Saturday, April 4, 2009

Never-Ending CIvil War: Bearing the Standard

Rangers, academics, graduate students, site interpreters, educators, archivists and humanities officials packed a session of the Civil War Sesquicentennial Working Group. Participants groped towards some new understandings of how public historians will be interpreting the 150th of the Civil War. Most comments were prefaced with a "I am not a military historian but..." So, the events this time will operate under a civilian banner. Moderator C. Vann West summarized saying "it will be a story about the Struggle and Definition of Freedom and Citizenship."

Bruce Bustard of the National Archives noted how the 100th anniversary exhibition did not even feature the Emancipation Proclamation. Matt Warshauer of Central Connecticut State correspondingly remarked that the Civil War Cenntennial in Connecticut did not mention slavery, colored troops or the Freedmen's Bureau. Comments demonstrated that precisely those themes will be front and center in 2011, making contexts and freedom struggles prominent in ways that suggest linkages to the American genealogy of civil rights.

In the absence of a central national coordinating body, state-level interpretations promise to offer multiple perspectives. For example, the National Archives will start its "war" with the Christiana, Pennsylvania "riot" over an 1851 incident of resistance to slave-owners seeking recapture of fugitives in the North. However, the National Park service has a comprehensive website in the works for January 2010.

Jim Steele of Fort Fisher in North Carolina noted how state level control of historic sites means that the local politics powerfuly influence context. Ashley Whitehead of West Virginia University suggested that by talking about the history of changing historical perspectives, site interpreters can alert visitors that monuments reflecting older views about the culture of Reconciliation offer occasions to speak of how society shifts its memories. Lorraine McConaghy of the Seattle Museum of History and Industry plans to surprise people with stories of how settlers brought the Civil War with them to the Washington Territory. Incidents included fugitives slaves, active Knights of the Golden Circle and the official closing of a dozen pacifist or Copperhead newspapers.

Speaking about a two version exhibition about Lee and Grant at the Virginia Historical, and then Grant and Lee at the New-York Historical Society, Kathleen Hulser underlined the way in which similar objects can suggest different storylines and allow visitors multiple entry points through audio tours, Vodcasts, public programs and web content, to use material culture as catalyst for individual historical interests. The open pathway approach is also user-friendly for a new generation of visitors with their own set of questions.

Session participants suggested that the group plan a special issue of the Public Historian, and meet again at subsequent NCPH conferences to continue the valuable dialogue.

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