Follow up thoughts on the future of Civil War history

I really like the “Future of the Civil War” piece and still haven’t read the individual essays. I had a point to make the other day, but here are some general observations.

*How great is it that an academic journal devotes an issue to the future of its topic and its not about new interpretive directions, but about communicating those directions to a public audience. Bravo, editors.

*It is weighted heavily toward interpretation at battlefields, particularly National Park Service sites. That’s fine, and I understand why. It is also weighted toward the public facing shape of programming. That’s also great. But hundreds of museums and sites exist on a state, local, and private level that feature Civil War topics, and most of them poorly interpret the Civil War—not because they’re not plugged into contemporary academic interpretation—but because they suffer from a variety of internal and institutional constraints. Everything from old-fashioned views on the relationship between the museum and its audience, a need to prioritize the development of revenue streams, and the grip of very conservative core audiences and support groups shape the way thousands of visitors encounter the Civil War. Doing the fundamentals of non-profit and human resources management are not sexy, but the big bugs need to pay attention to this environment.

*I wish the authors (of the introductory essay) had invoked the mechanics and logistics of interpretation, and had drawn on museum studies literature on issues like audience research, meaning making, and experience in museum settings. This is a rapidly evolving field of inquiry: answers to the question, “what is a museum for?” have dramatically changed within my own professional lifetime. This is the larger environment from which many Civil War museums inexplicably hold themselves apart. It needs to be understood beyond an invocation of Rally on the High Ground.


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