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.
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.
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?
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.