Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Matter of Interpretation

While browsing the Harpers Ferry NPS site to plan a hike of Maryland Heights, I learned the park houses the Harpers Ferry Center. The center develops Long Range Interpretive Plans for other park units. One recently developed plan outlines changes for Fort Donelson National Battlefield (this is a PDF file).

I have not read the plan in its entirety, but did note several items of interest. The plan recognizes an increasing lack of historical knowledge among general visitors, a need for modernization, and a lack of interpretive resources and staff (professional and volunteer). The plan also argues that interpretation must recognize the larger impact of the battle on slaves, civilians, and women, rather than focus simply on the military aspects of the site. Couched within these arguments is the conviction that the cultural shifts change not only the questions we ask of history, but the relevance of various aspects of it.

I applaud a more comprehensive interpretive approach so long as the war and the battlefield itself are not de-emphasized to the point of insignificance in the quest for cultural relevance. I am reminded of the debate on the new museum at the Gettysburg visitors center. I am all for a comprehensive approach to interpretation that still recognizes the paramount importance of the specific site and the battlefield in question. The new Gettysburg facility does so, with one exception. I was disappointed by the decision to display such a limited portion of the artifacts available in the park’s collection, and the assumption that large displays of firearms or other artifacts are somehow not important. In light of that, I would offer this plea: in the effort to ensure that no group is marginalized by the interpretive efforts of these sites, let’s not forget the good-old-fashioned Civil War buffs who visit these places regularly year after year, and who think that the stories of these battles and the soldiers who fought them are worth telling and re-telling from generation to generation.

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