On the front lines of history
This post is part of a series on the experiences of our Pohanka Interns at various historic sites working on the front lines of history as interpreters and curators. Dr. Jill Titus explains the questions our students are engaging with here.
Visitors to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park try to see, feel, and understand the lost world of the past in a number of ways. I experience most of these interactions through our Congressional Youth Leadership Conference (CYLC) programs. These are courses designed to get fifth-graders from around the country to interact with the idea of leadership through the medium of Harpers Ferry’s history. But the emotional and intellectual connections highlighted in Rosenzweig and Thelen’s article are not made only by young visitors. All our visitors walk away having made some sort of connection between themselves and the previous generations whose lives gave rise to the current world – and themselves, of course.
Perhaps the first connection that visitors make is visual. The scenery, both the sweeping natural landscape and the classic small-town that emerges from it, sparks the imagination. I have seen people’s minds run wild. Most comments center on the beauty of the heights, the rush of the rivers, and how lovely (quaint is not quite the word) the town is. Some want to connect the view to the facts; where was John Brown’s Fort? Where was the naval battery from here? However, others engage more deeply with their own cultural memory than with the site-specific history of the Ferry.
For example, a visitor once commented to me that Harpers Ferry looked like, “an Olde-Timey West Town.” As far as East Coast towns go, it is true that Harpers Ferry looks a little something like Tombstone. But the larger point that struck me was that this visitor was instinctively seeing the past, to the best of her ability, through what she physically saw before her. And it is worth mentioning how much visitors love the period clothing. I have been in untold numbers of selfies, in my visitor uniform, my civilian clothes, and my blue suit. And I have taken part in lots of mass photo shoots – sometimes twenty visitors taking pictures of five or so park staff.
Experience has taught me that visitors are not content to just witness the past. They want to interject a personal, human connection into the out-of-the-ordinary world they see before them. Perhaps it is something akin to what one experiences at Disney World. If someone has come to love Mickey Mouse, then there is no greater way to realize that fondness for Mickey than to stand next to him and get a hug. He may not be real, but he becomes almost real when his likeness stands before you. In this way, something that was internal, that was just an idea in the mind of a visitor, gains the legitimacy of something corporeal. Viewed this way, the photographic habits of visitors make perfect sense. If you are taken with the idea of the Civil War, what could be better than to bring pieces of that lost world back through your five senses? When history is brought back into the realm of human experience in this way, it comes back to life in a very convincing and potentially life-changing way.
I cannot directly speak to the question of family involvement in the past amongst our visitors, at least not beyond personal pictures being taken. This is unfortunate, because the article stressed the importance of family ties and family stories in perpetuating interest in history. However, I can see on a daily basis the way that involving visitors in some kind of tactile activity affects their interaction with the site. To give the CYLC Scholars a taste of what soldiers stationed at Harpers Ferry experienced , we teach them to handle their weapons, march, and load and shoot, all while shouting at them. Ninety percent of them love it, the rest either grow a bit scared or angry, which are both valid reactions to the stresses of military instruction. Either way, they get an opportunity to feel the past in a way that leaves a memory of their time spent at Harpers Ferry in their muscles. This muscle memory is a window into not just the past, but also the very present reality of war and violence.
Obviously, the Manual of Arms is no substitute for the real experience of combat. It may tell you how to fire a rifle, but it will not teach you how to resist flinching each time it barks. Reenactments introduce you to the cacophony of war, as well as the feel and taste of black powder, and to the hanging smoke that blinds both onlookers and the battle lines. However, they leave serious sensory gaps. Most glaringly perhaps, they leave out the zip of live rounds and the stench of death and fear. And it is the zip and the stench and the overwhelming fear that gives the viewer the full, horrifying experience. Nothing in living history can replicate that.
Operating without the ability to offer that full experience, we run the risk of accidentally making a mockery of war by allowing visitors to mistake the approximation for the real thing, and in doing so, we run the risk of giving them certainty where there should be doubt. People may take the approximation at face value, basing all their impressions of war and its role in society off of an incomplete picture. Some may fully embrace the idea that war is natural and glorious. Others might completely withdraw from it, and never come close to comprehending a force that has and will likely continue to shape their lives. I have had visitors who were very gung-ho about the idea of war, and who were certain it had a celebrated role to play in human life. I have also had visitors act as if anyone in a uniform or holding a gun, real or not, were morally repugnant for doing so.
Whenever blanket conclusions are reached, it usually means that the questions are not being probed deeply enough, and, perhaps, issues like war and the reality of violence, which are so alien to us until they touch us personally, can never be probed fully in a safe environment. However, even with these potential pitfalls, I would argue that some evidence is more conducive to discussion than no evidence. As long as participatory living history can give us some glances at alien ways of living and thinking, learning can take place.