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?


  1. John

    Since you used Rummy for a quote, I would like to use something he was part of to analogize.

    You often lament the numbers, percentages, and demographics that come to the parks. Statistics in this case dont lie. However, using Rummy as my fulcrum lets look at this from a different angle and see if an analogy carries some weight.

    Today in the world the US has gone about on a supposed nation-building spree and tried to instill democracy in several parts of the globe. This is a laudable goal, yet the success rate has been less than exemplary to say the least. Perhaps it is that democracy is an evolutionary ideal rather than something that can be thrust upon a nation or people, and without that proper evolution it will be doomed to failure. (of course we have to wait and see on this)

    Now to the parks, it seems that you desire to thrust a fully grown sense of time, place, importance, and context upon the visitors. Again, a laudable goal no doubt. However, are they ready for that the first time or even the third time they visit? Is their readiness level in accordance with this level of depth and intensity? If not then are you walking in the footsteps of failed nation-building?

    I am not sure of the answers to the above, but I am more and more sure of a couple of things. One is that if we try to give too much at one time then the result will be poor. The second is that it takes multiple visits to a park for people to begin to absorb the entirety of the place - some need the "who shot whom" and others need the aspects you discuss here. Perhaps others are even on farther ends of the spectrum.

  2. Have you looked at how the NPS unit at Lowell Mass interacts with the local Cambodian community. I don't know how successful they have been, but when I visited there 10 years ago they seemed to have some good ideas at how to reach audiences outside the typical black/white bianary.