in public history.
What do you think? Would you change the text of these markers? How so?
A few months ago I was interviewed by the website Mental Floss about working for the National Park Service. The finished article went live a few days ago and I was quoted a few times, including an anecdote about one of the most memorable tours I’ve ever given. You can read it here. Enjoy!
The Junior Ranger Program is one of the most successful education initiatives the National Park Service has ever rolled out. Kids of all ages work on activity books as they go through a particular unit of the Park Service and, upon completion, get a Junior Ranger badge modeled after the badge that we park rangers wear on our uniforms. Almost every unit of the NPS participates in the program by creating their own unique educational activities. Some Junior Rangers may only go to one, two, or five parks during their youth, but others collect literally hundreds of badges. It’s a nice program that provides a chance for kids to learn about national parks, and I work really hard to provide an enjoyable learning experience for Junior Rangers who go on my tours.
One of the Junior Ranger activity books that we offer at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site includes a page where Junior Rangers are required to interview a Park Ranger. One of the interview questions is the following:
Which NPS value is most important to you? Why?
Caring for People
Caring for Places
Caring for Nature
I have thought a lot about this question and what my answer to it would be.
There are now currently 412 units of the National Park Service. Some of those places teach us about nature, wildlife, and the importance of protecting natural resources, while others tell us stories about our history and the importance of understanding the past. Some of the best sites find ways to incorporate lessons about both in their interpretive programming. Each NPS unit has a unique story. Some of those stories–ones the remind us of the wrongs of slavery, Indian removal, Japanese internment during World War II, the horrors and bloodshed of war–expose our country’s shortcomings and faults, forcing us to remember that there is much work to do in striving to create a more equal society that promotes liberty for all. Other stories remind us of the natural beauty of our country and the possibility of a better tomorrow that learns from and avoids the pitfalls of the past.
But while caring for places and nature is definitely important, the most important value to me, by far, is the importance of caring for people. What’s the point of taking care of a historic place or a natural wonder if nobody came to visit that place? How successful would the National Park Service be in executing its mission of preserving and providing access to America’s natural and cultural treasures if caring for people wasn’t the first priority? It is only when we care for people first and foremost–both the people who visit and the employees who dedicate their lives to this work–that we’re in a better position to care for historic places and natural wonders.
I have worked full-time for the National Park Service for two years and throughout my life I’ve visited probably 25 or 30 units of the NPS throughout the country (I’ve got a lot of work to do still). I love visiting every site, whether big or small, historic or scenic. My passion for history and the discovery that I could possibly find work educating people about history outside of a traditional classroom inspired me to give up my efforts to become a high school history teacher and pursue a career with the Park Service. It was an amazing feeling when the Grant site in my native St. Louis offered me a full-time job, and my role as a steward of the NPS and American history is not something I take lightly. That love of history initially drove me to the NPS, but it’s the people I interact with on a daily basis at my job and the people I meet during my own travels that make the NPS special to me. It’s the friendships I’ve made and the thoughtful people I’ve met from all over the country who inspire me to put on the green and gray uniform every working day and strive to do a better job tomorrow. I’ve given tours to TV personalities and NFL football players but also eight graders from Ferguson, senior citizens enjoying a life of retirement, and hard-working everyday people of all ages and backgrounds whose desire to learn from and enjoy NPS sites inspires them as they traverse thousands of miles around the country to find each unique place.
The NPS has its challenges going forward. We need to be a more inclusive place, both in our visitation and in our hiring practices. Not every day on the job is a great one. Working with the public can sometimes be a double-edged sword, like those times when a kids yells and screams during a tour or when I’m told by a visitor that my understanding of history is “completely wrong.” I have hopes for moving up the NPS career ladder, but I don’t know how that’s going to happen right now. Working any job for 40 hours a week is bound to be mentally grinding and monotonous at times. But the people I meet on a daily basis make my job a special one; the visitors who share their stories with me and take my tours; my co-workers who make my work environment a pleasant one and who challenge me to be a better historian and educator; those moments when a visitor smiles and says “I learned something new today.” That’s what the National Park Service is all about.
Here’s to another 100 years of preserving America’s natural and cultural resources.