Sentiment and historic sites

Professor Brooks Simpson has posted a wonderful piece at Civil Warriors.  It’s about the sentimental attachments we develop toward historic sites, and the conflicted feelings that changes at these sites can generate.  Professor Simpson focuses on the recent transformations at Gettysburg National Military Park that have gotten so much attention around the historical blogosphere. 

He acknowledges that these changes are beneficial and necessary, but he also notes that the park is more than an artifact for him.  It’s also a place he loves:  “Am I glad as a historian that the woods west of the Sedgwick monument have been cleared to give us a much better understanding of the terrain that Daniel Sickles saw on July 2, 1863?  Sure.  But I liked those woods.  Same thing goes for the clearing along Oak Hill.”

Gettysburg is one of my favorite places, too.  Its combination of gorgeous scenery, small-town atmosphere, monumental commemoration, and tourist kitsch—all of it saturated in history—is absolutely unique.  I love being in a place where history isn’t latent, but dominates the landscape.  Unlike many other history buffs, though, I don’t have a longstanding relationship with Gettysburg.  In fact, I’ve only been there twice. 

The first time was a few years ago.  The NPS was already in the process of transferring the collection out of the old visitor center.  Much of it was still in place, though, and the electric map was still up and running.  Still, it was pretty apparent that the old VC was on its last legs.  In addition to the building’s physical deterioration, the exhibits failed to explain the battle (or even many of the artifacts themselves).  There was very little interpretation going on.  Having little sentimental attachment to the facility, and viewing it critically from the standpoint of someone working (at the time) in public history, I didn’t regret its passing.

I can certainly understand why serious aficionados saw little wrong with the exhibits in the old building.  If you’ve already mastered the strategic and tactical picture, then you can appreciate the field without needing to have it explained for you.  As I’ve said before, though, most visitors don’t have the advantage of expertise.  My stance is that the NPS has a responsibility to equip its visitors to understand the sites they’re seeing.  And I couldn’t for the life of me see how the average visitor would obtain a better grasp of the battle in the old museum.  The new one, by contrast, explains Lee’s invasion, the Union response, the three days of battle, and the aftermath.  It gives visitors a grasp of what happened there.

I have a similar attitude toward the removal of trees that encroach on the field.  I don’t have a personal stake in these woods, and I welcome alterations that bring us closer to understanding the battle.

Now, the question is this: Would I be so enthusiastic about these changes if I had been a longtime visitor to the park?  Would I be so cavalier about altering the park for the sake of better interpretation if my own fond memories were at stake?  In all honesty, maybe not.  When places that are special to me change, I usually react with both regret and indignation.

This tension between sentiment and interpretive need is, I think, a unique issue when it comes to historic sites.  Places play a unique role in our lives.  Most of us who love history have fond memories connected to particular books, films, or places.  If you grew up reading Bruce Catton or watching Ken Burns, you can open a book or turn on a DVD player and access that experience whenever you want.  When the memory is tied to a piece of ground, though, that’s not always the case.  You might go back to find that it’s no longer the place you remember.

These debates will probably continue as long as exhibits become outdated, vegetation grows up, and facilities need replacing.  Personally, though, I think the fact that we care enough about these places to have an emotional stake in them is a healthy sign.  We might argue about whether or not they need changing, but we can agree that they’re worth the argument.

(Photo of the High Water Mark from Wikimedia Commons)


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Filed under Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites

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