Personal connections, but not *those* personal connections

Here, John Hennessey speaks about the difficulty of changing how we talk about the Civil War.

The problem, as I understand it, is that we (Americans) “like our history to be very simple.” Hennessey locates the origin of our present simplicities in the Reconciliationist narratives about brave soldiers and common ground. Simplicities calcify into “conventional wisdom” that “become part of our culture. It becomes history governed by rigid rules.”

“When we challenge and debate our precious simplicities, that really ticks people off,” he notes, and “our commitment to simplicity provokes people [i.e. historians and interpreters] to argue for complexity.”

Right on.

Elsewhere in this talk, Hennessey notes the powerful attraction that Civil War sites have for many visitors—and the reason for so much caution in transforming interpretation of the Civil War—the personal connection. Many visitors go to Civil War historic sites so they can identify with their Civil War ancestors—because they remember fondly the Centennial—because they heard stories from their parents—because they visited those sites as children. (Hennessey is describing John Falk’s “affinity visitor,” btw.) “I would suggest to you that it is a pure function of personal connections Americans have with the war, enduring connections, that therefore, the discomfort that there is in conceding such a point [connecting slavery to common Confederates’ motivations.]” I have noted how this grips interpretive missions; so has Beth Parnicza.

Here’s the irony in that. In the current museum environment, some professionals look to engagement and meaning making through personal connection as means to achieve relevancy and sustainability. The thinking is that if visitors can see themselves in the programmatic subject matter, they will be satisfied, join the museum, come back, and bring their friends. Take, for instance, the draft impact statement of a great museum I know [anonymous because I don’t think it’s public yet]:

Inspired by personalized connections with the stories of [our topic], visitors will see themselves as actors in an alive and evolving history.

Most museums would kill for the built-in audience with personal connections that we have in the Civil War community. But for us, that personal connection is problematic in the ways that it sustains bad history and strangles historic sites.

So the problem is this: how do we distance ourselves from one form of personal connection while forging new personal connections with existing and new audiences?

These two types of personal connection are not the same. The former is… well… personal, genealogical, organic. Some battlefields matter because an ancestor fought there, or because an interpretation adheres to cultural conventional wisdom ingrained in a personal history. The new personal connections we want to forge are very impersonal—we want to connect people to abstractions: nationalist state consolidation; deep contingency in history; the primacy of slavery as a cause of the war. There is no actual organic personal connection to what Hennessey calls “the large lens of the binoculars.” (With white audiences, at least: there are greater opportunities for these kinds of connections, as Rosensweig and Thelen note, for African-American audiences.)

These new personal connections are made in a variety of ways in a museum and site setting. In a holistic sense, connections can be made by the museum facilitating an experience that satisfies personal identity markers and a visitation agenda. If a family is entertained, the decision-makers in that group will want to come back. If a young person pays the entry fee and is given an opportunity to socialize or act on a philanthropic impulse, they will find good value, and join. If a person seeks a physical connection with a landscape or an artifact, and has one, a personal connection is forged. Within exhibits, if a parent and child interact over a well-designed hands-on element, a connection is made. But these are personal connections that succeed because they validate visitor’s self-identity–a personal connection to your museum agenda or your particular content is not required.

Within the larger matrices of visitor agendas, one small element is, of course, the quality of storytelling and its ability to help the visitor imagine themselves in a historical moment. An exhibit about the international dimension of the Civil War is ok, but you need to help the visitor imagine how this was important to their historical analog. You need to identify a good platform for a mother and daughter to interact over. You have to tell the story in a way that allows the visitor to make choices along the way. You have to tell the story in a way that it responds to visitor needs. As for facilitating visitor location in a historical continuum, you need to speak to historical resonances in their own lives. Has combat trauma of a family member shaped their lives? It did for Civil War veterans, too. Did a modern song lyric about being under fire touch you? Civil War soldiers described it the same way. You should find these connections, and build on them.

I don’t know if “artificial” is the right word here, but compared to the genealogical connections of affinity visitors, these personal connections are not as organic. But it all requires that we rethink what personal connection means when we have to make new ones.

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