Last night the Civil War Institute posted a video of National Park Service historian David Larsen discussing issues related to interpretation at historic sites. Larsen worked as a training manager for interpretation at Mather Training Center. Unfortunately, he recently passed away. I am embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of him before last night. This interview was conducted in 2000. I haven’t watched all the videos, but I plan on doing so over the next few days. Below is Part 1. Listen to Larsen’s definition of interpretation, which you can find between minute 3:00 and 4:30.
We ended at a point where no Union soldier 150 yrs ago today ever reached. What a poignant end to a marvelous, powerful day. Thanks to all who came out today and followed along on Facebook. We must not forget the sacrifices that took place on these days.
I just wanted to take a second to thank all the good folks in the NPS at Fredericksburg, who have just finished up what must have been an exhausting and exhilarating week marking the momentous events that took place there 150 years ago this week. You won’t find a more talented and passionate group of public historians. Now get some rest because you guys are on again in five months.
I so wish I could be in Fredericksburg, Virginia this weekend to take part in events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the famous battle and the war in 1862. I’ve been following events through my preferred social networks, but this video captures what remembering the war should be all about. John Hennessy is the chief historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. No one that I know personally thinks more deeply about what it means to do public history and how best to steer the general public through the many landmines of Civil War memory. Even through video John’s passion for history and commitment to engaging the entire community is palpable.
No doubt, we all glean something different from such a message, but I am reminded that how we remember as a community often reflects boundaries that we would do well to overcome.
I found out from an episode of Civil War Talk Radio that the NPS was dealing with incorporating cause and civilians and the home front into the battlefield parks (I think it was in the episode linked below). I certainly think mention of these things at any battlefield site is a good thing… especially at a place like Fredericksburg, a battle directly affecting civilians. But for many people who are only interested in battles as military strategy or those who don’t accept that slavery caused Southern secession and Confederate war, such information will often be seen as “PC BS.”
I certainly agree with Bryan that for a certain audience recent expansion of battlefield interpretation at NPS sites might be viewed as troubling for the reasons he alludes to. My question for Bryan and one that I will now pose to all of you is how significant is this population? The reason I ask is because it seems to me that Jerry Russell’s claim that Americans visit battlefields only to learn only about soldiers is nothing more than an assumption and in my experience a poor one at that. It seems to me that visitors approach historic sites with open minds and with few assumptions about what they assume will be learned.
Of course, I have not spent as much time on battlefields as many of you, but I am going to venture that it’s time we put this characterization of the battlefield visitor to rest.