The Future of Civil War History: Rob Orrison


During my studies for my Masters of Arts in History at George Mason University, I had the privilege of having Dr. Joseph Harsh as one of my professors and advisor. Those who knew Joe Harsh had a great appreciation for his love of history and ability to convey that love through his classes and many battlefield visits. We lost Joe Harsh too early, and he is still missed today.

Of all the classes I took with Dr. Harsh and all the time I shared with him on the battlefield, the moment that stands out in my mind is the first day of my graduate seminar class. Dr. Harsh walked in the room and wrote a question on the blackboard (yes, we were still using those out-dated things in 2003). All of us in this class were in our last semester of the graduate program, and most of us knew Dr. Harsh well. But we were all confused by the question he wrote on the blackboard – “why do people like history?”

Now, this class was not on interpretation or anything related to the study of the public’s interest in history. It was a graduate research seminar on the founding of the Republican Party in 1856. So the question was unusual to say the least. We all made stabs at the answer. Dr. Harsh kept saying “wrong – wrong – wrong.”

How could a class of 15 people who all loved history and had been in at least 6 years of college history courses not get the answer right?

Then Dr. Harsh walked over and wrote one word on the board: “entertainment.”

The room fell quiet, and he explained his opinion to us. Most people (not the weird people like me who have loved history since birth) want to be entertained.

Was this a degradation of our principles as historians? No. We as humans enjoy stories. People of all walks of life love stories, and Dr. Harsh explained that history was genuine storytelling. To do history right, we have to tell stories that attract people: to “entertain” them.

It confused me then, but in the following 13 years, it has made more sense to me. Sure, we want people to read or listen to our words because they want to learn from the past or want to be moved morally or emotionally by our historic interpretation. And sure, we hope that people take something home with them that will resonate in their life and possibly impact them in a positive way. But when it comes down to it, people want to be entertained.

You can have the best-researched program or book, but if it’s not entertaining, then you will lose people and they won’t return. I have seen this myself while visiting historic sites, reading history, and in my own career. Offering good history and an enjoyable time will provide you a better opportunity to make a meaningful connection with the visitor or reader.

This philosophy can also be found in other history fields. Historic house museums today are facing dwindling numbers of visitors. The historic house museums that are successful are stepping outside the “box” and finding new ways to engage their visitors and share their stories. The days of people willing to stand for an hour and listen to a tour are long gone; it is just not good enough anymore (thank God, too!). Historic house museum professionals, like Civil War historians, need to adapt and connect with the visitor.

A good friend mine who is a National Park Ranger once told me, “Most people just want to stand in the same spot where great men and women once stood and did extraordinary things.” That short tidbit has stuck with me. It speaks to making a connection with your visitor as you give your interpretive program. It doesn’t mean we can’t at times to provide our visitors with a deeper perspective, but these types of programs are not for the general public that visits our sites, and they should be marketed as special programs.

Please don’t read this and believe I am promoting for the “dumbing down” of history. That is not what I am saying at all, and I know for sure that isn’t what Dr. Harsh was arguing for. He wanted the field of Civil War history to move away from an “ivory tower” approach but use the power of entertainment to draw in more people and audiences. Over my 20 years in the public history field, his words are more impactful now than ever.

We as historians should strive to be professionals in our field, and we need to be accurate and documented. That is our responsibility. But I fear at times we take ourselves too seriously. I know I run the risk of bringing on judgment from my colleagues who feel that every interpretive program should be a life-changing experience for their visitors. But I will argue that majority of our visitors are looking to be entertained.

Tell a good story – keep your audience interested and “entertained.” We all know that history IS entertaining, when done correctly. Remember, that family that comes off the interstate because of the brown sign is there mostly because they want to be “entertained.”

Tell them a good story; tell them good history.

4 Responses to The Future of Civil War History: Rob Orrison

  1. Rob–I, too, have lived history all my life, I think, but maybe this is true because it is so darned entertaining! More & more brain studies are adding to our information as to just what makes our brains respond to certain stimuli, and I am beginning to think the endorphin rush of finding those “aha! moments” in the past are second to none. How often have we who are reading this done a fist pump when we find out something really wonderful about one of our favorites–like General Grant liked Lemon Pie, and it wasn’t Lemon Meringue, either. So here is one of my favorite generals, all crazy in the Wilderness and focussed like mad on winning a war, and I think–“I’d bring him a damned pie!” Ah! I live for such things.

    May I offer a suggestion to readers who live near Frederick, MD? Or in DC? Check out the sites associated with the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick–the Pry House, the Clara Barton Missing Soldier Office, and the Medical Museum itself. The folks currently running these places are nothing short of amazing in their ideas and events that involve the public in history without even realizing it. I have fussed at them for not making their flyers easily loadable on to Facebook, and some action may be taken, but here is a for instance: there is a new summer walking tour of downtown Frederick, they are sponsoring the Young Historian Series of free lectures at the NMCWM with a great variety of topics from our own Ryan Quint on first-person accounts of the Battle of Monocacy to an exploration of Native Americans and the Warrior Culture in the Civil War–(and both boys and girls can play!), there is new stuff from the TV show Mercy Street in the museum store, they found Jonathan Letterman’s gifted tea set and it is on display, finally, Even more eclectic–the Cigar & Whiskey Night (june 24), a banjo jam session at the Pry House the next day (lol!), and a “Historic Pub Crawl” in early August. Additionally, they host the Annual Conference on Civil War medicine in October, a “Scream” tour of the Museum for Hallowe’en, art walks with Civil War themes, and have worked with Flying Dog Brewery to create the first ever Civil War Medicine-themed beer–Saw Bones!

    This is all just amazing, and entertaining? My goodness yes! Makes me peruse in Maryland once in a while, it surely does!

  2. Thanks Meg! Sometimes I take for granted how easy it is for me to visit these places. I am sure if I was in CA I would find interesting historic places to visit…just a different history, but still interesting.

  3. How true! I hate that history is taught in schools so much as X did Y on Z date.

  4. Wonderful, wonderful article!
    I think accepting that most people want entertainment from history is the first step in developing programs, events, or articles that will be educational. I have a hypothesis (testing it in my presentations) that if I can make a person laugh and cry, they will remember the history I was sharing; that can only happen if I’m sharing history through the “story approach.”

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