Tag Archives: public history

The limits of recovered experiences

A reader left a comment to my last post about Conner Prairie’s new Civil War exhibit, but she posted it on the “About the Blog” page.  It’s a good comment that deserves a serious response, so I’m going to re-post it here.

She says: “Your review takes very strong positions of the Civil War at Conner PRairie [sic] and completely withholds any observations about the validity of the history, the educational merits or the quality of the visitor experience. Have you visited conner prairie, Michael?”

I haven’t been to Conner Prairie, but I hope to someday.  It’s one of the more important public history sites in the country and pioneered the use of living history for educational purposes.  My criticism is not aimed at Conner Prairie in general, but rather at some specific techniques used in the new Morgan’s Raid exhibit.

First of all, let me address my (admittedly quite snarky) remarks about the children’s play area.  I think it’s a misfire.  I don’t see any educational benefit in letting kids shoot water cannons, splash around in a pool, or climb around on a structure that bears a passing resemblance to a riverboat.  Kids learn by doing, it’s true—but not all “doing” entails learning.

She’s correct that I didn’t say very much about the historical content or educational utility of the exhibit itself.  The reason I didn’t is because Conner Prairie’s publicity material didn’t really emphasize the content.  Instead, the emphasis is on the visceral experience visitors are meant to have.  The press release I quoted in my post promises that guests “will feel they have lived through a piece of the war and that they had to make the same choices about what to support and who to believe that Hoosiers had to make 150 years ago.”

Historic sites and museums seem to be hitting us in the heart and in the gut these days.  Exhibit planners and site administrators want us to experience what Civil War combat was like, or understand the difficult decisions runaway slaves faced, or sympathize with Abraham Lincoln, or whatever.  Increasingly, public historians are trying to put visitors in historical figures’ shoes.  I think they’re not as successful at this as they’re telling themselves and their audience.

Sure, we can experience some of the outward aspects of life in the past.  That’s one of the things that places like Conner Prairie can do that you can’t do with any other educational medium.  We can get a taste of some common household chore or feel the heft of a knapsack.  We can even sample the sights and sounds of a battle, and see how formations of soldiers moved and fought.

But no matter how much money we spend, no matter how effective our sound systems or how advanced our special effects, we simply can’t recreate the inner experiences of long-dead people.  Being an Indiana civilian caught in the middle of an attack by Confederate raiders involved much more than sounds, smoke, and costumes. There was terror, pain, and uncertainty—all the emotions that one would have if armed men tore into one’s community dealing death and destruction.  That’s a check that no public historian can cash.

Even if we could find a way to make visitors fear for their lives (and wouldn’t that be a hoot?), they’d still process those emotions and thoughts as citizens of the twenty-first century.  One of my historical maxims is that people of the past didn’t just do things differently; they were different.  Their worldviews were the products of accumulated experiences and beliefs that were fundamentally different from ours.  Here’s an example from two very different books.  One of my college professors, Dr. Earl Hess, wrote a very fine study about Union soldiers in combat.  He noted that many of these troops compared fighting to hard, arduous work.  This made sense, because a lot of them shared some background in agricultural labor.  It was a way to get their heads around the experience of battle and explain it to others.  In Black Hawk Down, by contrast, Mark Bowden notes that American soldiers who found themselves caught up in a deadly firefight in Somalia in 1993 compared their experience of combat to modern war films.  While dodging bullets, they thought to themselves something along the lines of, “I’m in a movie!”  Both groups processed the singular experience of combat in ways that mirrored their lifestyles and worldviews, but those lifestyles and worldviews were grounded in different eras.

This is not to say that I think teaching about the emotions and experiences of the past has no place in public history.  It most certainly does.  But both the public historian and the visitor must remember that while we can and should learn about those experiences, we can’t have them.  And we probably wouldn’t want to.

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Blogging public history and the Civil War

A new blog called “Interpreting the Civil War” debuted this month, and it sounds right up my alley:

“…I think our blog title sums us up pretty well. Interpreting The Civil War – Connecting Civil War to the American Public describes a great deal what this blog is going to focus on, and what we’re all about. Basically, our blog is going to discuss public history mainly through the lens of the Civil War.”

With the Sesquicentennial underway, these guys won’t be lacking for material. Head on over to the site and have a look.

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Historic sites going wireless

The always-stimulating Mysteries and Conundrums blog has a post that’s well worth reading for anybody interested in historic site interpretation.  John Hennessy looks into the near future at what wireless devices might bring to public history.

Some NPS sites are already taking advantage of the ubiquity of cell phones to incorporate them into their educational efforts, as I’ve noted here before.  It’s a handy, unobtrusive way to do an audio tour.  Now that wireless devices capable of handling images and video are becoming almost as common as basic phones, visitors can also access pictures, maps, movies, GPS, and any number of other types of information, all while standing on a battlefield.

Hennessy notes one implication of all this that I hadn’t considered.  As people find that there are opportunities to generate such material for visitors to access (sometimes for a profit), the NPS and other preservation/interpretation agencies “will be in the position of having to compete for our visitors’ attention, even when they are physically within spaces we manage.”

Imagine ten or twenty visitors standing at a tour stop, each one with a wireless device, accessing completely different types of information from independent sources.  Some of these sources won’t be as reliable as others, of course, which is cause for some concern.  But the possibilities of a scenario like this are still pretty exciting.

Visitors bring their own needs to a site—some people need basic orientation, while others will want more in-depth coverage.  If each visitor has access to whatever information they want while they are at the site, then they can tailor their own interpretation to their level of knowledge and interest.

Personally, one of the things that excites me the most is the possibility of mixing GPS with visual and audio data.  If you had a handheld device capable of both taking a GPS reading and pulling up images, text, or audio information keyed to particular locations, then you could have as many tour stops as you wanted, each one packed with reams of information, and the device could access all this automatically.  You could even orient it to the direction the visitor was facing.  And it wouldn’t require any intrusion into the landscape of the site at all, since the information would be transmitted invisibly through the air and into a visitor’s iPhone, iPad, or whatever.

Check out the Civil War Augmented Reality Project to see some of what might be possible.

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Preservation, interpretation, destinations, and denominations

Going back to the subject of Mormon historical tourism, here’s a pretty extensive list of LDS historic sites in the U.S.  Some are full-fledged, public history-type institutions, with the usual trappings: visitor centers, guided tours, restored buildings, exhibit areas, and so on.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, this kind of extensive effort to preserve, restore, and interpret a chain of church-related historic sites all over the country is unique to Mormonism.  Just about all of the major American denominations have archives and historical societies.  But historic sites and museums operated under the aegis of a national church body are few and far between.  Some of these churches have episcopal structures that could theoretically oversee this sort of thing, and even de-centralized groups like the Southern Baptist Convention have cooperative programs to fund education and missions, but it seems that no religious group is nearly as active in preservation and interpretation program as the Mormons.

So why is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints devoting so much more effort to running historic sites than other religious groups?  I can think of a few possible reasons.

First, there’s a steady supply of enthusiastic volunteers to keep the sites going.  As I noted in my review of the Illinois LDS sites, that church actually utilizes its missionaries to work at them.  This is critical, because interpreters are the foot soldiers of large historic sites.  With lots of young people and retired couples eager to serve eighteen-month or two-year stints as missionaries, and a church organization willing to post them at historic sites, the church has both the human resources and a framework in place to deploy them.  Of course, evangelicals are keen on winning converts, too.  The Southern Baptist Convention recruits, trains, and supports laypeople who serve on the domestic and international mission fields.  They don’t, however, employ them as historic site interpreters.  The fact that the LDS church does so says something about the importance of history to this religion.

Second, Mormonism’s origins are both domestic and comparatively recent.  That makes its most important historic locations more accessible to preservation.  There are plenty of significant places in the U.S. that would make for great Baptist or Methodist historic sites, but none that are as cherished to these denominations as Hill Cumorah or Carthage Jail are to Mormonism.  You’d probably have to go to Europe to find a Protestant equivalent, or maybe even the Middle East.  (Come to think of it, there actually is a living history site at Nazareth, but we’re getting waaayyyy beyond the scope of this blog with that one.)

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Mormonism has embraced its own distinctiveness.  The church has a long history of suffering persecution, misunderstanding, and exile, and this lends itself to historic consciousness.  You’re more likely to hold onto your history if it’s a cornerstone of your identity.  As I said in a previous post, visitation to Historic Nauvoo is 80% Mormon.  This suggests that a lot of the people who go there want to be reminded of who they are and who they used to be, and why their deposit of faith is something significant.

Still, since the church deploys its missionaries to places like Historic Nauvoo, it’s tempting to wonder whether or not historic tourism is an effective means of proselytizing.  I don’t have any figures, so I don’t know the answer.  I can say from my own recent experience that if it doesn’t win converts, it does at least win interested observers.  I doubt I’ll ever become a Mormon, but since visiting Nauvoo and Carthage I’ve become fascinated with Mormonism’s origins as a subject of study—as an interesting historical phenomenon, in other words.  That’s generally how it goes with historic sites.  I can’t tell you how many Civil War buffs have told me that they owe their obsession to a battlefield visit.

But you can’t use your history to generate interest if you don’t have a platform for doing so.  All those church archives and historical societies operated by the bigger denominations are important enterprises, but it’s mostly researchers and history enthusiasts who will use them.  Heritage tourism reaches a broader audience, even if it’s the already-converted who need to know more about their own spiritual heritage.

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Who watches the Watchmen? Maybe public historians should.

Sometimes public historians can find instructive lessons in unlikely places.  Take Hollywood, for example—an industry not known for either intellectual sagacity or scrupulous adherence to historical fact, but one that’s got the art of transferring messages pretty well covered.

When you’re dealing with the past, you’re dealing with different worlds.  All your assumptions have to go out the window—assumptions about the way people think, relate to each other, make a living, etc.  You’re entering a world with its own parameters and its own logic.  In that respect, it’s a little like playing Dungeons & Dragons.  You’ve got to know how the board is set up, what the rules are, and what the forces are that govern the action.

This, I think, is one of the biggest challenges to doing effective public history.  In exhibits and documentaries, you generally have little space and time to convey information.  How do you establish the parameters of the world you’re taking your audience into, given these limitations?  How do you familiarize your audience with the contours of a particular time and place in a way that seems effortless?

The makers of Watchmen, the movie based on the acclaimed graphic novel of the same name, were faced with this same problem.  They, too, had to find a way to orient the audience to a world that’s similar to, but also quite distinct from, our own, and I think there’s a thing or two we can learn here.

In case you’re into neither comics nor movies, Watchmen is set in an alternate 1980’s America in which comic book-style superheroes not only exist, but have influenced the course of U.S. history since before WWII.  This America, like our own, has fought wars in Europe and Vietnam, landed on the moon, and become a protagonist in the Cold War.  But the existence of heroes has altered this America’s history at critical points.  Superhero intervention, for example, secured U.S. victory in Vietnam (and thereby ensured Nixon’s continual re-election).  But it also exacerbated tension with the Soviets, so that by the mid-1980’s the world of Watchmen stands on the brink of nuclear annihilation.

Since the movie’s world has its own logic and its own historical background, establishing its context becomes something of a problem.  The conventional approach would be to use scrolling text or a voice-over, recounting all the necessary background with traditional narrative and exposition. 

The filmmakers have taken a more deft and creative approach.  In the opening title sequence, a series of brief little vignettes recount the history of this alternate America and the main characters’ backgrounds by depicting instantly-recognizable moments from American history as they would have played out in Watchmen‘s hero-inhabited universe. 

The plane that drops an atom bomb on Hiroshima flies by, only it’s named after a scantily-clad female crimefighter whose image is painted on the fuselage.  An atomic-powered superhuman shakes hands with President Kennedy.  Another is the subject of an Andy Warhol painting, while a third poses for photographers outside Studio 54.

If you haven’t seen the movie, you can occasionally find this sequence online.  I say “occasionally” because Warner Bros. keeps asking sites that post the video to remove it, which is why a link here is just as likely to take you to a dead end as it is to the sequence itself.  Just go see the movie.*

This five-minute sequence tells you everything you need to know about Watchmen‘s America and its past, with no text or narrative of any kind.  It’s just a series of these historical clips set to the tune of “The Times They Are a-Changin'” by Bob Dylan.  It’s a creative and very effective solution to the problem of context.

Let me suggest that Watchmen offers this lesson for anyone engaged in public history: Figure out the contours of the world in which you’re trying to place your audience, and then find a creative way to establish them. 

The people who tell myths and fables succeed or fail based on their mastery of communication.  Historians engaged in telling the truth should try to be at least as savvy as they are.

*On a related note, you may be wondering why I haven’t added a little pizzazz to this post with a still or poster image from Watchmen.  Well, Virginia, here at Past in the Present, I try to do whatever I can to keep from getting my keister sued off.

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