The Future of Civil War History: Reflections (Part Three)

The final two sessions of The Future of Civil War History provided an opportunity for some open exchanges on what had been said and heard over the previous several days. Looking back on the program, I suspect that there might have been a better way to go about this. The penultimate session of “A Letter to the National Park Service” would have been better cast as a true conversation among presenters, and it would have been better placed at the end. The ultimate session was an exercise in frustration for me, for what had happened over the previous several days cried out for assessment, an assessment that could not be met by precirculated position papers that addressed other issues. Thus I felt that my comments, prepared in February, as well as the ensuing discussion, were somewhat out of place given the path the conference took. Fortunately, in my case I could ditch my old paper without consigning it to oblivion altogether by the simple act of posting it on this blog. Given the conversations I had and the impressions I formed over the previous two days, I asked that I be allowed to speak last, and moderator Aaron Sheehan-Dean graciously granted that request.

What was I thinking? Simple. I appreciated how well Peter Carmichael had structured the conference to advance some of the themes that had been on his mind. I had listened as presenter after presenter reminded me that war was a horrible thing, and that perhaps the NPS (and other historic site interpreters) had not made enough of that or used the site to engage visitors in various ways, even at the risk of offending them. Yet I had seen few academics participating in the field experiences where I was present: rather, most academics seemed content with the usual format of a scholarly conference where members of a panel read papers and entertained questions. Perhaps it would have been worthwhile to go on the field itself and talk about interpretation on site, whether on the ground or in various museums (it struck me as a shortcoming of the conference that attendees were not given the opportunity to go through the Gettysburg NMP visitor’s center to see what was being presented to visitors). Sometimes there was interaction between certain academic historians and certain public historians outside of certain sessions, but I might have provided for a more structured interaction in working groups. There were also people with experience in both areas, and I think that would have made for an interesting set of reflections.

The “Open Letter to the NPS” session included people who were from the NPS as well as people well-versed in public history, but I don’t think the session constituted anything resembling an open letter. Nor did it seem appropriate to hold forth on “the future of Civil War history,” lest the last session seem as detached from the conference as the first. So I winged it.

What I sensed was an incomplete understanding by a good number of academics on what park interpreters could do and some very decided impressions on what they should do that did not always take into account what they did do. Moreover, if one was to accept that site interpreters needed to talk more about “a nation at war,” then I thought we needed to move beyond the notion of battlefields as hellish places to talk about what was at stake for a people who divided over what they meant by liberty, freedom, and equality, and who found in war challenges to the very principles they strove to preserve, defend, and advance. I was far more sympathetic to discussions about understanding Reconstruction more as a transition in a larger struggle that included the Civil War, although it would be a challenge to show how that should be reflected in park interpretation (imagine a revised interpretation of the Gordon-Barlow incident that also reflected on Gordon’s postwar activity as a Klansman and Barlow’s willingness to let Florida go Democratic in 1876 after his wartime interest in commanding black soldiers). On the whole, however, I thought it a bit presumptuous of some academic historians to say what site interpreters should say without learning first what they did say, and I was disappointed to see so many follow rather eagerly along the “war is hell” avenue marked out so clearly by the format of the conference. Surely there are other ways to go about this, and I knew that I was not alone in my reactions, even if some people were too polite to spoil the moment. But there were some straw men milling about, as one panelist on the “Open Letter” session suggested.

Many of those thoughts, as well as the observations shared with me by various site interpreters, informed my rather  direct commentary, one that concluded by calling on NPS people to consider composing their own reply to what they had heard. Moreover, for all of the euphoria of the conference, if we didn’t ask “what’s next?” now, it would have been, as I feared, less than the sum of its parts, a moment not seized upon to begin something better.

Not unexpectedly, not everyone was pleased with my comments, as I learned later through the Twitter feed.

Whisnant 1

In five minutes it’s a bit hard to be nuanced, especially when one had the task of responding in a short period of time to several days of presentations and conversations, but sometimes the direct (and blunt) approach is a better way to get one’s attention. Stop signs aren’t nuanced, either. But they usually get your attention.

And I’m secretly pleased to be defined as someone who bashes academics. Ehren Foley’s tweet summarizes my point nicely (Anne Whisnant’s tweet preceded Foley’s tweet in terms of appearance on the #cwfuture hashtag tweet).

Apparently I wasn’t through with rubbing someone the wrong way.

Whisnant 2

Given that Anne Whisnant was on that panel, she’s free to offer her own opinion. After all, she has a foot in many camps, and has thought long and hard about these questions.  However, the theme of “what should we tell visitors to battlefields” was a theme of the conference, and all the expressions of good will and happiness about the conference should not obscure that fact, one that I found to be expressed all too often without nuance.

After someone drew my attention to this, however, I didn’t feel so bad … if anything it helped me understand my critic better.

(For more on Freeman Tilden, one might want to start here.)

Frankly, the question of whether The Future of Civil War History was a success depends on what happens in the future. I saw it as a point of departure, where participants interested in how historians (academic and public) engage a broader public in various venues (including various sites) laid out some premises. I yearn for some concrete proposals on how to implement some of the ideas circulated during the conference. I think that Peter’s Carmichael’s notion of “A Nation at War” is too narrowly defined, and that he’s overlooking other ways in which public engagement may take place (ever hear of blogging?). We can’t expect interpretation at historic sites to carry this burden alone, especially since the NPS is losing whatever monopoly it had on the interpretation of these sites. Ever hear of the emergence of smart phone and cell phone apps for such sites? Why not develop apps (and more traditional guides) that address the issues some people want to address directly? If anyone can be their own historian, why can’t academic historians who want historic sites to stress different themes work to reach their audience directly? It isn’t as if some of us have not composed battlefield guides already … so why not compose these other sorts of guides as well?

(For someone else’s thoughts on this, look here and here.)

The fact is that the old models of transmitting knowledge and interpretations are increasingly problematic in today’s world. We are going to have to think anew and act anew if we are to keep ahead of these changes instead of scrambling to keep up. As several NPS people, notably John Hennessy, pointed out, it takes time for the NPS to shift course to incorporate new perspectives and interpretations (it also takes money). Academic historians, working alongside public historians (after all, we are all historians), can embrace new technologies as a way to bypass the old obstacles to change. They can also think more about how well they reach a broader public in the first place, and how wedded many of them are to the traditional world of book/article/lecture where the information flow is largely one way and controlled by the historian.  Too much of what I saw and heard was thinking within the same old boxes, with the same concerns about authority and control that I’ve heard elsewhere.

In the end, of course, the conference was a promising first step, and not a stumble … but only if we now take a second and a third step. Otherwise, it won’t amount to much in the larger scheme of things. Here’s to more conversations.

36 thoughts on “The Future of Civil War History: Reflections (Part Three)

  1. Lloyd Benson March 24, 2013 / 3:08 pm

    Brooks Simpson says: “If anyone can be their own historian, why can’t academic historians who want historic sites to stress different themes work to reach their audience directly? It isn’t as if some of us have not composed battlefield guides already … so why not compose these other sorts of guides as well?”

    Precisely. Even better news is that this no longer requires advanced technical expertise on the part of scholars to accomplish, at least at a basic level. User-created field guide commentaries and mobile maps of the sort you call for are now well within the capability of historians and their audiences. You can do geo-tagging and geo-blogging without having to hire an app team or programming expertise. (Though there is a great deal to be said, too, for the value and insight that professional designers, programmers, and cartographers bring, and what we miss without their aid.) A smart phone and an account with or or some equivalent are the mapping equivalent of note-taking and commenting software — the raw materials for assembling precisely the sort of multivocal and interdisciplinary battlefield interactions people called for so frequently at the conference.

    Your point about field experiences is important. It might be interesting to assemble small interdisciplinary groups of historians, “citizens from the agency that shall not be named”, battlefield guides, and selected visitors (a sort of mini-conference, if you will) to create prototypes of what such a “new guidebook for a new era” might look like. This might be a chance to literally ground the story of reconstruction into the landscape, too. If you are looking for concrete first steps, this might be a good one. People are already planning to be at some of these sites for the 150th anniversaries. Why couldn’t someone organize a few prototype annotated walk-throughs?

    • M.D. Blough March 24, 2013 / 5:12 pm

      I like your idea in the last paragraph of your comment.

  2. Pat Young March 24, 2013 / 3:27 pm

    Hmmm, I’ve never thought about the subversive possibilities of battlefield apps before.

  3. Brad March 24, 2013 / 3:34 pm

    Having read all of Brooks’ reports, as well as Al’s and all the links that Al posted (and thank you both), it sounds like it’s one of those where you had to be there kind of conferences, especially with all that was swirling in the background.

    I think a conference about the Civil War as it’s currently interpreted and written would have been as interesting if not more so but perhaps that was also accomplished as well.

    • Al Mackey March 24, 2013 / 4:43 pm

      Many of the sessions were recorded, Brad. I’m still hoping Pete Carmichael takes my suggestion of producing a DVD. I think they’d make a profit on it.

      • Brad March 25, 2013 / 4:15 am

        That would be a good idea Al. I would buy it.

  4. Vince (Lancaster at War) March 24, 2013 / 5:39 pm

    Although I find the “nation at war” narrative fascinating–hence, my blog, “Lancaster at War”–the focus on NPS interpretation at battlefields is a little perplexing based on what I’m reading about the conference. If I had to showcase the “nation at war” theme in a tour format, it would be much more natural to do it walking around the four blocks of center-city Lancaster (PA) than walking from Seminary Ridge to Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg.

    So, to add to your suggestions about developing alternative apps and guides, what about historians who care about the “at war” themes essentially developing their own Civil War sites? This could be done by investing in local historical societies and museums to improve their interpretative efforts, or it could mean using high-tech apps to turn the world around us into a sort of virtual museum. Besides a blog focusing on battlefield-home front connections of a regiment and community, I’ve curated an exhibition at the local historical society on Civil War memory in that community, presented on how a congregation experienced the Civil War, and given tours of cemeteries, in addition to feeding as much information as I can to local institutions and individuals. These efforts certainly do not have the same mass audience as NPS parks, but they often provide a better match of interpretive mission and interpretive resources.

    • John M. Rudy March 24, 2013 / 6:51 pm


      Gotta disagree in the “Nation at War” being tougher on a “traditional” battlefield landscape. The story is just as readily found there, as long as you imagine it as more than a crude battlefield-to-be and place it into the context of things as simple (and sometimes as revolutionary) as “some farmer’s field,” or, “some woman’s garden,” or, “some free black man’s blacksmith shop.”

      Now, is it the only route to go? That I’m not so sure. I think that Brooks’ smorgasbord of meaning (yes, include the terror, but also the promise, the subversion, the hope, the broad implications of the sweep of the past) is moving far closer to the convoluted, confusing story of the past that’s more truthful and far more interesting.

      • Vince (Lancaster at War) March 24, 2013 / 9:39 pm

        “The story is just as readily found there, as long as you imagine it as more than a crude battlefield-to-be and place it into the context of things as simple (and sometimes as revolutionary) as “some farmer’s field,” or, “some woman’s garden,” or, “some free black man’s blacksmith shop.””–>I don’t think I understand this sentence.

        To be more specific and focus on 1863 & Pennsylvania, my point is that many communities have historical assets (broadly defined) better suited to interpreting a good number of themes related to “a nation at war” than the NPS at Gettysburg. These include topics such as politics in 1863, notions of dissent and loyalty, changing religious worldviews, gender roles, views about death, etc.

        • John M. Rudy March 25, 2013 / 12:59 pm

          OK, so what I’m saying is simple, I think: the historical assets (resources, in the industry parlance) in places like Gettysburg lend themselves to these “alternate” stories just as easily if you care to imagine them as more than simple military landscapes.

          For instance, Politics in 1863 (and 1862) are easily touched upon on the farmland owned by Edward McPherson, who until the fall ’62 election was a member of the House. He was trounced in the local elections and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was thew cudgel the local press used to beat him. That story can easily live within that traditional battle landscape.

          The Wentz House at the Peach Orchard is the perfect site to discuss loyalty and dissent, where a son fighting in the rebel army purportedly came to his father’s door and knocked, with no response even though his father was hiding in the basement. Purportedly, Wentz was heard to say in town after the battle, “I have no son.”

          The shifting in gender roles becomes quite simple nearly anywhere on the field, but works well on East Cemetery Hill, with the tale of Elizabeth Thorn and her struggles to take on a male patriotic sphere by burying scores of bodies after the battle while her husband was away in war, upending the traditional gender roles all while she was trying to fulfill her role as a pregnant woman simultaneously.

          Views on death can be grasped, again, nearly anywhere where Dr. John W. C. O’Neal made notes on the burials of the rebel dead, many of those spots on the traditional battlefield (and many not as well). How did loyalty destroy the sacrosanct temple of the human body and the respect for the dead which seemed to be dissolving as the war progressed?

          These aren’t the only places by far, but they’re some of the most powerful examples that first sprang to mind. What they require fundamentally is that you re conceptualize the battlefield as civilian space as well as military, that you look beyond the scope of the battle to a broader context. The military (both marching across the landscape and marching hundreds of miles away) has a profound effect on the landscape anywhere. I’m not sure Gettysburg is poorer for the battle. The battle has simply moved the spotlight (unfortunately) off of civilian struggles and understanding of the community beyond July 1-3, 1863.

          Does that make sense at all?

          • Al Mackey March 25, 2013 / 5:01 pm

            And the campaign’s effects on African-Americans can be discussed at the Bryan Farm.

          • Vince (Lancaster at War) March 25, 2013 / 8:30 pm

            Ah, yes, although my point is more about relative strengths and competitive advantages (sorry, too much reading lately of Harvard Business Review papers for an operations class that I’m teaching). A lineup of “nation at war” stories can be cobbled together for just about any community that existed in the 1860s, but they will naturally vary in their strength–i.e., their depth and connection to the resource on display.

            For instance, I’d consider trying to interpret politics in 1863 by looking at the farmland of Edward McPherson a weak spot in an interpretive lineup. While McPherson is certainly interesting and could be used to address many “nation at war” themes, how many days did he really spend on that farm, and is there anything to see there that tells us about politics in 1863? Other examples mentioned could provide weaker or stronger interpretive opportunities (I really liked this story when I read it a couple weeks ago: )
            But as far as small Pennsylvania towns go with the “at war” narrative, Gettysburg doesn’t seem all that special.

            So, going back to my original point, I believe the best opportunities to interpret the “nation at war” narrative are outside of NPS boundaries, and hope that academic historians are considering how they can invest in those opportunities and not just how they can influence what goes on within NPS boundaries. Perhaps it helps to state that I write out of frustration at the absence/scarcity of real efforts to interpret the Civil War history of Pittsburgh, my current city of residence, despite what appears to be a fascinating history of a city’s critical role in the war effort.

          • Al Mackey March 26, 2013 / 6:58 am

            The problem is that for all too many people, the NPS park, and specifically Gettysburg, will be their only exposure. If the Nation at War is something that is determined to be desirable to present, it will have to be there in addition to other places.

          • Vince (Lancaster at War) March 26, 2013 / 11:19 am

            A valid point, although I hope we can avoid it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  5. rortensie March 24, 2013 / 6:12 pm

    I think you really hit something that I have been trying to convey to our Program about embracing the new technologies. And its probably something NPS is grappling with much like the Air Force Program is: one, those that have been in the Program forever (still complain about using a computer instead of yellow legal pads and handing that to a secretary to type up for them); two, totally against anything new because its not how we used to do it so it has to be wrong; and three, lack of financial support.

    Since coming to the dark side as I like to call it (the Museum side of our Program), I have really tried to get the field museums I have oversight over to grasp new technologies. One study claims that the new generation going through museums/sites only reads at 140 characters. Some museums are shorting their explainations and then putting in QR tags for smart phones. Yes, I have been accused of rocking the boat, having “stupid” ideas, and too young to be making changes (just for the record, I am over 40). Oh, and my favoriate, being a bully.

  6. rcocean March 24, 2013 / 6:19 pm

    Battlefield guides and histories should deal with the the battle and men who fought them. Discussing slavery, civil rights, and all the rest is simply imposing an agenda on people who go to visit the battlefields. Military history is military history we don’t need people bored by “broadening” the discussion and finger-wagging.

    • M.D. Blough March 25, 2013 / 12:09 am

      Aren’t you imposing your agenda on people who visit the battlefield if battlefield interpretation is restricted to the parameters you want? The fact that you are bored doesn’t mean anyone else is. It’s actually relatively easy to avoid expanded interpretation at Gettysburg if you don’t go to the film or the museum and you chose your battlefield tours correctly. To me, why a war happened and why it continued and why it ended in the way it did is a central issue. This was our bloodiest war, by a wide margin, and it was fought on our own soil, not against some unquestionably foreign invader, but among ourselves. You may not care why it happened, but many do. Military history is HISTORY and history demands context.

      • Al Mackey March 25, 2013 / 9:47 am

        It’s impossible to not impose an agenda when you’re interpreting the battlefield. Every choice you make of what to include and what not to include is based on your agenda. It just depends on whose agenda is imposed.

      • rcocean March 25, 2013 / 5:51 pm

        There are at least 20 major civil war battlefields and scores more of minor ones. The idea that all of them have to discuss the general issue of slavery, why the war started and civil rights is absurd. No doubt you would love to go from battlefield to battlefield hearing the same general points over and over again about slavery, civil rights, etc. but most of need to only hear it once. This is just a bunch of people -bored with military history – wanting to ‘broaden the discussion” when the public doesn’t want it “broadened”.

  7. Brad March 25, 2013 / 4:21 am

    Exactly. Military history in and of itself without the whys and wherefores presents an incomplete story and leaves, at least in my opinion, the deaths of many without meaning. People don’t be randomly offer to give up their lives without a goal they think is worth fighting for.

    • Al Mackey March 25, 2013 / 9:46 am

      I agree completely. Without the context you are actually robbing their deaths of meaning. Instead it’s just a bunch of folks who came together here and for some reason started shooting at each other, they killed a lot of folks, and then they left. No reason why they felt the need to kill each other. They just happened to wake up that morning and started shooting with no reason.

  8. Mark March 25, 2013 / 9:52 am

    I’ve enjoyed my battlefield visits in recent years both from a military history and contextual perspective on the entire war and think there’s been a good balance. However, as I read your posts it seems to me like you see Carmichael’s agenda is something different from that. When I read things like he wants us to understand “the notion of battlefields as hellish places” I have two reactions:

    First – Does he think we are idiots and don’t already realize that?

    Second – It smells to me like an agenda that indicates frustration that my visits to these battlefields have not turned me into an anti-war activist and therefore my battlefield visit experience needs to be transformed into something that better accomplishes that objective.

    There can sometimes be a thin line between interpretation and indoctrination and, as you describe it, Carmichael seems on the wrong side of that line.

    Perhaps I’m reading too much into your posts Brooks, but that’s been my takeaway.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 25, 2013 / 1:35 pm

      I don’t want to misrepresent what Peter’s saying, and I really wish he’d offer his viewpoint in a way that can be shared and digested as well as discussed and debated. At times I agree that something can be done along the lines he suggests, although I think that the interests of visitors are so diverse that it’s next to impossible to impose any sort of shared experience on them. Given how my mind works, I look to see how one can implement ideas in concrete forms.

      I agree that there’s a difference in making people think and telling them what to think, and at times I believe Peter’s ideas come closer to the latter than the former, although I doubt that’s his intention. But I’ve been wrong before.

      • Brad March 25, 2013 / 3:08 pm

        Is the war as hell theme supposed to be a return to the avoidable conflict school of interpretation?

        • Brooks D. Simpson March 25, 2013 / 3:38 pm

          Perhaps not that, but perhaps a “was it worth it?” type of inquiry.

  9. John Hennessy March 25, 2013 / 6:40 pm

    I write not in response to any particular comment here (and many of them are very good), but in general to Brooks’s three posts and my own observations about the conference.

    Stepping back, the conference was, by a wide margin, the greatest gathering of historical minds ever in the interest of interpreting the Civil War to the public. The normally episodic interaction between public historians and the university-based historians who do so much to fuel our work yielded to three days of being locked in the same space together. There was a bit of pushing and pulling to be sure, and occasional bewilderment on both sides, but I emerged hopeful and a good deal energized (tempered by the &%@!%! sequester). If this conference ends up historic in its own right, it will be so not because of the the inevitable fissures and disagreements (that’s what conferences are for), but because of the immense step it may well represent in the evolution of public history as it relates to the Civil War. We fuss and grumble, but we hear and react, too. I do think there was a good deal of listening going on.

    The great legacy of the conference will be the acts it inspires. I have no doubt many of us carried away things we will put to use. But the rock will roll slowly, make no mistake about that. Why? Because the ultimate arbiter of what we do is the public–the people who participate in our programs (or not). We can nudge and push and provoke, but intellectual mayhem is untenable in our business. And so…we go slow (and that, of course, is what frustrates so many in academia).

    I don’t worry about keeping the “conversation” going, because it’s already happening (in fact it was happening BEFORE the conference). The conference enhanced all of our connections with scholars most relevant to what we do. Social media continues to buzz. And in the NPS we are talking (we do still have email and phones, at least). Peter’s concept of a “Nation at War” will never be grabbed whole-hog and put before the public. But some of its best ideas will be. So too for Civil War to Civil Rights, Holding the High Ground, and the next great interpretive concept that comes down the road.

    And, as I said at the conference, I think the most important part of this conversation is the continuous infusion of young, educated minds into our business. Interns, seasonals, graduate students, and even undergraduates have had a powerful effect on interpretive programs at NPS sites. Us oldsters can talk all we want, but the most important thing we can do is clear the way so those who will follow can improve on the work we have done.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 25, 2013 / 7:05 pm

      This seems a fair assessment. What I think distinguished this particular conference was the fact that these discussions went on in the open and were shared through social media. I thought it a good idea to bring in more than the usual suspects from the academy (and, indeed, some of them were not present). I believe that we need to have a more open-ended discussion on the goals of site interpretation as well as other ways that historians can communicate with a broader public in various ways. If the goal is to engage a varied public across a broad front, then we have to think of exploring different ways of doing that, not all of which are site- or NPS-dependent.

      I personally saw signs that there’s been a transition underway in the relationship between academic and public historians (these categories sometimes obscure far more than they define, and emphasize differences over commonalities). That’s not to say that you couldn’t see signs of some old patterns, but one could depart from the conference convinced that this need not be the case in years to come, which I think contributed to the positive outlook of many attendees.

    • John Foskett March 27, 2013 / 7:40 am

      As an aside, John raises a legitimate background concern about all of this in one short paranthetical. If the sequester becomes semi-permanent, this debate may be much well-intentioned ado about nothing (or about less) when it comes to NPS work at battlefields. In Grand Teton NP, for example, the sequester has required a reduction in the number of seasonal climbing rangers hired this summer. This will have significant impacts on SAR missions, etc. I can only imagine where the NPS will slot “history” (although I have no idea how much of that is fixed costs).

  10. Peter Carmichael March 27, 2013 / 2:04 am

    Sorry to join this conversation late as I have been on the road. My comments are primarily directed at Brooks and John. If I could have some do-overs with the conference, I would have designed a session dedicated to a reflective assessment of the conference and it would have included concrete suggestions about what to do next. My remarks about the need to take a cultural turn during the last session were better suited for urinal conversation at an academic conference! I missed the target badly but I also thought it poor form to organize a conference and then turn around and offer myself the keynote. What’s next? Giving myself an honorary degree from Gettysburg College. I have a better chance of being an honorary mascot for a football game.

    I think Brooks has expectations of the conference that exceed what is realistically possible. It is hard for me to imagine how such an event could have producded a planning document that spells out possible ways that academic and public historians could collaborate in directing the future of Civil War history. These changes happen in a very spontaneous and Balkanized way as evident by the response to the Holding the High Ground document. With that said. I do agree that concrete steps need to be spelled out and I will be asking all the participants from the conference for such feedback. This will take some time since I do have a day job, but I expect that those who are thoughtful and open to reflection will offer some creative ideas for the future. Those who are determined to define this event as either NPS or academic bashing are stuck in the muck of the past. John is correct about the amazing collaboration between academics and public historians that has occurred over the last 15 years. Those who believe that they were under attack are creating a distorted and deeply anti-intellectual narrative of the event. Conferences are intended to generate intellectual heat and get out of the kitchen if you cant handle it. This is not the business for those whose intellectual existence is built on claiming persecution or estrangement. I have even less patience with those who insist that they were excluded from the event. People need to check their egos at the door and contribute by being part of the audience. Everyone was invited and we had an incredible mix of people. This conference in particular had a format that encouraged audience participation. And the cost of the conference was ridiculously low thanks to Getysburg College. The estrangement line is an empty criticism and reflects poorly upon those making it.

    John points to one of the key issues that deserves closer scrutiny. Public Historians have to practice shared authority in ways that never surface on an academic radar. And their engagement with public audiences offers incredibly rich opportunities to learn about the different ways that people think historically or in some cases dont think historically at all. I wished that I had directed the final panels to explore this critical dimension that is unique to how public historians practice their craft.

    I do believe, however, that John wildly overstates his case that academics practice intellectual mayhem. And my nation at war suggestion is one of many interpretive approaches that gets to a usable past. It is not an attempt to instigate interpretive anarchy. I also never suggested that a nation at war become the dominat interpretive framework for the future of academic or public history. There should be many lines of inquiry or frameworks and that is why I am so uncomfortacle with the Civil War to Civil Rights NPS mantra which puts the war on a trajectory of inevitable progress and human freedom. It is also allows us to demonstrate that 150th is not your father’s centennial, which is not a bad thing, but it enables us to feel good about ourselves and this leads to hubris, a subtle intellectual arrogance that makes it difficult for us to explore a range of interpretive possibilities that don’t involve race and questions of human freedom. Of course those isuses matter and they are central to understanding the war but they are not the only issues. Of the many possibilities I think that academics and public historians should facilitate conversations that help Americans develop a long historical perspective on the moral and poltical issues of war.

    The irony to all of this is that when academics like myself push ideas that we think should be discussed in the classroom and at historic sites we are criticized for not understanding audience. Maybe so. But let’s not forget that such suggestions are in keeping with interpretive guru Freeman Tilden’s call for provocation through alternative approaches and ideas. Provocation also requires that we surrender intellectual authority—the battle cry of Public historians—which i think John and many others accept in the abstract but are uncomfortable when it comes to implementation. Open ended discussions with our audiences and classrooms–rather than locked down narratives that prove a single theme or thesis which in turn confirm our status as authority figurses to our students and the public–is essential if everybody is going to become his or her historian. Isnt that what we want from our students and the public? Dont we want them to puzzle through these issues on their own? While this is certainly being practiced at historical sites and in the classroom to a limited degree, I find that historians of all stripes are unwilling to share the podium or the walking tour with their audience. There are good reasons for this but unless we are bolder on this front. (This is where apps and gaming experience could revolutionize the way students and visitors engage historical sites. there is untapped power in technolgy to give the student and visitor the authority to control their learning experience) we can never hope for the relevancy that seemingly eludes us as a profession.

    John did not hear my nation at war commentary so I am not sure why he believes it is not practical or appropriate for public audiences. But his point that the public would not accept my ideas is telling, as it illustrates the critical area where academic and public historians cross swords. I am quite comfortable with elements of the public feeling uncomfortable or rejecting my nation at war approach. Success for me is getting people to think. I don’t need my programs to be well received or to be popular. Public historians have to be more sensitive to this issue. I get it. Most of my fellow academics probably don’t but I will say that success of interpretive programs can’t be based.on numbers or the applause of the crowd. I think John should be willing to take greater risks, and trust that audiences want to be challenged. Moreover, we know that historians of the 1960s were unwilling to take intellectual risks out of fear of losing their audiences when it came to matters of race. Are we not making a similar mistake now because we are afraid that our students and the public will feel estranged or uncomfortable, that they will see us as being too political if we connect the civi war to our global conflicts today? My suggestion will not lead to intellectual mayhem. It asks us to confront tough issues that we have a moral obligation to face when we are asking Americans to fight and die for our nation in a war that appears endless.

    In time we will have a book from the conference and CWI will be a rallying point every summer for academics, public historians, the public and graduate students. More specifics later. It is 4 a.m. and I am tired of auto correct on my IPad reconfiguring my words. I am eager to hear from others who have concrete suggestions about ways that academics and public historians can collaborate in reaching diverse audiences.

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 27, 2013 / 7:58 am

      Thanks for your reflections, Pete. It is testimony to the success of the conference that it has engendered such a lively discussion. You deserve a lot of credit for providing the opportunity for such engagement.

      While I don’t think I expected as much from the conference as you might think (which is why I called it a “first step”), I think it is reasonable to wish that you would set forth your notions about “A Nation at War” in comprehensive fashion for all to read. I think it is a perspective that deserves discussion. There are ways to incorporate some of its insights in concrete ways in battlefield and museum interpretation. As for the honorary degree, I thought that was what your baseball cap was. It’s good to see you in Wahoo navy and orange.

      I think in retrospect that it would have been a challenge to anticipate the energy generated by the conference in such a way as to plan the final sessions to serve as a way to react and summarize.

      As for ways in which historians can interact with a broader public in an environment of give and take, well, welcome to the blogosphere. How do you reconcile your interest in gatekeeping with notions of surrendering authority?

      Again, Pete, congratulations on the conference. Understand that these discussions are evidence of what it inspired.

  11. Anne Whisnant March 27, 2013 / 6:35 pm

    Catching up to this late, I see. But given that my tweets about the final session at #cwfuture seem to have formed some of the basis of the initial post, I thought I should respond. It is true that my perception of that final session was that remarks from Brooks and others launched what seemed to me gratuitous and unnecessary attacks on “academic historians” and revived (almost for the first time during this wonderful conference) the old (and largely unhelpful) “academic vs.public” historian split. Now, the conversation above seems pretty rambling and multi-dimensional, and at points I feel that we all agree on a whole lot more than we disagree on — but at other points, I am not so sure. So let me respond quickly to a few points:

    1. Academic vs. public division/bashing of academics: Although I was near the back of the room during the final panel and honestly could not see too well who was talking, I did have the sense that some of the panelists–I guess it was Brooks–seemed determined to take “academics” to task for somehow misunderstanding/not speaking appropriately to/not being able to understand the work of those “public historians” out there on the front lines every day. I felt–again perhaps not accurately–that this was somehow a jab directed at least obliquely at me and my colleagues who wrote the Imperiled Promise (state of history in the NPS) study–who I actually felt were made something of the butt of a joke (the “straw man” comment and subsequent applause) during the “Open Letter to the NPS” panel.

    With my own complicated professional identity as a PhD historian employed in a professional administrative STAFF postion in a university (“alt-ac” in today’s parlance) who nevertheless manages to publish (a scholarly book), teach an annual course in public history, co-lead a digital public history project, and do contract work for the NPS (three other studies in addition to Imperiled Promise) all on the side, I took issue with being lumped implicitly into some undifferentiated category called “academic historians” who just don’t “get it.”

    As my situation demonstrates, the university is changing, and the contours of PhD & historians’ employment are changing. And, as a consequence, the old, clearer “academic” or “public” categories–based on place of employment–become less and less useful. Although it is true that my main salary comes from a university, it is also simultaneously true that my professional HISTORY work is done on the side, crosses back and forth between the academic and public realms, and is largely NOT shaped by the historical strictures of the faculty tenure and promotion system. (My faculty appointment is adjunct, non-tenure-track, and non-paid, except on a per-course basis when I am teaching; I am paid in my main appointment to run the Office of Faculty Governance, not to do history.) Indeed, it might be pointed out that defining historians in the future by their place of employment may become less and less tenable for all of us as many will find it harder to secure full-time jobs that pay them to be historians, primarily. And that may, in turn, continue to break down the “academic vs public” divide.

    Additionally, with my scholarly book having been written on a topic of great public interest (the Blue Ridge Parkway), I have had an extraordinary opportunity over the last seven years to interact directly with MANY publics interested in this history through dozens and dozens of public presentations in many contexts. Finally, the FOUR contract NPS studies on which I have been co-writer or project chair (De Soto National Memorial Administrative History, Cape Lookout National Seashore Historic Resource Study, Shenandoah NP Handbook, and Imperiled Promise) have required all manner of interaction with NPS professionals (a certain sector of the public, for sure) in designing and executing work that is designed to benefit the public. Which brings me to my final point: “the public” is in fact many publics, “public history” certainly ranges far beyond the quintessential park ranger in the flat hat giving a tour, and many of us who don’t fit that description are nevertheless–by work and outlook–“public historians.”

    So, to conclude this part: I absolutely believe (and agree with any points made above) that “historians”–wherever and however they may practice–ought to stop worrying so much about these boundaries, find their points of common interest, and work together to demonstrate the relevance and importance of historical inquiry to many audiences. I thought, for the most part, the Gettysburg conference was carried off in this collaborative spirit (and thus would not, Pete, suggest that the meeting was primarily characterized by “bashing” of any group, or by any group or entity spending the meeting “under attack” –until right there at the end). In fact, a redeeming element of the final panel was, I thought, when the person (audience member, I think?) suggested that what needed to happen, rather than historians on either “side” bashing each other, was for all cultural workers to come together to fight the systematic defunding and devaluation of all of our labors (university, national park, archive, whatever).

    2. Getting the NPS to do stuff/taking interpretive matters into our own hands, etc.: The second point that strikes me in the discussion above has to do with the suggestion that somehow the meeting/we/I/whoever put way too much emphasis on telling the NPS what IT should do, at the expense of, or in place of, using technology/other means, etc. to subvert NPS interpretive dominance. This characterization also distorts the truth. First, as for the NPS focus–well, the penultimate session was titled “Open Letter to the NPS,” and was (at least as I was given to believe as we prepared for it ahead of time) to focus at least partly on the Imperiled Promise report–in which I and my three colleagues had been asked to consider HISTORY PRACTICE IN THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE. That was the topic! Of course other entities can and should pick up the work.

    But secondly, regarding “academics” or other non-NPS historians taking the opportunity presented by technology to create their own interpretative spaces through which to reach multiple audiences with their own new narratives, that’s exactly what I’ve tried to do in Driving Through Time: The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway — a digital public history project I’ve been co-leading since 2009 with colleagues at, yes, the University of North Carolina AND, yes, with the collaboration of the National Park Service (it’s their archive we are putting online). See

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 27, 2013 / 11:40 pm

      Thanks for joining the conversation here, Anne.

      I did not have the content of the penultimate session in mind when I delivered my comments, so you should not take anything I said as directed at you. And I understand how several people who are either academics or straddle academic/public identities are tired of a portrayal that features the two at loggerheads. My own notion is that it would be misleading to say that such tensions was absent in certain corners, and I saw signs of it here and there throughout the conference. Moreover, my comment about academics reaching larger audiences must be taken in context of recent claims about the growing irrelevance of academic historians in public discourse about history … and many of these claims have come from academic historians. Some academic historians have expressed some level of dismay at what I said (which I expected), but this was not the case with those people who identify themselves primarily as public historians outside the academy.

      Everyone who participated in the last two sessions, I think, prepared for a significantly different exchange from what happened: I discarded my original comments altogether. But my thoughts were formed before the “Open Letter” session took place, and, just as that session pointed to a letter to the NPS, I thought it would be a good idea to see what NPS people took from the conference (and we’ve had one respond here). Another NPS person took me aside afterwards and responded to my request, and I found that conversation interesting and revealing … and not in the least defensive. In short, different people had different experiences.

      That said, I agree with Pete, John, and you when you say that too much can be made of this, and that in the past positing such a division tended to bring conversations to a halt and acted as a damaging distraction. Yet it has become a focus here in these comments and elsewhere, even if it is people arguing as to whether it existed and what, if anything, that means. It should not be the focus. As someone who works in a graduate program that features public history, and as some one who works with aspiring public historians and has been engaged by the NPS as a consultant, I know that old construct is badly dated, even if one sees remnants of it here and there. Many people have experience in both spheres, so it’s not an either/or issue of identity in reality. To me one of the great achievements of Pete’s conference was that much of it moved past these timeworn patterns. My own experience at the conference involved at least as much time with public historians as with academics, and I didn’t notice much difference in my conversations about the issues discussed at the conference with either group. It was in reported experience (and elsewhere) that I saw traces of past issues. Different people read things in different ways, and I’d prefer to accept that and set it in the context of a very successful conference that moved beyond that than to deny its existence altogether.

      As John Hennessy has pointed out, one should expect a certain amount of back and forth in talking about these matters, and that doesn’t bother me. Better that than simply proclaiming the conference a great experience and leaving it at that.

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