Mike Gorman on Battlefield Interpretation

I received this thoughtful comment on the old Typepad site from NPS historian, Mike Gorman and decided to feature it as its own post. Mike works at the Richmond National Battlefield Park; his comment is a response to a recent guest post by John Hennessy on battlefield interpretation.

Fascinating stuff. At Richmond NBP, the very heart of the Confederate war effort, I find it very easy to extend interpretation beyond the “guns and bullets” mentality. There we have the entire life of a city thrust into the cauldron of war to interpret, as well as the battles – which themselves reflect the social, economic and political currents of the time. I guess for me, I find the emphasis on interpreting these issues to be antithetical to the organic nature which ALL historians should approach their craft. Just because it was done a certain way in an era where most men had some military experience, or did not need to be told about the contingency of war and its political and social meaning does not mean that we should. We as park custodians and historians must interpret military events and sites to people who, by and large, approach war as a political evil and view politicians with a much darker and cynical eye than those of the past. That’s just a fact. We must combat “presentism” at every turn, and from all angles. These were not “primitive” people who just liked to fight..well, some did, but most did so for reasons most of us would find a little cheesy today. Which, like Mr. Hennessey says, means we must sell this idea of the past with our very beings. We must know our stuff to the point of absurdity, but also be able to step away to a distance that allows us to see the forest, not just the trees, and PRESENT the events of the past. The fact that previous generations of park rangers and historians have not done that does not make them bad, just people of their time (but perhaps poor performers). We must resist sentimentality as well as nationalism, but also at all times tell a human story which is always larger than a few humans. That’s a tall order – one that young rangers are not apt to fill. I hope the NPS in the future can do a better job in training its workers (especially the seasonals) to be historians in every sense of the word – not by following the current trends of academia, but by making these sites relevant to modern people. If we do not, the parks will cease to exist. PERIOD.

This whole debate, to me, comes down to a matter of degrees: how much space is given in the Gettysburg visitor center to a discussion of slavery? How much of battlefield interpretation is devoted to meaning, rather than battlefield events? These and other questions cannot be answered scientifically, and will change by the generations, following Historical trends. Which means that we can never get them “right,” we can only understand our goals and try to meet them. Sometimes, we will fail. Good historians, whether they be park rangers or authors, will only be defined as good by the degree to which they connect with their audience. That means we must do everything in our power to connect with them or we will become irrelevant. If knowledge of European trends helps me connect a British visitor to the park, I will discuss cotton in India. If an African American couple are interested in slavery, I must approach that with the same gusto that I would approach a discussion of the Battle of Gaines’ Mill. You do what it takes.

Therefore, it is up to us to improve ourselves. Alas, in the NPS, the only incentive to do so is personal pride – the finest historians I know are in the National Park Service and are motivated by an almost religious zeal to know as much as possible to better serve the visitors. They buy books and read in their spare time. They do not see a hard line between civilian and military stories. Mr. Hennessey is an excellent historian and cares very much about the parks. He wants us to do better. So do I, so let’s start acting like historians (putting that in job titles would be a nice start) and do what needs to be done. We will always argue on the degree – but we should always be willing to push the boundary to better serve the parks.

My apologies for a long comment, but hey, I’m passionate about this stuff!

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