Daily Archives: April 30, 2009

On using battlefields

Not long ago I went to a military park located in the middle of a fairly good-sized city.  I arrived bright and early, and as I headed into the visitor center, I noticed a couple walking their dogs along the trail.  I didn’t really think anything about it.

After seeing the exhibits, I hit the trails myself, where I encountered more dog-walkers.  In fact, I saw many more dog-walkers than sightseers.  I was seemingly the only person on the battlefield with a map and a camera instead of a dog leash and a sport bottle.

I finally arrived at the park’s largest, most impressive monument.  Sitting on the base was a college student, her back leaned against the pedestal on the front, with a textbook open in her lap and a cellphone stuck against her ear.  The battlefield was apparently a study lounge as well as a dog park.

As the morning progressed, the park got more corwded.  Dog-walkers began to give way to walkers and joggers, in ever-increasing numbers.  By this time I’d started counting “battlefield users” as compared to “battlefield visitors,” for the purpose of reporting my findings in a planned blog post on the subject of battlefield use, which you are now reading.  I finally had to give up counting.  There were simply too many walkers and joggers to keep track of, although I think I could accurately state that they outnumbered the obvious tourists by ten to one or more.

They came at me one by one and two by two.  They came with large, friendly dogs and they came with small, nervous dogs.  They came with strollers.  They came wearing fashionable, color-coordinated jogging suits, and they came with mp3 players of all shapes and colors.  There were quite literally dozens of them.

One guy in particular stands out in my mind.  I was reading an interpretive sign when I heard rapid footfalls, and turned to see a sweaty fellow with headphones in his ears, decked out in what appeared to be a uniform obtained from the Fantastic Four.  He came to a stop, caught his breath, nodded hello, and then crouched over, put his hands on the ground, propped his feet on a bench, and did a set of push-ups.

Of course, this issue of “multi-tasking” is something that many historic sites face.  Some of them actually include “fitness trails,” with pull-up bars and the whole nine yards. 

Chances are, if you’ve done any kind of work with historic sites, you’ve had to accomodate unconventional use of your facilities to one degree or another.  It’s worse for small institutions like museums that are a part of bigger ones like government entities or universities.  If you’re a staff member at one of these institutions-within-an-institution, there’s a chance that somewhere up the line there’s a supervisor who doesn’t really know why you exist, and doesn’t really care.  And if that’s the case, God help you.  Sooner or later you’re going to end up having to justify your performance in terms that have nothing to do with what you’re technically supposed to be doing.

In other words, if you’re doing public history, you’ll eventually find your institution being put to some strange and unintended uses.  Sometimes this can be a good thing.  It gives your site a larger role in the life of the community than it would otherwise have, and I think most people who manage historic sites and museums want members of the community to feel something like a sense of proud ownership with regard to it.  It helps motivate them to get involved and support the place.

Still, there was something about the inundation of joggers and dog-walkers at this battlefield that was more than a little disturbing.  Patriotic obligation aside, there’s simply the question of good taste.  At the end of the day, a battlefield is a place where a great many dreadful things happened within the space of a few hours.  You’ll find few places in America where death and violence have taken place on such a concentrated scale.  I suppose people have every right to use battlefield trails for no purpose other than exercise, but this behavior does indicate a rather striking failure of perception. 

Of course, this problem of internalization isn’t limited to battlefield “users.”  It’s also common among battlefield “visitors.”  Your common tourist, visiting a military park to learn and to see the sights, may never fully appreciate the horror involved in the notion of thousands of men trying desperately to kill each other within such a relatively confined area.  But the common tourist does, at least, take the field for what it is primarily intended to be.

In one sense, the very scale of violence that took place on most battlefields may work against our ability to comprehend the loss of life.  We can all identify with an individual life lost, but how do you get your head around thousands of them?  At some point one stops thinking in terms of human lives and starts thinking in terms of abstract numbers. 

When I graduated from high school my parents and I went to New York.  I had long wanted to visit the American Museum of Natural History, so we had to make our way over to the Central Park West district.  Walking back, we passed the Dakota, where a small group stood reverently outside the entrance where John Lennon was shot.  They took pictures, as tourists will do, but their overall demeanor was consistent with what you’d see at a cathedral.  In fact, they wouldn’t have been out of place at the site of Bergen-Belsen.  The emotional impact seems to work in inverse proportion to the body count.  Kill one prominent man, and you sancitfy an otherwise ordinary spot.  Kill scores of anonymous soldiers and farm boys, and the impact diminishes rather than increases. 

This perverse arithmetic doesn’t speak very highly of the value we place on human life.  But of course the major factor involved isn’t math but time, that most corrosive of all agents when it comes to memory. 

Two hundred years from now, our descendants might very well be going to the top of One World Trade Center for no other reason than to admire the view.  They’ll think it a fine place to have their pictures made and propose to their girlfirends; the fact that it was once the scene of unimaginable misery may sadly be nothing more than a vague, almost subconscious awareness. 

Jefferson stated that the earth belongs to the living, and he believed it to be cause for hope.  In many ways it is, but there’s a certain tragedy in it, too.

7 Comments

Filed under Historic Preservation, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites