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She’s correct that I didn’t say very much about the historical content or educational utility of the exhibit itself.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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1 Comment

Filed under Museums and Historic Sites

One response to “The limits of recovered experiences

  1. Pingback: That’s how they roll in the Old Dominion | Past in the Present

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