part three of a four-part interview
We’ve been talking with Dr. James Broomall about “the Future of Civil War History”—a topic he recently helped bring to the forefront in a special issue of the journal Civil War History. That journal, and that topic, sprang from a conference held in 2013 at Gettysburg College that brought together “[a]cademic historians, high school teachers, public historians, museum professionals, living historians, new media specialists” and others for a conversation about the future of the profession.
CM: We’ve talked a bit about this conversation between academic and public historians, but it seems there’s a third party to the conversation that’d be really important, and that’d be the general public. How do you bring them to the table for discussion?
JB: I think that’s the challenge. Pete [Carmichael] himself, I think, would probably speak best to this. He’s really looking for way you can merge those conversations. I think out of all of us, he’s thought most deeply about this issue.
What Pete draws heavily on for his journal essay is that, in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, he served as a summer seasonal ranger. He did a lot of living history interpretation. And I think what he found at the time was that he focused very much on soldiers’ day-to-day experience, a bit about material culture, and I think audiences did quite well with that. But he was looking for more opportunities to broaden the realm. In his essay, for instance, he uses alcohol as a way you can connect some of the social and cultural history of the soldiers’ world to what traditional audiences may be looking for. So it’s a recreational activity in camp, and maybe used as liquid courage in battle. It may be a way soldiers are trying to numb themselves from the emotional and physical pain of living in a world, as Pete says, of “relentless violence.” I think the suggestion here is essentially you can bring in an item, you can bring in a device, a bayonet for instance, and put it into a broader context.
I don’t think Pete would suggest—and I don’t think I would suggest—that you strip away the public’s interest solely in battles and bullets and bugles, but instead you try to infuse that interpretation with other elements to layer the site.
Let me give you another example: So, Jonathan Noyalas takes his audiences to a lot of battlefields. I’ve gone to a couple sites with Jonathan, who does a type of interpretive tour that I think you would recognize at first as being pretty standard—but what he always tries to do very deliberately is point to one of the most obvious features of any battlefield, and that’s the monuments. And so in these instances he not only has a battle narrative that audiences would be satisfied with and satisfied by, but he then tries to infuse that narrative with discussions of memory, reunion, reconciliation—or, in some cases, contests that continue well into the postwar period.
And so I think in these two instances, in these quick examples, the idea here is that you take the interest the public has—you’re right: hundreds of thousands of people go to these battlefields every year because they want to see the battlefields. They want to talk about military movements. But you have opportunities, if you’re a front-line interpreter, to make more of those experiences. Try to expose them to different elements. Is it that you’re going to be talking about causes, consequences, more of a cultural history—and again it need not distract entirely from their central focus. But I think I would see it as an extra layer you can add.
CM: I think that speaks to a central tension that I see in the field, and that’s the tension between Civil War history as education and entertainment. Is that something you see, too?
JB: It is. Yeah, people go to historic sites on their own time, they’re using their own resources to do so, and so at some level, it has to be entertaining. And I don’t think you want to take that away. If you have an audience that’s actually excited, and there is some element of fun in it, you don’t want to talk it to death and basically discourage them from going to other sites.
That said, though, you know—and maybe I’m naive here—I do think you can still have that enjoyable narrative, that enjoyable experience, and still have them think critically about certain issues.
Many front-line interpreters have had bad experiences, but the bulk of them have had, I think, really positive experiences—where, when they do try to infuse an old narrative with a new perspective, when they do try to introduce something that hasn’t been done before, audiences tend to be quite receptive.
They key here is that you have to be innovative, you have to be quick on your feet. You have to be pretty nimble.
We have an article in the journal from some folks working at Richmond—Ashley Luskey and Robert Dunkerly—who were doing a lot with the bread riots in ’63 and rethinking gender history and women’s history at the park. I think they took a site that many people have probably been to many times and may not have thought that deeply about and really reinvigorated the narrative there. And they used some living history interpreters. They used primary source materials. All sorts of things. I think they’ve been able to breathe new life into these programs, and I think audiences still enjoy themselves.
It’s a delicate balance, right? You don’t want to alienate your audiences, either, but you also want to critically engage them. And some of the things, if you do want to press hard—if you really want to press hard—there are some topics that will make people uncomfortable. And that, then, is up to the interpreter: how hard he or she wants to press the issue and gauge the audience. You have different types of audiences, too, of course.
The National Park Service, in particular, is always good at that. I’m always amazed at people I’ve worked with who’ve had NPS training or who have served at a park and who are now doing something else. But they learn it so well. They just do it so well with audiences off the cuff because they had to do that in the field for an hour and a half, two hours. And so I think they learn how to gauge audiences quite well and how far they can push these issues.
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When our conversation with Jim continues, we’ll talk about ways he carries some of these ideas about history into his classroom at Shepherd University as he educates the next generation of Civil War historians.