Category Archives: Public History

Robert Smalls Weekend in the Crucible of Secession

The question of how far we’ve come in expanding and correcting certain elements of our collective memory of the Civil War has come up on a number of occasions on this blog and elsewhere.  I have stressed the extent to which we have moved beyond a strictly Lost Cause narrative of the war to one that is much more inclusive, especially in reference to Unionists, women, and African Americans.  This can clearly be seen on the institutional level in places such as the National Park Service and a wide range of history museums.  While I believe it is important that we acknowledge these changes I don’t want to minimize the challenges that public historians continue to face in engaging the general public in programs that deviate from the popular stories of battles and leaders.  This is a fight that is far from being won and I have nothing but admiration for those people work day to day on the front lines.

All we can hope for is that our public historians and other interested parties remain committed to doing good history that continues to deepen and expand the general public’s understanding of the nation’s past.  However frustrating it is we do need to remind ourselves that many of the questions and subjects that are now openly being discussed are inconceivable just a few decades ago.

Exhibit A: The city of Charleston will commemorate Robert Smalls this coming weekend with a number of entertaining and educational programs.  [Who is Robert Smalls?]  Is there any evidence that Smalls’s name was mentioned once during the centennial?  In the state and city where disunion began this weekend belongs to a black man, whose story directly challenges much of what many people continue to believe about the Civil War.  Even if the events scheduled attract a smaller audience, compared to more popular Civil War related events, those who do attend will have been well served and in a position to share what they’ve learned.  The simple fact that such an event has even been planned is worth acknowledging.

 

My Adventures in the National Park Service

If I could do it all over again I would earn a degree in public history and work for the National Park Service at a historic site.  Over the past ten years I’ve had a number of opportunities to help out with various NPS projects and the work is always rewarding.  It has given me the opportunity to work with some incredibly talented historians and passionate educators.  On moving to Boston I decided to explore opportunities beyond the classroom and the NPS was high on that list.  Over the past few weeks I’ve made some wonderful new friends in the NPS here in Boston and it looks like I will be involved in organizing events over the course of the next year for the Civil War sesquicentennial.

As for more permanent work, the response has been less than enthusiastic.  It’s not that my new contacts don’t believe that I am qualified for most of their positions as an interpreter/educator; in fact, I’ve been told numerous times that I am over-qualified.  The problem is with the hiring process and what comes up more than anything else is the veteran’s preference.  If I understand it correctly the federal government gives preference to candidates who have served in the military.  If a veteran meets the minimum qualifications for a position he/she is given preference.  I recently came up against this wall when I decided to apply for an entry-level position as an interpreter (GS-05).

Click to continue

 

Is Richmond Burning or Beginning Anew?

[H/T to Jubilo! The Emancipation Century]

This popular Currier & Ives print from 1865, depicting the evacuation of Richmond, Virginia, is one of the most popular images of the city in April 1865.  It is impossible not to drive north toward the city on I-95 without it entering your mind’s eye.  Now it is being used by the Richmond Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau to attract tourists to the city’s rich Civil War history as well as the rest of the state.

The use of this particular print is a clever marketing technique that almost functions as a gestalt switch between two interpretations.  On the one hand, we know this image as marking the end of the Confederacy, but in the hands of the Visitors Bureau it is now a symbol of new beginnings.  We can freely move back and forth between the two interpretations.

To use this image, however, is to be reminded that the burning and evacuation of Richmond did lead to the emancipation of thousands of Richmond slaves that were freed by the Union army.  It is story that all Americans ought to explore if they are truly interested in the American Civil War.  Of course, we are likely to hear the same tired rumblings from certain quarters, but let’s be clear about one thing.  While good marketing works to sway the perceptions of potential customers it must begin by acknowledging how they currently view their world and what will motivate them to take action.

In this case it is safe to say that this ad builds on certain cultural, social, and political changes that have been at work in Richmond for the past three decades.