May 24, 2015

Interpretation Beyond the Battlefield and the 'Mass Customization' of History

Intersection of Queen St. and King St., Lancaster, Pennsylvania
with Soldiers and Sailors Monument (dedicated in 1874)

Over at the excellent To the Sound of Guns and Civil War Memory blogs, the subject of new trends in battlefield interpretation has received attention lately.  Taking stock of the Sesquicentennial, Craig Swain commends new programming that seeks to interpret soldiers' experiences between battles, but remarks:
On the other hand, we might also point out, for the sake of those bicentennialists to follow, many missed opportunities. For all of the focus in late June and early July upon Adams County, Pennsylvania, the public-facing programming left out exactly how those armies got there. Almost as if the soldiers were suspended in time at Chancellorsville, then magically re-appeared, somewhat worse for the wear, at Gettysburg. That’s just one handy example. I’m sure we could demonstrate a few more worth noting. The point to push home here is, again, that the soldiers were not one-dimensional, and their experience was more than combat actions.

This is somewhat odd, I think, given the current trends with a lot of noise about “new military history.” Shouldn’t historians be seeking out those interpretive opportunities to discuss the life of soldiers beyond the battlefields? But we often see tours, especially those focused more on the “education” function over the general “entertainment” functions, that simply hit a set of battlefield sites….

While I have a tough time -- even as a soon-to-be professor of supply chain management -- envisioning the value of visiting, say, the site of a supply depot or winter camp, I agree with the general sentiment and offer my own tangential opinion: We should start expecting more high-quality interpretation of life beyond the battlefield (and beyond the army).  Although the National Park Service can be the vanguard of these efforts (e.g., talking about civilians at Gettysburg), the interpretation should largely take place far beyond NPS boundaries in communities across the North and South.

The question is, are Civil War historians (academic, public, and amateur) making an impact outside of NPS battlefields?  Are they even imagining the possibilities -- especially the new possibilities enabled by technology -- or are their efforts almost exclusively focused on the NPS?

As we go from the Civil War Sesquicentennial to the Bicentennial, I hope to see the emergence of historical interpretation that is more fully integrated with our modern communities.  In these settings, the history of military organizations and events interacts naturally with social, political, and religious history.  Rather than formal historical sites, we can have a virtual historical layer covering the modern world that is anchored by museums, old houses, cemeteries, churches, etc.  In this virtual layer is content -- facts, anecdotes, photographs, analysis -- that enhances the meaning of what we see. 

At first glance, this isn't necessarily anything new.  Within months of becoming interested in the Civil War at age 10, I went on a fantastic walking tour of Lancaster city in 1996 or 1997 with costumed interpreters acting out diverse scenes or relaying facts related to particular locations.  For many years, a friend had led a full-day bus tour of Lancaster County focusing on the Underground Railroad.

What is new, however, is the potential for increasing interpretive quantity and quality enabled by digitization (already happening) and increasing relevance through algorithmic and crowdsourced content curation (still nascent).  At some point, something analogous to "mass customization" will make an impact on the work of historical interpretation, and people will find new and captivating ways to connect to history.  A simple inquiry based on a person, place, or institution would return abundant information harvested from diverse primary sources set within the appropriate scholarly frameworks.

The volume of raw primary source material that has become available in the last ten years is amazing.  Sources such as Google Books, the PA Civil War Newspapers Project, internet forums, genealogical sites, and even (maybe especially) Ebay make it possible to tell a well-rounded story with nice visual aids about some obscure topic with limited effort.  With some guidance by experts, amateurs, and algorithms, people will be able to look at the world around them -- focusing on their town or religious community or family or school or whatever interests them -- and find dozens of compelling historical threads to explore.

So, what might this look like, or at least what is an example of Civil War history interpreted far beyond the battlefield (or even a historical museum) that primarily utilizes digitized resources?  I've actually had the great pleasure over the past year of participating in such a project investigating how people associated with First Lutheran Church in the city of Pittsburgh experienced the Civil War era.  For those of you familiar with the city, it's the church directly across Grant Street from the U.S. Steel tower.  Needless to say, space is limited and the church's archives isn't too much more than a few records books and stray pamphlets.  However, starting with just a few lists of names, we were able to craft a story of the congregation and the Civil War that we presented in two one-hour Sunday School classes...and still felt like we barely scratched the surface.  Based primarily on what we found in digitized books and newspapers, our presentation touched on slavery and racism, patriotism, mobilization, benevolent efforts, the work of women, the 62nd Pennsylvania and the 101st Pennsylvania, Hampton's Battery, death and mourning, prisons, memory, and the Lutheran confessionalism/pietism controversy.  The presentation was received extremely well by the congregation, and a new website provides ample opportunities for the primary sources corresponding to those topics to be explored in detail.  Also, projects like the Valley of the Shadow seem like a good first-generation effort, but we can continue to think about how to craft narratives and make the primary sources more accessible and relevant to readers. 

Going back to my original point, I really hope to see professional and amateur historians seeking more Civil War interpretive opportunities beyond battlefields.  And I don't mean just giving tours or creating exhibits, but enhancing them with online historical ecosystems that dynamically engage learners to reward curiosity.  I know that I will eagerly consume such efforts.  No matter the location, it's hard to beat the human drama of Civil War history grounded in specific people and places.  

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