NPS Talks Slavery and Battlefield Interpretation

One of my readers was kind enough to pass on the following video, which was originally used as part of a training course for National Park Service interpreters.  The video includes interviews with various interpreters on the necessity and challenges associated with introducing the cause of the war on Civil War battlefields.  There are a number of perspectives presented, but all convey the importance of doing so.

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

Purchase your copy today!

13 comments… add one
  • John Stoudt May 6, 2011 @ 5:17

    Disclaimer #1: I work for the National Park Service, and these comments are my personal opinions.

    Disclaimer #2: Matthew Riegel and I are very distantly related, and we have known each other for a (too) long time.

    From my perspective, there has been no attempt to impose a “uniform interpretation of our national history at our national parks.” In the past decade I have worked at Independence Hall, the Wilson’s Creek battlefield, and the site of the 1848 Women’s Rights convention. At all three places many visitors arrive with preconceived hopes or expectations of what they will experience there. But at no time have I been told to follow a uniform interpretation.

    I, too, have been blessed by having the opportunity to work for supervisors who place a high value on sound methodology and engaging the visitor. But the key has been the ennabling legislation: why was that site established? What event, person, or idea was significant to that site? Visitors will figure out quickly if a speaker is veering into a polemic.

    Field interpreters cannot reach all visitors. Depending upon the site, I would be surprised if field interpreters presented programs to even 10% of all of that site’s visitors. A smaller site, such as an historic house museum, might reach a higher percentage, but I doubt if a place like Gettysburg or Wilson’s Creek — both of which are used by many visitors for recreational purposes only — would be able to do that.

    Also, look at the topic of the field interpreter’s program. If the theme of the program is an introduction to the site, then Civil War causation might be included in that program. If the program is limited in scope — say, the first day’s battle at Gettysburg — then a brief overview of the political background which preceded the armies’ arrival might be appropriate. But if the program topic is a micro-study battle walk (in an area where slaves or slave labor were not present), such as Little Round Top, then slavery would be obviously out of context and out of place.

    I agree that “the citizen-visitor deserves more than talking points.” I think that the strength of field interpretation has been and will continue to reside in telling a compelling story well and engaging the visitor.

    • Kevin Levin May 6, 2011 @ 5:18

      Thanks for taking the time to respond, John.

  • Matthew Riegel May 3, 2011 @ 20:10

    If the objective is to have a uniform interpretation of our national history at our national parks, then we need to abandon the practice of having human beings as historical interpreters and instead build more “robot rangers.” Audio tours, films, slide shows, and a host of new interactive technologies can guarantee a uniform presentation of the story fully vetted by the appropriate regional chief of interp. A strength in park service interpretation–at least at the sites where I once served–had been a relatively high degree of freedom to offer one’s interpretation within the parameters of the site interp. guide. Most of my supers were historians by academic training. They insisted upon sound methodology (both in research and analysis) and valued engaging the visitor with an aim to provoking thought about the past and what that past means for us today. In retrospect, the parks where this was most true were small NHS units with small visitation. The site where this was least true was one of our “national shrines” (not GNMP) with large visitation. That opens up the question of “shrine” politics. Perhaps the “shrines” will, of political necessity, be places where uniform interp. is desired. If that’s the case, I am saddened. I say: let the static displays and the “robot rangers” spew forth the pabulum, and let the line ranger shape his/her interpretative encounters in such a way as to recognize that the visitor is a citizen and not a consumer, that they come to be enlightened and not entertained. The citizen-visitor deserves more than talking points.

  • Timothy Orr Apr 18, 2011 @ 6:18

    I like this video as it identifies one the primary dilemmas besetting the NPS, how much causation context can NPS interpreters impart upon their parks’ visitors? I think the crux of the issue becomes obvious from examining Jim Ogden’s comment side-by-side with the fellow from Shiloh. Ogden concludes that a visitor entering Chick/Chatt’s museum will receive plenty of context when it comes to Civil War causation, but they won’t receive the same material out on the battlefield. Mekow, of Shiloh, wonders how interpretation of Civil War causation can be injected into a 20-minute battlefield overview. By that logic, a 20-minute program that is supposed to explain the Battle of Shiloh becomes a generic description of the causes of the war. Barb Sanders of Gettysburg has the most insightful comment, in my opinion: if a visitor spends a full day at GNMP and still cannot explain the causes of the war accurately, then the NPS has failed its mission. This is a good philosophy, I think. However, it still leaves unanswered what the NPS should do for visitors who spend less than an hour at the park. Should the interpreters use that brief window to interpret the unique nature of the particular battle or the unique causes of the war? Troy Harman of GNMP hints at a possible reconciliation, that there cannot be a cut-and-dry rubric for each and every National Park related to the Civil War. We cannot expect each park to interpret the causes of the Civil War evenly. If we do, we are being unfair the the NPS’s mission. I’m wondering what the rest of the blog-world thinks about this.

  • Jacob Dinkelaker Apr 15, 2011 @ 19:06

    I think that might be a fair statement of why you go to see a battlefield, if it is indeed your own opinion, but hardly representative of why Americans and visitors in general visit battlefield sites.

    • John Maass Apr 20, 2011 @ 3:38

      Jacob–I respectfully disagree. Do you think people say “let’s learn about slavery,” then pack up the mini-van for a trip to Monocacy to go figure it out? I don’t. Reagrds, JM

  • John Maass Apr 15, 2011 @ 4:08

    I hope the story of the battle itself doesn’t get lost among the causes of the war. People go to a battlefield to see the battlefield.

  • Christopher Young Apr 14, 2011 @ 9:14

    This is a course Interpreters can take through Epply Institute. I took it last week and was very impressed.

  • Scott Manning Apr 13, 2011 @ 17:11

    I do not envy the brief time these rangers have with total strangers to do their tours. As for me, when I take a friend or coworker to Gettysburg, I have the benefit of knowing them and a two-hour car ride to talk all about the causes of the war.

  • Margaret D. Blough Apr 13, 2011 @ 14:50

    Kevin-Have you read the March 2000 NPS “Interpretation at Civil War Sites: A Report to Congress”? It was in response to a Congressional mandate for such a report. BTW, the bibiolography concludes with this listing: “Causes of the Civil War, . [Primary documents.]” ( Jim has changed the URL since then). If you haven’t read it, I can e-mail you a copy.

    I was fortunate enough to attend the May 8-9, 2000 “Rally on the High Ground: The National Park Symposium on the Civil War” at Fprd’s Theater in DC. The speakers included Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., James McPherson, Eric Foner, David Blight, James O. Horton, Ira Berlin, and Edward Linenthal. Drew Gilpin Faust was supposed to speak but had to cancel due to a family emergency so her paper on the Civil War homefront was read by the then Supt. of Stones River. It was an amazing experience. I still have the post-symposium publication.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2011 @ 14:57

      I am indeed familiar with the report.

  • Bob Pollock Apr 13, 2011 @ 13:19

    This video is actually part of a new training course that, last time I checked, was not completely developed yet, or at least not yet fully approved.

    • Kevin Levin Apr 13, 2011 @ 13:24

      That’s right; in fact, the link was emailed to me by an NPS interpreter.

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