The Future of Civil War History: Jim Broomall (part one)



part one of a four-part interview

What’s the future of Civil War history? That’s the question very much on the mind of Dr. James Broomall these days.

Broomall—or “Jim,” as we call him around here at ECW—is the director of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War (GTMC) and an assistant professor of history at Shepherd University. He’s also a member of ECW’s “Engaging the Civil War” series with Southern Illinois University Press.

Jim recently co-edited a special issue of the journal Civil War History that addressed the topic of the future of Civil War history. The journal sprang from a conference hosted in March of 2013 by Gettysburg College and co-sponsored by the Gettysburg Foundation and Gettysburg National Military Park. (At the time, Jim offered us a preview of the conference.)

Over the next few days, I’ll share a conversation I had with Jim about the journal, the conference it sprang from, and the larger question of the future of Civil War history.

CM: Let’s start with the conference. How did you get involved with that?

JB: I guess I came to this in a roundabout way, ultimately. Peter Carmichael is the director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, and he was my M.A. advisor, so we’ve actually had a pretty long-standing relationship over the years. He had spent a lot of time with the National Park Service when he was younger, as a summer intern. And while I was at UNCG [the University of North Carolina—Greensboro], I got an M.A. in museum studies, so I’ve always had an investment in public history, museum studies, different forms of interpretation.

Pete got really excited in 2012 when they first started planning the conference, and wondered if I could play some role in it.

At the conference itself, I had a small role, and that was as a panel chair. And the panel I was responsible for was on battlefield rehabilitation—so, debates over what the battlefields should or should not look like. How far back can we take the landscape? Can it appear as if it was 1863? How much were we willing to alter it? By altering it, what sort of sacrifices were we making?

And at the time, there was a big controversy over the Gettysburg Cyclorama’s removal—that was a fight that preservationists ultimately lost and the National Park Service won. Basically, as chair, I was responsible for getting these contending parties together and hearing them out and trying to facilitate the discussion.

From there, Pete and [conference co-chair] Jill [Ogline Titus] wanted the conference to have some kind of afterlife in some sort of printed format. And so, again, just given some of my connections and friendships and interests, it seemed as though I might be a possible collaborator.

As you well know, edited collections take a lot of time and energy trying to gather a lot of parties together. We had conceived of something larger initially, actually, but the current format lends itself pretty well. Civil War History has been very kind in offering us this special edition, and I think we selected from the conference itself some of the very best presenters. They’ve distilled their arguments—expanded their arguments in some cases—in a format that I think will be very accessible to academic historians, pubic historians, and general audiences.

CM: As you got into the conference, what was particularly interesting to you? It seems like it was an opportunity for a lot of interesting ideas and conversations.

JM: To me, there is sometimes a disconnect between what the academy does and what people who work in public interpretation do. I think those two camps are in broader conversations now than they ever have been. I think they tend to get along quite while—that’s not always the case, but overall, I think they tend to get along quite well.

For me, the interest has always been how you merge those two fields. How can you distill some of the latest interpretation in, say, cultural interpretation at historic sites, in a meaningful way? And how can we as academic historians learn from them in a meaningful way, and as interpreters on the ground?

So there wasn’t necessarily one moment or one conversation that excited me, but it’s really just that broader discussion that occurred. This exchange, it seems so critical.

That discussion is what interests me the most, and it’s a really lively discussion. The conference itself had a lot of energy. You could really feel it.

And it was such a diverse group, and that’s represented to some extent in the journal. We tried to draw from all sorts of backgrounds—one works for a community college. Two work for military institutes. Two work for the National Park Service. We have some traditional academic historians. Jill Titus, one of the co-editors, is very much a public historian but has also published within the academy, so there’s really that diversity, which is what I think is really so useful—these multiple perspectives.

Academic historians, high school teachers, public historians, museum professionals, living historians, new media specialists—all of these individuals can continue to engage in these kinds of conversations and really think critically about audience. And audience is absolutely critical.

You’re probably like me: Academic conferences sometimes can be kind of boring. I hate to be negative, because they’re also great. You see a lot of your colleagues, and you hear about some of the most cutting-edge research, but it’s a very specific group of people you’re in conversation with over the course of the weekend. And it’s usually great—I’m not trying to disparage that. But what was so interesting about this conference and the model they were trying to present is there were so many different people from so many different walks of life. And so it was a rare opportunity to have that many people in one space at one time thinking about these pretty deep questions.

So I think one of the things I hope the issue itself demonstrates is that these conversations can continue—can continue in a meaningful way.

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When our conversation with Jim continues, we’ll look at how he and his colleagues capturing some of the conference ideas in writing and how that evolved into the current issue of Civil War History.

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