Thursday, February 23, 2012

History not Hokum: Learning from Specters

There was a good, provocative question asked by Aaron Urbanski on my post last week:

What are we to make of those who literally try to raise the dead at our nation's historical locations? Can ghost tours ever be a successful medium (pun intended) for interpretation?

If there's one thing I love more than anything else in this world, it's a good, provocative question to chew. I've been mulling it over for the past few days and a few keen points keep bubbling to the surface.

Remember, this spook party is not
recommended for kids under 12 / LOC
The concept of studying ghost tours and why they are so effective was introduced to me this past fall during the Pennsylvania Historical Association annual conference in Johnstown. The keynote address was given by newly christened Gettysburgian Peter Carmichael on relevance at Civil War sites. I don't agree with everything Peter mentioned, and I think we can look even broader for relevance than the techniques of modern analogy that are his (admittedly effective) workhorse, but he raised a good point about ghost tours that has been haunting me since.

Why are they so effective? Gettysburg is swarmed with ghost tours. On a warm summer evening, walking down to my favorite ice cream shop in the battle-period home where a seminary student sheltered in the basement while battle raged around his ears, I find myself again and again shoved either into oncoming traffic or into a brick wall by throngs of visitors hunting 'ghosts.' They follow a Gettysburg College theater major or a local teenager looking to pick up a few extra bucks wearing old-timey looking clothes and carrying the ubiquitous lantern through Gettysburg's brightly lit streets. The newest of these phoney offerings arms visitors as ghost hunters with cheap thermometers and 'laser nets' (dime-store laser pointers with a weird looking lens), the tools that will purportedly help them find ghosts.

You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!
-A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

I used to mess with ghost tours when I was a student at the college. I lived in Stevens Hall, my window facing out on Carlisle Street. There is a beautiful old sitting room a the front of the building. I would read draped across the couch there nightly.

When a tour was outside and flashbulbs drenched the windows, I would drop to the deck and crawl to the light switch. Flicking it on and off a few times, I would leave it off. Flashbulbs would go off outside incessantly. The poor tour guide would begin to talk louder and more angrily, telling the bogus tale of the 'blue boy.' It was childish, I admit. But I howled with laughter at what I was sure at the time was the best example of Barnum's old adage about the birthrate of suckers.

I'm not so sure now. Those people wanted something they weren't getting out on the battlefield. The hokum of a spirit world offers these visitors something they aren't feeling anywhere else in town: the real. They want to dialogue with the dead, meet them, shake their hand.

When you wander around Gettysburg today, it's so impossible to imagine that place nearly 150 years ago. Flickering gas streetlamps have been supplanted by halogen bulbs. Neon beer signs pour out on a square that once hosted thousands of onlookers, partying for lack of beds and hanging on the words of men like Lincoln and Seward as they addressed the crowd from their doorstep or window. Cars streak down the pavement where ambulances were overtaken and flipped by crowds of men running pell-mell toward a hill with a cemetery on it, fearing for their lives.

The Civil War is not manifest in Gettysburg. Nor should we strive to make it so. I like the bars, shops and restaurants that dot the streets of my town. I like being able to drive down the street to head to the movies or get groceries. I like being able to walk through town on warm summer evening and not worry about being mugged in the gaslight on the way for ice cream. And I'm pretty sure that visitors like these things too.

To hold hands with the dead, to feel
the real presence of the past. / PD LOC
What the ghost tours provide through stories and the tantalizing offer of meeting an incorporeal actor in the famed battle is a taste of the real. Who wouldn't salivate at the opportunity to sit down with the ghost of Lincoln or Reynolds or Henry Hunt and simply ask, "So what was it like way back then?"

How can we learn what our visitors want from our special places by studying their penchant to go on ghost tours in the evening hours? Are they looking for the possibility of feeling the real, of meeting the past? Is that why they pay good money to carry around hokey versions of Ray Stantz' PKE Meter made from duct tape and some fishing wire? Is there something exciting about the prospect of meeting the past?

And most importantly, can we replicate this feeling through interpretation, telling stories of things that actually happened and not simply stories dreamed up by an overactive imagination? How can we help visitors find the real without resorting to to hokum?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Practical Necromancy: Raising the Dead for Fun & Profit

Spooky (and very fake)!
PD / UK Nat'l. Media Museum
Our profession is a unique and somewhat strange one. We are paid, fundamentally, to give voice to the voiceless. History is taking the people of the past and breathing into their lungs, letting them speak and act again even though they are long dead.

If I ever write a book about historical interpretation, the title Practical Necromancy: Raising the Dead for Fun & Profit is tops on my list. First, what bookstore shelf-surfer isn't going to stop and let their fingers linger on the spine of that book? Second, it describes perfectly what we do as a craft. We are necromancers. We raise the dead. Like Victor Frankenstein, we wield the power of a modern Prometheus. But our spark of life, to make of dead and cold flesh a living, breathing being, comes not from lightning but from the human voice. Our words raise the dead, like a coy incantation coaxing them from moldering tombs.

I am not talking simply about living history and dressing in old-timey clothes here, either. The Park Ranger in her Stetson hat and grey polyester shirt telling the tale of one army clashing with another army does it. The docent at a local historical society wearing a flannel shirt and glasses on a chain around his neck, explaining what this or that was used for does it. The archivist unearthing and displaying a long forgotten letter in a new exhibition does it. We raise the dead and bring them back to life, if only for fleeting moments.

Raising the dead for one last photo.
CC / Paul Townsend
When we speak and share an ancient story of a soldier's loves and hates, his wants and needs, we are helping to reanimate his lips. He explains the world he lived in to the people of today. He helps them feel what he felt, know what he knew.

One of the amazing sources I recently came across is a letter penned by Justus M. Silliman of the 19th Connecticut. The soldier worked as a hospital steward in the months after the battle at Gettysburg. In one of his letter, he explains to his mother that he, "called on Dr. Baugher president of the college and told him my situation and desire to obtain books." The President explained that the college's, "library had been complete scattered by the rebels." The Reverend ushered the soldier into his home, to his own library and offered the man a book or to on personal loan. Silliman took, "Planetary and Stellar Worlds by O.M. Mitchell, and Footprints of our Creator by Hugh Miller," down from the shelf and brought them back to his camp.

He told his mother that a friend and he were using Mitchell's book to look at the stars. You can see them, two soldiers laid out on the trampled fields around the borough, staring into the night sky searching for the Pleiades or gazing at Betelgeuse like Ptolemy had thousands of years before. During the day, death and destruction reign supreme, as men moan and shriek and die. But lying on their backs in the darkness, the possibilities of the infinite universe unfold before two lonely soldiers, desperate for anything which might, "help to pass many hour pleasantly," versus wallowing in the hell that was Civil War.

For a moment, Justus Silliman, late of planet earth, walks once more. He speaks. His fingers leaf through the pages of a long lost book, stopping to read a passage here or there until his mind is bewildered by the sheer scale of the worlds beyond his world. He lives again. And then he sinks back into that undiscovered country from which, as Shakespeare put it, whose bourne no traveller returns.

Only he doesn't fully leave the earth. A piece of him still lives within the souls of those who felt his tale. When they look to the sky and catch a glimmering star, once again he will return. And again. And yet again. He becomes immortal in the memory of man, returned to life by a helpful oratorical necromancer and the souls they reach.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

A Letter of Man: "And what is 'truth'?"

When would these people be called citizen?
Could Anderson's letter have helped the
march toward true freedom? / PD LOC
Have you seen the letter making the rounds on the internet? It's been tough not to see the letter in the past week or so. And it certainly is powerful and meaningful. Jordan Anderson has struck a chord with modern audiences nearly 150 years after he dictated a snide and sarcastic letter to his former master. Reading over the former slave's word, it feels like he tailored his tone for the tongue-in-cheek, breezy style of the virtual world.

The internet latched onto the letter, immediately asking if it was real. I had the same reaction when I first heard its forceful words. I first heard Anderson's letter because it appears on the soundtrack of the amazingly moving Broadway flop Reunion. The letter is read with Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More" as underscore. It isa brilliant moment encapsulating the true revolutionary shift of the war. A black actor with a wonderfully booming voice intones, "eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars," with such weight and power.

I did some digging after hearing the powerful words, wondering if these were authentic or the invention of a brilliant playwright. I found a few users at Snopes who had already done much of the research for me. The letter appears to be authentic to the period.

But did Jordan Anderson write it? Did he dictate it? And in the end, how much does that really matter?

The people of 1865 who reprinted the sarcastic letter wanted it to be real. The very fact that the words attributed to Anderson saw viral distribution in the months after it first appeared in an Ohio newspaper shows there was a real desire from Americans to believe the words were real. Why were they reprinted?

The Wellsville, Pennsylvania Agitator ran a version of the letter in October of 1865. That year's state legislative races all revolved around black voting rights in the Commonwealth. Regardless of whether the letter was an invention or the genuine article, it still became a keen and sharp political tool to advocate that a black man could be just as witty, intelligent and snidely observant as a white man. The letter could help show a white Pennsylvanian audience that yes, in fact, a black man was smart enough to employ sarcasm and identify irony. Why not let him vote?

Is the letter real? We'll never know for sure, unless we find the original document, and even then it might still be a little suspect. But is it real, in the sense that it sheds light on what the past was like, how people acted and what they felt. Does it help us to reach a better understanding of the Truths of the past? Of course.

We feel the pain of a slave, just like voters across America did as they went to the polls in the aftermath of the war, deciding who in their states were worthy of being called 'citizen'.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

"Realize I Don't Want to be a Miser": Giving Up Power

"How come everybody wanna
keep it like the kaiser?"
Give It Away, Red Hot Chili Peppers
Jake's post on Tuesday got some quick responses out on Facebook. One in particular pointed that Jake was getting at the heart of the concept of visitor sovereignty. I pushed back, and mulled over the idea later that night. What Jake and I have been describing is tied quite integrally to visitor sovereignty, but what the field sees that phrase meaning and what it was intended to mean are two things.

Oftentimes, 'the visitor is sovereign' is used as a crib notes version of, "the customer is always right." That's not what it was intended to mean. That is a gross bastardization of the concept, in fact. David Larsen in Meaningful Interpretation characterizes it succinctly: "it is the audience that will ultimately decide if they've had a meaningful experience, connected emotionally and intellectually, and believe the place is worth caring about and for."

We historical interpreters spend inordinate amounts of time amassing power in our lives. We seek out degrees in weird and idiosyncratic fields (like the Civil War). We get MAs and PhDs to dive even deeper into those worlds of detail. We become the expert on subjects and draw together all the disparate pieces of data into a small fiefdom of history we can control and lord over.

We work all our lives to gain experience at interpretation. We build a portfolio or a massive Federal resume so that we can apply for that one, perfect dream job. When we get there, we cram as much knowledge of that resource into our heads until we become lord and master of that story, able to call forth any fact to do our bidding at a whim. We know what that story means. We know best exactly what you should know about it.

Why do we amass power? Is it to become dictators over our special places? Do we learn everything about a battlefield or a historic house or a college campus because we want to act as the gatekeepers of history? "To learn this story," we might tell a visitor, "you must come through me. To understand this place, you must come to me."

When we have immense stores of knowledge, we have great power. We can act as gatekeepers, deciding which resource meanings visitors have access to and which stay locked away and hidden from view. We can become dictators of meaning, decreeing that a place should mean one thing and one thing only to anyone who passes through out gates.

One of the simplest things you can do when you have power is give it up. You can share it. Imagine if every interpreter truly took to heart the mantra chanted by one of Larsen's fictional characters 'Nedlit' in his Interpretive Dialogue:

Meet visitors where they are and help them make personal connections to the resource. The visitor who wants to drink beer and the pilgrim on a quest both contribute to the park's survival. They can each come to care more about the place. It's that simple, and that difficult. It's difficult because it's easy to preach and fool yourself into thinking you are interpreting.

So, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers say in their 1991 classic, you can, "give it away." You can collaboratively build meanings of a place, let a visitor explore a place. You can facilitate their conversation with the real stuff of history. But ultimately, they are the ones who need to speak and puzzle and wonder. They are the ones who need to dialogue with a place, not a human being. Give the visitor a voice. Give them the microphone you have worked so hard to earn. Give them that stage which your MA or PhD earned you. Share the spotlight and share the power. Give the visitor the power of their own voice, amplified by the microphone you've worked so hard to get your hands on. Because what good is power if you can't help people find meaning?

What meaning might the pilgrim find in this scene?
What about the beer drinker?  The answer should
always be: "the one they needed to find today."
Nedlit, just before he leaves, mentions to his friend that she can't prove that a place is important. She can only, "create opportunities for people to realize it on their own." Interpreters cannot be dictators. They must not say that a place means one thing and only one thing. The beer drinker and the pilgrim will each find their own meaning in these places we naively call 'ours.'

In the end, "Interpreters are artists and teachers. They allow others to find their own meanings." Nedlit keenly reminds his friend that, "when you deal with meanings relevant to your audiences, you move people to care. You hold influence and power. You don't change all the attitudes you hope to, but you affect far more than you realize."

So... give it away. Give it away. Give it away now.