(part two in a series)
Since the pandemic triggered stay-at-home orders and lockdowns, Civil War history has been booming online—particularly interview programs that take advantage of Zoom conferencing technology. In part one of the series, we talked about the significant influence the American Battlefield Trust has had by adopting Zoom early and going all-in. Another organization that has successfully embraced Zoom—with a first Zoom appearance on April 3—has been the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, based in Frederick, Maryland. I had the opportunity to talk with the museum’s director of interpretation, Jake Wynn.
CM: What inspired the museum to start doing Zoom videos on its Facebook page?
JW: As the pandemic worsened in February and rapidly began spreading around the world, our education team at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine started mapping out a digital education plan in the event that we were forced to shut down. We felt a bit crazy putting it together, but our concerns about this growing into an unprecedented situation drove us forward in those conversations. A major part of that strategy was about using our social media tools, especially Facebook Live and YouTube.
When the call had to be made about closing our doors, we used videos that we had prepared in advance for such an occasion and took some time to organize our digital offerings. Utilizing Zoom was new to use in March, but we quickly gained fluency with the program and the opportunities it offered to continue fulfilling our mission.
We did our first live video on March 20. We announced our digital strategy on March 24. First Zoom was done on April 3. In between, we had been doing live presentations as well as pre-recorded ones.
CM: Have there been any particular challenges?
JW: Many. From the outset, we’ve had technical challenges that have thrown wrenches at us as we flipped the switch to online programming. Issues with our computers had to be solved. Problems with streaming from Zoom have occasionally come up. Facebook did a major update to its website amid the pandemic. Overcoming those technical challenges has been difficult at times, but we tried to be as transparent with our growing audience as we can about the problems we’ve faced in rapidly expanding our digital offerings. I know I’ve been helped immensely by friends and colleagues within the Museum and outside. John Heckman (the Tattooed Historian) had been offering these kinds of programs long before. His expertise in overcoming the challenges in moving online have been particularly helpful.
CM: There’s a lot of content out there now. Is there anything you do in particular that makes yours stand apart from the others?
JW: There is so much amazing content out there, and it’s exciting to see this trend toward virtual history and the use of social media as a part of the museum toolkit. We’ve been trying to stick to our mission as much as possible and to let our own personalities shine through. We are trying some more “outside the box” videos and digital programs in the coming weeks. I’m particularly excited about some videos my colleague Kyle Dalton has been cooking up—he’s doing a sort of “Food Network meets the Civil War” series of videos that we will be publishing in the coming weeks.
Overall, I’d say we are just setting out to do what the National Museum of Civil War Medicine has always done: tell the story of Civil War medical care and the innovations that helped shape the modern medical landscape. But we are always happy to find new ways and avenues to fulfill our mission.
CM: How have the Zoom sessions helped the overall visibility of your blog and/or social media presence?
JW: The museum’s social media accounts have been booming lately. Interpreting the meaning of that is more difficult. Does the increase in people participating in our livestreams and reading our blog posts mean that more people are seeking out this information? Or is that we are all trapped in our homes and bored and looking at the first thing that comes across our Facebook or Twitter? It’s still pretty unclear. But anecdotally, the conversations we are having with our audience online have become deeper and more insightful.
But our dedication to using social media as an educational tool and an opportunity to connect with our audience across the U.S. and around the world has also helped seed this sudden growth. This has translated into a surge in membership for the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. We’ve been encouraging viewers on our videos and readers of our blog posts to support the content we are producing by becoming members. Our staff is so uplifted by all the support we’ve received from those we’ve engaged with online.
John Lustrea, our blog master for the museum, has also done a fantastic job of seeking out writers and historians who have stories to tell for our website. Those blog posts and other web content make up a large portion of what we share via social media online.
CM: Have you tried to take a particular angle with the content you’ve created?
JW: We wanted to stay close to our mission and not overreach. The museum is dedicated to telling the story of Civil War medical care and drawing connections from past to present. In a time of a health crisis larger than any our nation has experienced in a century, we’ve found this ripe territory to inspire discussion and reflection.
We also stayed true to what our Executive Director David Price said early on in the crisis: “We can find hope through history.” Keeping that in mind, we’ve really done what we normally do at the museum—exploring Civil War medical history, sharing items/stories from our collection, and bringing in experts to talk about their research. Our team has tried to be ourselves during this time, and let our individual personalities come through in what we share.
CM: Tell me more about that—about being uniquely positioned to facilitate discussions during this health crisis.
JW: As we face our own health crisis, it’s providing illumination about the origins of the chaos and disorganization of medical care at the outset of the Civil War. The biggest connection I think we have found with our viewers and readers is about the emotions that we are all experiencing. This has been expressed by those engaging with our content and I believe it myself—as we are surrounded by chaos, uncertainty, trauma, and death ourselves, our understanding of those who lived through the Civil War and who participated in the conflict is changing and evolving.
But back to your main question—I don’t think we fully know yet how the pandemic will shape the public’s perception of Civil War medicine. Time will tell whether or not people want to come to the Museum (once we are reopened) to learn more about this topic, or whether there will be medical fatigue after months of constantly being surrounded by news of hospitals, new cases, and deaths.