Thursday, May 31, 2012

"The People for Whom He Saved the Union": Ninety Years Ago in DC

Reading the official Facebook page of one of my favorite history authors yesterday, I saw a pithy note about a "day of note." Ninety years ago this week, President Warren Harding dedicated the Lincoln Memorial at the west end of the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

If ever there was a landscape where the story of the Civil War and the story of Civil Rights have collided in technicolor majesty, it is on those steps. I pointed out as much a couple weeks ago. And author Sarah Vowell pointed out yesterday the first time that Memorial was the scene of Civil Rights strife - the very first day it was open. From its beginning, the temple dedicated to Lincoln has been the scene of conflict over the paltry detail of the color of the skin of some Americans, the very, "people for whom he saved the Union."

It's a throw away line, the detail that the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial was a segregated affair. I've used it as a stark underline of the point that the Civil War was the beginning of an end to racial strife, not an end fully achieved. But to be honest, I've never dug that deeply into the hearts and words of the black folks who experienced that ultimate snubbing, that theft of the Great Emancipator's shrine from under their noses.

The snub was palpable to Black communities across the country, both those dotting the District and those lying hundreds of miles away. In Saint Paul, Minnesota, The Appeal indignantly told its predominately black readership that, "Colored Americans were segregated in the seating of the audience during the dedication."

The Memorial as it appeared on the
front page of The Afro-American
Shelby Davidson, the executive secretary of the Washington, D.C. branch of the NAACP sent a somewhat-public letter to the organization's national headquarters. Dignitaries. white and black, were given tickets for the event's platform. "Platform seats reserved for white were in chairs and within hearing distance of the speakers," The Appeal reprinted Davidson's words on June 10th, "while back of those seats were those reserved for colored people, roped off from those occupied by the whites and placed about a block from the Memorial in the grass and weeds, with rough hewn benches without backs or supports."

Adding insult to injury was the fact that flanking the black dignitaries. "placed at the entrance to these seats were marines who were distasteful, discourteous and abusive even to swearing in the presence of our women who accompanied their husbands to the celebration." Baltimore's Afro-American on June 2nd recounted the experience of Whitfield McKinley, "well known local real estate dealer," who was ordered by one of the armed Marines to sit on his assigned bench. When McKinley responded that he'd, "think about it," the Marine gruffly responded, "Well think damned quick."

The Afro-American, with no lack of bravado, recounted how, "a near riot ensued and the crowd demanded the transfer of the marine elsewhere." When a nearby officer declared that the Marine were, "the only thing to do to keep the colored people in their place, twenty-one persons arose as one and left the enclosure."

The Saint Paul Appeal, addressing African-American citizens of the state who had sent her sons eastward to be slaughtered at places like Fredericksburg and Gettysburg fighting for the freedom of the slave, noted that, "it is a wonder that Lincoln did not turn over in his grave."

In Salt Lake City, Utah, The Broad Ax told its black readership that the Washington branch of the NAACP had petitioned President Warren Harding to unseat the Superintendent of Capital Grounds and Buildings, the man responsible for the segregation of public spaces in the District. The incident at the Lincoln Memorial wasn't the first, but, "the second of its kind in less than two months, the first being the placing of segregation placards in Rock Creek Park." The Broad Ax reprinted the NAACP's stern warning to the Republican Harding:

It would be a rude awakening and a painful disillusionment to us to realize that the party was approving and following a practice which was an incident to the institution of chattel slavery.

For black citizens across America reading similar details in their own local newspapers, the fact that the Lincoln Memorial was segregated spoke all too loudly. It told them where the White House and the rest of America stood on their equality. The promises which Lincoln made in 1863, through a Proclamation destroying slavery and an immortal address Lincoln gave at Gettysburg, rang hollow and empty as they echoed through the halls of that marble temple. Lincoln didn't need to be standing over a kneeling slave for 1922's black folks to see what their predecessor Frederick Douglass had noted in 1876: that Lincoln was, "preeminently the white man's President." White America had gone out of their way to claim him as their own, snatched from a black populace questing for some icon around which to rally.

If we stop imagining the Civil War in 1865, we aren't getting the whole story. If we stop in 1877, we're only a few steps down the highway of the Civil War. The dedication of the Lincoln Memorial was a battlefield in 1922, in some sense just like Shiloh or Petersburg, where men faced off over the momentous concept of freedom and liberty. This week the 90th anniversary of that battle of wits, minds and words passed by like an historical speed bump. How many more opportunities to remember the other battles of the Civil War, the ones that took place in the hundred years after the white men put down their swords and shook hands, will we leave by the wayside before we realize they are integral parts of the Civil War story as well? Wars don't end, they linger for decades, even centuries. No place was that more clear than on a day in late May 1922, when the war erupted once again on the Mall in Washington.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Haupt-enstance: Whatever Became of Herman?

Tom Lehrer, on his 1965 album That Was The Year That Was, sang a send-up of then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey with his, "Whatever Became of Hubert." The song's been going through my head this past week or so, but with the name "Herman" taking the place of LBJ's second-in-command.

One of my students, a good chap named Cory who just graduated, has been railing about how the college pays no attention to our most famous Herman: Herman Haupt. I have to admit, I hadn't paid much thought before this year to Herman Haupt, nor has much of the rest of Gettysburg's huge historical community of researchers, guides and authors. To be fair, Haupt is a relatively obscure Civil War personality. Haupt was one of those officers too good at his job for his own good. Like fellow masters of the mundane Montgomery Meigs and Winfield Scott Hancock, Haupt found himself relegated to the world of supply and support. Field command was beneath the engineering genius' genius.

Haupt's connection with the borough of Gettysburg before the war runs deep. Haupt found God in the town, baptized under the roof on St. James Lutheran Church in March of 1837 by Reverend Keller. He found love here, too, marrying the pastor's daughter a year later and settling into a quiet life in the Pennsylvania crossroads.

Haupt, the skilled engineer who graduated from West Point at 18 and went immediately to work surveying for railroads throughout the southern half of the Commonwealth, designed and built his own brick mansion on the ridge west of town. He christened the manse, "Oakridge." Years later, the building would be used to shelter wounded men from the elements as the work of war raged around its walls. Even later, on my first visits to Gettysburg, my mother would ogle the building and dream of someday buying the beautiful Queen Anne mansion. You've probably dreamt that dream too; it's that beautiful house on the south-east corner of West Confederate Ave and the Fairfield Road.

Haupt worked as a brilliant professor of science at Pennsylvania College during the 1840s, helping to spearhead the initiative to form a scientific society on campus and to design and build their grand home: Linnaean Hall. His writings in the society's journal run the gamut of subjects, from physics and chemistry to the study of weather patterns and putrefaction of natural materials. He was what you might call a Jack-of-all-Trades.

When war erupted, Haupt tendered his services as a railroad engineer, repairing and laying out new lines to support the operations of the armies in the field around Washington, D.C. As cannon roared in the three-day volcano of Gettysburg, Haupt painstakingly organized the repair of Pennsylvania and Maryland's ravaged rail infrastructure. Rail service to Gettysburg was restored by Haupt's careful work within days of the battle, a job Meade expected to take the better part of a month. Rail cars were flowing into Gettysburg in time to give General Daniel Sickles a smooth trip from the field of battle back to the halls of Congress to help crucify his former commanding general in front of the Committee on the Conduct of the War.

General Herman Haupt, surveying the work of
the General Herman Haupt. Yup, Haupt was so
cool they named a train after him.
Haupt more than likely had a hand in aggravating Lincoln's growing frustration with Meade over not following up on his massive victory at Gettysburg. It was Haupt who alerted the War Department of Meade's intentions to stay put and not pursue Lee. The telegraph, sent over Haupt's own newly repaired lines, was quickly passed on to Lincoln who was infuriated at yet another slow, plodding general in command of the Army of the Potomac.

Haupt walked the campus of Pennsylvania College and the streets of Gettysburg, not simply as a soldier but as a citizen and scholar. Gettysburg was where he cut his teeth, crafted his skills and found his life as a young man. Haupt's valiant work recreating the rail networks in the aftermath of the battle brought food to a tired and worn Federal army when they needed it most. Gettysburg was Haupt's home. What added meaning did this place have as he tried desperately to help in its defense?

And why have I never heard of Haupt, except as a footnote to a footnote? I'm still digging and piecing the story together, but Herman Haupt seems to be a key player in both pre-war Gettysburg society and the swift recovery of the army after a trip through flaming, dripping hell. He's certainly not a footnote. He was a key piece in the chess game that was Federal victory at Gettysburg.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

"Forever Free": It's Deja Vu All Over Again

Lincoln on the morning of another
historic day in January 2009.
A friend and colleague has a great quip she uses when planning Civil War interpretation in the DC area. "Why," she asks, "would a black single mother with two daughters come to this event? What's here for her?"

It's a strawman argument, but strawmen can be useful. In essence, she's asking why the American People would come to this or that event. Why would the, "Not We," come to this event? Why would anyone who doesn't already care about this place with all their heart come out?

Those are keen questions to ask. The aim of the game here is not simply to hold the line against a setting sun of relevance, but to extend relevance to the American People.

The best example of failure on this front comes out of the Civil War Centennial. Centennial events were coordinated and planned nationally down to the most minute detail. They were structured and organized by a steering committee on high. And the center of their commemorative target was Gettysburg, as it rightly should be. Gettysburg is the cultural icon of the Civil War period, it will forever sit at the heart of the American people chiefly for the consecration of 10,000 dead men Lincoln provided. Gettysburg was an apt symbol the national committee wished to use to push their own concepts of meaning and importance.

Imagine if Kennedy had chosen to say,
"Ich bin ein Gettysburg-er," instead.
The other symbol was at once far more ephemeral and more concrete: the President. John F. Kennedy, the young, vibrant chief executive would add a sense of weight and meaning to the day. The national committee tried to get on Kennedy's schedule for July 4th, 1963, offering him the keynote speech on a day explicitly about linking military conflicts to the meaning of the war.

Kennedy refused. He went to Europe instead.

The national committee was left with a choice: find a new, less shiny headliner or restructure the whole kit-n-kaboodle.

The national planning committee's choice: they cancelled the fourth day of the celebration. They cancelled the entire day. What was the day's proposed theme and tag-line?

"Forever Free."

Fast-forward half a century and look at the coming year of Civil War Sesquicentennial offerings. Look at what we've seen so far. The United States Postal Service picked two commemorative stamps to encapsulate the Civil War in 1862: a smokey battle at New Orleans and a line of nondescript troops marching at Antietam. Tantalizingly, the word, "Forever," dangles up in the corner, as if to taunt me. The quotes splattered across the souvenir sheet of stamps are all about blood and guts.

The docket of real, in-the-flesh events this year is likewise odd looking, considering how monumental 1862 was in shifting the cause for which both sides were, now in stark in actuality, fighting for. The NPS has organized a series of "Signature" events, orchestrated by a national committee, that encapsulate the war. This year's list is blood and guts, just like the quotes on the stamps. The commemorations look just like the ones back in 1962.

You know what's missing? "Forever Free."

Where is the signature event for the Emancipation Proclamation? You can argue that Antietam fits the bill, and if the topic doesn't come up there I would be both surprised and mortified. Still, that place's commemoration will not be about Emancipation. Emancipation will inevitably be the sidelight to the blood and glory.

Where is the stage on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on September 22nd? Where is the podium where Oprah and Morgan Freeman and (gasp) Barack Obama can celebrate (yes, celebrate!) the simple stroke of a pen that ultimately set into motion a stunning Civil Rights movements the likes of which Lincoln nor his contemporaries could imagine? Where is the massive celebration of freedom where buses can roll in from around the country, pouring forth visitors to join in as we as a nation, one voice now united, sing praise for a document which freed 4 million held in chains?

Without a keystone, signature event to celebrate Emancipation, a giant media spectacle to catch the attention of every man, woman and child in America, we stand to only reach the same old ears. Without an event that CNN, ABC News, the Today Show and BET could send their cameras to, we will be reaching the same people we always do.

Holding the line against the encroaching darkness is simply not enough. We need to spread relevance, we need to expand our tale's audience so that all of America can find meaning in the Civil War story. We should not be happy with visitation numbers that only shrink by small increments each year. They should grown.

One of the first steps toward that goal? A real, live and physical signature event celebrating Emancipation and Lincoln's courage. And who better to host such an event than the folks who guard, protect and cherish the places most integrally linked with Emancipation - the National Park Service?


Credit where credit is due... Allen Guelzo (Department chair in Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College and one of my bosses) adeptly pointed out on Facebook that Gettysburg College and Gettysburg National Military Park have partnered to tackle a commemoration on September 20-22nd this year. Kudos to GETT for not making the same mistakes our forebears did 50 years ago.

The challenge and need stills stands, however, for a national signature event that the press and the Hollywood jet-set can underline. The iconic landscapes of the Lincoln Memorial or the White House lawn are the ultimate tangibles when it comes to the Proclamation.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Meet Mr. Everyman: Everyone His Own Interpreter

Note: I originally wrote this piece for a NPS training course on Civil War to Civil Rights; I think it correctly characterizes some of my views on the theme(I love it!). Today, I thought I'd share the piece (albeit with a few edits) here as well. Enjoy.

In 1931, Carl Becker, president of the American Historical Association, the largest professional organization of historians, gave a speech in which he tried to distill history to its very essence. In that address, “Everyman His Own Historian,” Becker declared that history reduced to its lowest terms was the “memory of things said and done.” Using that simple definition, Becker argued that everyone, no matter whether they had professional training or expertise, was in some way, at some point in time, an historian. Everyone at some time in their lives did as a historian does – asks a question about the past and researches it, using evidence to come up with the most logical conclusion.

I would make the same argument for interpreters. If we reduce interpretation to its very essence, that interpretation is the facilitation of personal and meaningful connections, then similarly everyone is her own interpreter. Everyone at some point in their lives finds some sort of meaningful connection to some familiar landscape that matters to them.

What do I mean by that? Well, first off, I truly believe that everyone, no matter who they are or where they come from, can find deep meaning and true personal relevance in every historical site that is worthy of preservation. Interpreters are simply there to help them and (in some instances) get out of their way. Historic sites, at their very core, speak of human universals.

But if everyone is his own historian and interpreter, why do we need professional interpreters and or historians? This is of course a logical extension of Becker’s argument. But Carl Becker, realizing this, did not despair. He realized that historians help to serve Mr. Everyman’s emotional needs and work towards his emotional satisfaction. The historian (and interpreter) help to facilitate a connection between Mr. Everyman and the past he craves to connect with. They act as a guide and adviser to Mr. Everyman, offering advice and guidance on what might help him find meaning. As one Civil War blogger has succinctly said, “Everyman’s his own historian, but not every man is very good at it.” The interpreter helps to solve that.

Carl Becker’s piece taken as a whole was an eloquent plea for historians to be responsive to society, to the very people for which they ostensibly wrote history. That is my plea as well – we have to be responsive to the whole society we interpret for – the whole American public and not just those who already visit our historic sites. How do we, as an interpretive corps, accomplish this task? For the National Park Service, it means connecting two core historical eras they interprets – the Civil War and the struggle for Civil Rights. These two historical periods are messy. They frequently intersect, overlap, and cross paths repeatedly. They bounce off of each other too, traveling in different directions for years before finally crossing paths again. Yet too often, our interpretation of these sites is segmented, partial, and too narrow in its focus. Sometimes we miss the bigger picture, too wrapped up in our site’s specific details to see the broad forest of meanings.

Whichever area you interpret; it is history all the same. And I love history. But I love interpreting history even more. Playing with contradictions on a landscape, warping time and chronology, considering multiple and radical points of view and pitting them against each other – these are magical and transformative things you can do while interpreting that historians often frown upon when creating history. But that doesn’t matter. Interpreting is all about helping Mr. Everyman find meaning in a place and promoting his care for it. It’s not about pounding into a visitor’s head what important thing happened at this battlefield, why this historic site is important, or some broad historical thesis about why the events happened the way they did.

It is about the visitor discovering personal value in the landscape. It is about every person becoming their own interpreter.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

You Can Hide `Neath Your Covers: Confronting the Boss

Public servants are paid to serve the American people. Do it well."
Donald Rumsfeld, 2001

So much easier to type than
scribble on a real legal pad...
It's not often that I quote or even think about Donald Rumsfeld. I'm pretty sure he doesn't think about me at all. Still, that quote above is a keen (if obvious) observation that so often we in the world of public service Civil War interpretation forget. I work for the Federal Government in my 'real' job. This blog is where I brain dump everything else rattling around in my mind. Inspiration strikes at all hours, and last week the bolt came out of the blue around 12:30am. I grabbed my new iPhone (which my boss jokingly calls my 'third arm') and began feverishly typing out my thoughts. You read the post that those fever dream thoughts became last week.

But as I was typing into the tiny glowing screen, Jess turned to me and asked, "What's it like to work 24-7?"

I thought she was making a disparaging comment, that I should just put down the phone and sleep for God's sake. I tried to slough it off.

"No, I mean, it must be great to do something you love so much that your brain is constantly working at it," she fired back, sincere and weighty.

For me, imagining and re-imagining how to tell the story of the Civil War to the American People is a thought virus. It has infected my brain, replicating in every nook and cranny. It seeps into nearly every waking moment of my life, and even into my dreams. I have a full-on, terminal case of the Civil War.

I love what I do and I take it very seriously. But I conceptualize it fundamentally differently than many folks I've seen out in the field. I work for the American people. That's the charge I take the most seriously. When Federal employees are hired, they're actually sworn in, lust like legislators and Presidents. And part of that oath is to, "bear true faith and allegiance," to the Constitution, a document which is nothing but the paper embodiment of the body politic: the American People.

Notice my capitalization there. Rumsfeld didn't capitalize, "people," and I did. I treat those two words like a sacred object, like the very religious insist on capitalizing every single occurrence of the word, "god," when it refers to their particular brand of deity. To me, the American People are an inviolable deity all their own, and I serve at their altar and bow at their wisdom. They are, in every sense of the word, the Boss.

But the American People aren't coming to Civil War parks. Over the course of the last two decades, in an unscientific thumbnail survey of National Park Service statistics I've undertaken, the participation of the American Public in their Civil War sites is dropping precipitously. Taking a sampling of Civil War themed parks, I found them (on average) reaching about .26% of the American People in 1980. That number drops to about .17% of the American People two decades later. To give you a visual of what that means for today's visitorship, look at the chart to the right. Feel that pain in your gut yet?

These number are ballpark, but they're frightening to say the least. The American People aren't visiting Civil War parks. Only a tiny subset of Americans visit these sacred places. So the fundamental question is simple but insidious: who should we be aiming to reach?

One camp advocates for speaking to the already-converted, the crowd who demand to know simply, "who shot who and where." When I worked at Harpers Ferry, one of the affectionate names we used for these folks were, "cannon-huggers." Like their cousin, the tree-hugger, these folks are already dyed-in-the-wool stewards. They are not potential converts, they are full-fledged members of the choir. They are the .17% we already know how to reach and speak to. If we continue down this incestuous path, our numbers will continue to shrink as each successive generation of the already-stewards dies off. We will be left with largely empty parks by the 200th anniversary of America's seminal conflict.

Don't believe me? Ask an average member of the American People (or Canadian People for that matter) on the street what in God's name the War of 1812 was about.

But who are the 99%? Every member of the American Public pays to support Civil War battlefields through their tax dollars. Should we be content with only reaching less than 1% of those people who fund us? Or should we focus on reaching the entire American People, helping every member of the national patchwork find relevance within our special places? Isn't that the path to ultimate preservation, far more powerful than check dolled out to save a few acres here or there?

And how can we forge that relevance without letting down our die-hard, cannon-hugger crowd who both demand and are content to know simply "who shot who and where?"

At the turn of the 19th Century, town planner Patrick Geddes pioneered the concept that we today distill into, "think globally, act locally." I think this is one tactic which might start solving this problem. We need to change the public's perception of what visiting a Civil War site has in store for them. We need to reach out into communities beyond the "cannon-huggers," into the groups of people who find no relevance whatsoever in the Civil War. We need to help them find ways they might care.

While doing this massive outreach, we need to focus our interpretation within our sites on the audience at hand. Sometimes, when the audience is seeking it, this will mean "who shot who and where." But we need to be brave enough to shift and change as new audiences come to our sites, introducing new themes and jettisoning old ones. In the end, we are not keepers of history tasked with telling the whole story. We are simply facilitators, acting as translators as the American People attempt to understand the words these places can speak to them. We cannot rest on our laurels, demanding that as soon as a member of the American Public comes to a site, they will learn to care about a place for the same reason that everyone else does and has for decades.

Relevance is not static. Significance is not something you can codify with legislation. They are simply ephemeral concepts, nothing more. Historic places are only given meaning when life is breathed into them by the American Public as they struggle deeply with the meanings.

Relevance and significance have expiration dates. But sometimes we're simply too headstrong or scared to realize that who the American People might have changed in the past century.

These are all half-baked ideas, I know. But that's what happens with late night inspirations. They percolate constantly, flowing forth each week half-formed and half-birthed onto the pages of the blog: braindumps in full public view.

Really, isn't that what we do in the end as interpreters? Aren't we just trying to transform thinking into a full-contact spectator sport where the American Public are simultaneously the players and biggest fans?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

4th and Goal: What is the Interpretive Touchdown?

What is the aim of historic interpretation? That seems like it would be a simple question to answer, but it's simply not. Historic interpretation seems to be a many headed Hydra, with each interpreter seeing their own purpose and their own goals within the craft.

My chips tend to fall somewhere between Freeman Tilden and David Larsen, the two 20th Century sages of interpretation to whom we genuflect quite often here. Tilden adeptly noted that the, “chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.” Larsen, likewise, captured the chief role of the interpreter within his Interpretive Dialogue when Nedlit muses that, “You will never prove the importance of this place to everyone. You will only be able to create opportunities for people to realize it on their own.”

Interpretation can never be, must never be rote dictation of meanings, facts or lists of information. It must not be teaching in the typical sense and definition of that word: imparting received wisdom to a student. It instead is something far more sophisticated.

Our job in historical places is not to share a complete historical story, not to educate the public on the practices and craft of the historian, not to simply teach about what happened where and when. We leverage history, we use history, but we never teach history. The job of the interpreter is to help the whole American people connect through their hearts to a place.

At historic sites, we use historical stories to do this, but we don’t teach history. We offer opportunities for people to feel significance within a landscape through the tales of historical characters and their struggles within that place.

In teaching, the outcomes are concrete and rightly should be. They are testable, with students able to recite and restate facts and figures, dates and concepts, arguments and perspectives.

In interpretation, the outcomes are far more ephemeral. Instead of wanting people to walk away from a program knowing what George McClellan’s greatest achievement was or what happened to Sullivan Ballou’s body after he died, interpreters want people to understand what McClellan’s warped and chaotic mind was like to live inside and to feel the heartbreak that Ballou’s scorched skull, desecrated corpse and charred shirt sent home to a wife in Smithfield, Rhode Island.

To do this, we employ facts. We use battle narratives. We use the events that happened on a landscape. But simple descriptions of the events and dispositions of men on that landscape can never be enough to reach deep into the souls of every American and help them to find a personal meaning in a historic place. Our job is not to have people walk away from a place knowing history. Our job is for people to walk away feeling history. We cannot, nor should we attempt to fix the deficiencies in the American educational system. We can only supplement the work of the educational system, not supplant it, as our societal role is fundamentally different from that of ‘teacher.’

The most important concept in interpretation, the part that separates it fundamentally from teaching, is the necessity of layering meaning atop meaning. This can happen in various different ways, but the most effective in my opinion is the concept of the historical echo. Presenting the meanings of a place as they echo and reverberate through time, as different groups at different points add or attempt to subtract meanings from a place, creates a diverse smorgasbord of perspectives, a vast buffet from which every American might find a meaning to fit their personal soul. Stretching the chronology of a place beyond what I’ve called in the past “Three Days in July Syndrome,” offering the shifting meanings of a place, offers that many more windows that the American people can use to find their personal meaning in a place.

This requires courage on the part of our interpreters: courage to discover that their personally held meaning is only one of many vibrant ones, courage to allow the American people to find meanings in a place that the interpreter might not agree with and, most importantly, courage to admit that enabling legislation is only an artifact of the past, a relic of a moment when a park was created, and not a sacred cow of meaning which hovers and triumphs over all others. The concept of a singular meaning encapsulated by Congress forty, sixty or eighty years ago somehow being the ‘end all, be all’ meaning for a place, never to change, shift or morph, is not valid and, more importantly, is in direct violation of the principle that interpreters should hold closest to their hearts: the visitor, and therefore the American people, are sovereign.

How can we from one corner of our mouth declare that the visitor is sovereign, allowed to take from a place any meaning they wish and find relevant, while from the other corner proclaiming that a specific meaning dictated by a group of powerful men now long dead trumps all others?

So let there be intellectual conflict. Let there be open debate in our parks, site, house museums, battlefields and other special places over why these places matter (or don’t). Let the American people come to their own conclusion. In the end, it cannot be about passing along a received wisdom or a received passion, like the wisdom of the ages passed from learned scholars or Congress to the American public as holy writ. We must instead have the courage to let our visitors find their own personal passions.

Because this is the fundamental core of interpretation. And as Larsen’s Nedlit asks in the Interpretive Dialogue: “Do you have enough passion to help visitors develop their passion?... If not, you’ll only communicate with people who already agree.”

You’ll notice I used the phrase, “American people,” a lot this week. I’ll try to have some reflections on why I intentionally did that come next week. Until then, good luck out there on the front lines.