Beyond the 150th: “stories organic and germane to the place they’re visiting”

by Andrea DeKoter, Ph.D., part of an ongoing series
Like some of the readers of Emerging Civil War, I had the opportunity to attend and participate in the recent “Future of Civil War History” conference organized by Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that due to scheduling conflicts I could only attend one session, a round table discussion on interpreting gender at Civil War sites on which I served as a panelist. Thus, my perspective on what was discussed at the conference is somewhat limited, but I appreciate the opportunity provided by Emerging Civil War to share some of my thoughts and be a part of the dialogue that was generated at this gathering.     
As is typical with a round table format, each panelist made a presentation explaining that it’s crucial that gender (generally interpreted as women’s history) be discussed at Civil War sites and emphasizing that it can be done everywhere. In the discussion that ensued, several audience members—some of them interpreters at Civil War battlefields—pointed out that while it’s important to talk about women at places like Gettysburg and Antietam, ultimately talks that focus on women’s history draw few visitors and prove unpopular with general audiences. Gender, it seems, isn’t a very sexy topic on Civil War battlefields.
Unfortunately, the session ended just as we began to address what I consider the biggest challenge facing interpreters at Civil War sites. It’s not that sites aren’t attempting to discuss gender—there may be a few hold-outs, but I think most sites are making a good-faith effort to do so, and I believe everyone in the audience was in full agreement that gender history is important and should be interpreted at these places.  The real challenge is: How do public historians generate visitor interest in gender history? How does one woo a seemingly disinterested audience?Perhaps “disinterested” isn’t quite the adjective I’m looking for; “suspicious” might be a better description. As someone recently remarked on Kevin Levin’s popular blog regarding the NPS interpretation of slavery as a cause of the war, “Such information will often be seen as ‘PC BS.'” One could assume that the writer’s tactful abbreviation extends to discussions of gender as well. Such antipathy places a burden on interpreters, as no one (and particularly not public servants in the era of sequestration) wants to be the unpopular “broccoli interpreter” who forces information on an audience because it’s deemed good for them.But being suspicious is a far cry from being hostile or disinterested. In my brief time working as an interpreter on a Civil War battlefield, I have yet to encounter a visitor who left my tour in a huff after I began talking about women’s, African Americans’, and civilians’ experiences. Ultimately most visitors are not hostile to or disinterested in such stories (though, unfortunately, there may be a few out there who are); they simply want such stories to be organic and germane to the place they’re visiting.  Interpretation should never be artificially contrived to meet a quota (here I’m reminded of the comic journalist Dave Barry’s parody of U.S. history books that came out nearly two decades ago. At the end of each chapter, he added, “And we could go on for days about the contributions being made during this period by women and minority groups”—then very pointedly didn’t provide any supporting evidence). As stewards of history, our role is to facilitate a connection between the visitor and the resources we’re preserving, not to pontificate at them. At the same time, we must recognize that every site has more than one story to tell with more than one group of principal actors; the stories we share with the public should reflect the variety of our resources and a nuanced, evolving understanding of the past.This leads me to a topic Becky Oakes so eloquently described in her recent post: the gulf that sometimes divides academic and public historians. I’ve spoken to academics who feel that Civil War sites aren’t doing enough to address gender history at Civil War sites, just as I’ve spoken with public historians who are frustrated that academics don’t understand such topics are too controversial, esoteric, or just plain uninteresting on battlefields where thousands of men died. Seeing Becky and her generation interpreting the battlefield and participating in conferences like this one gives me hope that future interpreters will view military history and gender history as two sides of the same coin—as OUR history.

Andrea DeKoter, Ph.D., is a historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and a former historian with Women’s Rights National Historic Park

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