Working provocation into existing interpretation

In my last post I passed along some high-concept (for small Civil War sites) programming suggestions for ways to create dialog at museums and historic sites surrounding Civil War memory and the Confederate flag. All of those ideas require time, money, and planning, and are rather, anyhow, out of the ordinary for most sites.

But what can be done at sites today, using interpretive tools that are already employed on a regular basis?

Some of my friends spent last weekend at Gettysburg as living historians giving demonstrations on the material lives of soldiers and the battlefield tactics they used. The use of living history interpreters is widespread at National Park Service and countless other sites. These volunteers are on the front lines of interpretation and visitors can, and often do, have their most meaningful interactions with historical topics through observing and engaging with living historians.

Two common interpretive methods used by living historians are “soldier talks” and “firing demonstrations,” often presented together. In the former, interpreters walk visitors through the intricacies of uniforms, weapons, and equipment of Civil War soldiers, letting visitors feel the rough jean cloth of uniforms, taste a gritty corn dodger, carry the weight of a fully loaded knapsack. In the firing demonstrations, squads of men demonstrate the drill maneuvers that nineteenth century armies employed. The highlight of firing demonstrations is the actual firing of weapons, culminating, usually, in a bayonet charge. Visitors love this, as it appeals to the senses in the way that good material culture interpretation is supposed to do.

Ok. Here I stop to steal Kevin Levin’s excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book.

I don’t know if you remember how the film we saw at the Petersburg Battlefield ended as though the fall of the Confederacy were the onset of a tragedy, not jubilee. I doubt you remember the man on our tour dressed in a gray wool of the Confederacy, or how every visitor seemed most interested in flanking maneuvers, hardtack, smoothbore rifles, grapeshot, and ironclads, but virtually no one was interested in what all of this engineering, invention and design had been marshaled to achieve. You were only ten years old. But even then I knew that I must trouble you, and this meant taking you into rooms where people would insult your intelligence, where thieves would try to enlist you in your own robbery and disguise their burning and looting as Christian charity. But robbery is what this is, and what it always was…

 Do you remember standing with me and your mother, during one of our visits to Gettysburg, outside the home of Abraham Brian? We were with a young man who’d educated himself on the history of black people in Gettysburg. He explained that Brian Farm was the far end of the line that was charged by George Pickett on the final day of Gettysburg. He told us that Brian was a black man, that Gettysburg was home to a free black community, that Brian and his family fled their home for fear of losing their bodies to the advancing army of enslavement, led by the honored and holy Confederate general Robert E. Lee, whose army was then stealing black people from themselves and selling them south. George Pickett and his troops were repulsed by the Union Army. Standing there, a century and a half later, I thought of one of Faulkner’s characters famously recalling how this failure tantalized the minds of a “Southern” boys—“It’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun…” All Faulkner’s Southern boys were white. But I, standing on the farm of a black man who fled with his family to stay free of the South, saw Pickett’s soldiers charging through history, in wild pursuit of their strange birthright—the right to beat, rape, rob, and pillage the black body. That is all of what was “in the balance,” the nostalgic moment’s corrupt and unspeakable core.

Right. And TNC just shattered any happy detachment from the real war that soldier talks and firing demonstrations might have enjoyed by their discrete focus on uniforms and tactics. And he’s right. Whether the audience is Anglo or African-American, this particular complexity about the war–from here forward–must be acknowledged and prioritized.

It is perhaps true that these demonstrations represent a discrete piece of Civil War history that can be conveyed well without reference to causes and consequences. The necessity of linking the details of uniforms and tactics to the larger issues of the war, however, isn’t just a moral imperative, but solid interpretive practice. No less an authority than Freeman Tilden wrote that “It is far better that the visitor to a … historic [area]…should leave with one or more whole pictures in his mind, than with a mélange of information that leaves him in doubt as to the essence of the place, and even in doubt as to why the area has been preserved at all.” (41)

And if we stay with Tilden a bit, we get his most famous dictum, “the chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.” Provocation, that is, to “stimulate the reader or hearer toward a desire to widen his horizon of interests and knowledge, and to gain an understanding of the greater truths that lie behind any statement of fact.” (33) To think deeply, that is, on the larger meaning behind the red-trimmed kepis on infantrymen and the bayonet charges. The stakes behind the bayonet charge doesn’t necessarily need to be the possibility of re-enslaving Abraham Brian or thousands like him. But–the way we talk about the war now–it needs to be part of the provocation.

So, how do you accomplish that in these demonstrations, which—whether you like it or not—will continue to be a widely used method of interpretation. The first problem is that most of these are done by volunteer living historians and this creates a “plug-and-play” issue that isolates the program from the larger “whole.” Re-enactors come to a site and the soldier talks and firing demonstrations are the same, be they at Vicksburg or Fort Fisher. No references to the larger stakes, or the local historical circumstances, are usually made. In my experience, site staff are happy to schedule time slots, stand back, and let the volunteers do their thing.

The second problem is the difficulty of artfully weaving those larger stakes into the actual “performance.” Adding in didactic language (“We remind you that these Confederates wear the jean cloth made by a nation devoted to upholding white supremacy”) is clunky and unconnected to the material culture and the site-specific historical events at hand. John Hennessey is rather eloquent in the way he does this, but most people are not John Hennessey.

These two problems suggest that site employees need to take greater interpretive control over the volunteer living historians. (Yeah, ironic since I’ve been carrying on about the benefits of “shared authority” lately.) Review talks and demonstrations; cooperate on framing devices; insist that talks and demonstrations link to a larger interpretive mission. (If your interpretive mission is that the Yankees got around the left flank at this battle…you’ve got other problems.)

So, if you are an interpreter at Upper Dead Donkey Battlefield Park, you may blend into the interpretive language an entreaty rooted in historical specificity. “What happens if this bayonet charge you just witnessed succeeded, or failed? For Confederates at the Battle of UDD, a successful charge meant successfully defending supply lines linking Wilmington and Petersburg and driving occupiers from the Confederates’ homes. It meant the opportunity to enact a murderous rage on captured Federal troops. It meant that they could re-enslave escaped African-Americans who sheltered in Federal lines.” (Um…. Apparently I’m envisioning the Battle of Plymouth here.) And so forth…

Well, that’s kind of an abrupt example, but it’s a start. What suggestions do you have for ways that we can address the current national discussions using basic interpretive methods already used?

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2 thoughts on “Working provocation into existing interpretation

  1. Wow, great questions and great suggestions on these three new posts! I’m embarrassed to admit that, as an Anglo who’s been to every battlefield and museum from Gettysburg to Dead Donkey, I have given very little thought to how people of other ethnic and racial backgrounds might experience those places – or avoid them altogether. It wasn’t until I started taking my children to places like this that I started to think “what do I want them to learn?” I remember about 8 years ago floundering around with my (then) 3 year-old and 8 year-old at Fort Negley in Nashville and, rather lamely, all I could come up with was “hey kids, look at what a bunch of idiots those guys were – they talked tough about secession and as soon as federal gunboats showed up on the river they surrendered without a shot.” The recent events in Charleston have become a real wake up call that we must – and can – do better about interpreting our history and do so in a way that includes all Americans in the story. Glad that smart people like you are thinking about it.

  2. Your example of visiting Fort Negly is important here. Despite the intentionality of the interpretive focus I’m advocating, the likelihood of visitors leaving with that message is probably very low. Our interpretation gets filtered through multiple factors–particularly family interactions–that mean that a visitor can leave with a different message derived from some completely unexpected source. The children probably place more value in their father’s off-handed comment than anything they actually read. Goes for most people.

    Would that *everyone* could be exposed to Coates’ passage.

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