We live in an age of distraction, as part of a wired community demanding instant information and interaction, with a thin line between the real and the virtual. Going to college in a place with a strong sense of history is a springboard for graduates looking for ways to involve the public in the past.
From smartphone to smart tourist with the swipe of a screen, a visitor to present-day Devil’s Den views an iconic photograph of a dead Confederate sharpshooter, taken in the the same location after the battle. But things are not always what they seem—see story below.
Make it personal
Many people unfairly see history as merely a never-ending stream of names and dates. Historians must find new and innovative ways to involve the American public in issues of the past and tell history in an interesting and engaging way. Public history is “the ability to make stories of the past accessible, engaging and provocative to diverse audiences,” said public historian Peter Carmichael, director of the College’s Civil War Institute and Robert C. Fluhrer Professor of Civil War Studies.
“Anyone who likes good stories should like history because it is this great, epic story. Every single emotion that you can have today in 2013, you can find in the past. It’s all about the manner in which these stories are told. If you can tell them in a compelling way, people will want to know more,” said Chris Gwinn ’06, a National Park Service ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park.
Tim Orr ’01, assistant professor of history at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA, thinks making a family connection is key. “We need to make history meaningful on a personal level. You can find ways to tap into an individual’s personal family history—undoubtedly their family connects to some of the great events that happened in the U.S.—the Great Depression, Civil War, American Revolution, influenza epidemic of 1918, or civil rights—you name it, all of these things intersect with personal family history,” Orr said.
Gregory Landrey ’77 teaches courses in American material culture and art conservation. He is the director of the library, collections management and academic programs at Winterthur Museum in Delaware. “I teach my students about the meaning of objects through letters. Letters have character all their own. My own grandmother wrote one of the letters I use. I never knew her, but through that letter, I get a sense of what she was about.”
Make it current
Connecting issues of the past to current issues can help make history relatable. “Any understanding of contemporary events has a lot of history to it. Without a sense of history, we completely miss the complex forces that are at work in shaping our world today,” said Carmichael.
“Understanding the past helps us understand causes. If you want to understand how to arrive at useful solutions to today’s problems, you have to understand the causes,” said Scott Hancock, associate professor of history and Africana Studies at Gettysburg College. “When you think about today’s challenges, you need to understand that there’s been a long process with deep roots in history which created the current conditions.”
In his Slavery, Rebellion, and Emancipation class at the College, Hancock has students focus on enslaved Africans in the Atlantic world. At the end of the course, they spend time looking at modern-day slavery around the world, making connections that span the centuries.
Heather Clancy ’15 was based at Andersonville National Historic Site this summer with the Civil War Institute’s Brian C. Pohanka Internship Program. Andersonville, a former Confederate prison camp, is home to the National Prisoner of War Museum.
“The museum is about the American POW experience in general, not just the Civil War,” she said. “It focuses on the commonalities of the POW experience, rather than just one era or region, which makes it interesting and relatable to many visitors.”
Make it real
“What museums, historical societies, and others try to do is engage the public outside of a classroom. We use a wide range of programs and resources to remind people that history is fun, and places like historical societies are accessible for everyone,” said Nicole McMullen ’98, executive director of the Historical Society of Dauphin County.
Added Jen Giambrone ’10, a research historian at History Associates (see sidebar), “Public history is something that brings history out of academia. It makes wonderful stories and images accessible to be preserved, studied, and experienced less formally.”
“Public history is terribly important as a way of getting people interested in history, because to care about a subject you have to experience it in a primordial way. You can get that by seeing the dirty, sweaty reenactors, hearing the creak of leather, and smelling the black powder at a reenactment, for example,” added Orr, who is an academic historian, but also worked for the National Park Service and was involved in Civil War reenactments.
Mark Trout P’15, father of Kristen, a history major and Civil War Era Studies minor, recently opened the Missouri Civil War Museum where they are trying to move beyond typical museum exhibits to engage visitors from schoolchildren to adults. “We want to break away from the mold of having a wall with twenty-seven different muskets on it, and instead bring out personal stories and get at the emotional component,” he said.
Make it virtual
Technological advances impact the ways we analyze, teach, and consume historical information—both in positive and negative ways. For professors and students, online databases and websites now provide vast quantities of original source and academic materials with a few keystrokes and click of a mouse.
“I don’t spend much time in archives anymore because there is so much available online, but the ability to get an overview and see patterns is incredible with digital databases,” said Hancock.
Carmichael also feels that that online resources have a positive influence on studying history. “Technology has opened up a range of sources for us to hear voices from the past with a clarity and level of volume that we never heard before. There are more competing narratives now that are filled with tension.”
Both professors concede that online information has its challenges. Carmichael cites credibility: “There is often a lack of criteria for submission to online resources, so you have people who are engaging in, talking about, and making assertions about the past who are not qualified to reach some of those assertions.”
Hancock stresses context: “Students sometimes miss context when using online tools. They’ll look at a newspaper article, but won’t have the hard copy in their hands. It’s easy to not take into account the placement of the article—whether it’s a front-page article and how it’s connected to images, for example.”
Orr has seen his own set of technological successes and challenges. While the Union unit histories that he accesses for his own Civil War scholarship are now more accessible than ever before on Google Books, he admits that students sometimes make mistakes by citing sources that aren’t credible or inadvertently commit plagiarism because they think that online information is communal. “They aren’t as attached to the process of researching,” he said.
In addition to online databases and resources, social media have proven to be useful tools in piquing historical interest. Both Hancock and Carmichael use social media in their teaching. Hancock encourages online debates and conversations among his students, while Carmichael uses YouTube videos to show students how people are making historical memories and commemorating the past today. Students who work with Carmichael at the Civil War Institute, including Clancy, write posts for the “Gettysburg Compiler,” a blog that helps bridge the gap between student research and the public.
Sharing articles and other historical material among peers is easier than ever thanks to social media, agree Carmichael and Orr. The sharing of knowledge isn’t limited to academic circles, either. Gwinn noted that Gettysburg National Military Park has worked to reach new audiences by developing their social media sites, and those sites allow them to increase their reach exponentially.
For all of their usefulness, Carmichael warns that social media are not the be-all, end-all of historical conversation. “Social media has not and will never produce sustained and deeply analytical conversations about history. It does bring attention to things that are coming out and give a platform for people and ideas to be heard, but sustained, analytical conversations—you can still only get those through face-to-face conversation.”
Smartphones, tablets, digital cameras, and other mobile hard-ware have had their own impact.
History Associates works at the intersection of the real and the virtual, blending traditional and technological ways to engage audiences with history. Martin and Giambrone agree that technology eases access to historical content and provides innovative ways for people to interact with the past. Elements such as photographs and videos engage individuals with apps, social media, Flash-based maps, and more.
Martin tells a personal story of his smartphone connecting the past with the present, recalling an instance at Gettysburg National Military Park. “I was able to take pictures of my daughter interacting with the monuments and record the gurgling sound of the creek near Devil’s Den and Little Round Top. I have my own record of my experience there. Before smartphones, it was much harder to connect with the past in that way.”
During the busy Memorial Day Weekend at the National Cemetery at Andersonville, Clancy encountered a number of visitors looking for information on the graves of their ancestors, but they had not yet visited the visitor center. Instead of directing the guests there, or driving there herself, Clancy accessed the information for them instantly on her smartphone, saving time and keeping their interest levels high.
While digital advances have enhanced the connection to history, human interactions with physical objects and places are powerful experiences that will never be replaced.
Winterthur houses 90,000 objects, making it an important center for the study of American art and culture. Landrey appreciates the role of objects in deepening public understanding and shared a personal anecdote about the power of place. “I was at the Henry Ford Museum and they have the Rosa Parks bus there, fully restored. You can get on it and sit where Rosa Parks sat. It’s a powerful thing,” he said. “Watching people experience that was a great thing, and not something you could duplicate online.”
He feels the same about visiting the National Archives, “To be in the same space with certain documents—the Emancipation Proclamation or our country’s founding documents—is a completely different experience than reading the text online.”
Gwinn sums it all up to balance. “I don’t ever want technology to replace going out and standing at a historical site. I want to use that kind of material to add to the experience you have, to continue the dialog after you go home, and to facilitate conversation between the academics and rangers at the park and the people who love the park or want to go to the park.”
— by Nikki Rhoads
A story in The Washington Post this summer cited the many ways author and battlefield historian William A. Frassanito ’68 (above) has increased public and academic understanding of the events at Gettysburg.
“As far as having a really solid impact on the historical thinking and understanding of the battlefield, very few other people have contributed to it like Bill Frassanito,” Gettysburg historian John Heiser of the National Park Service told the Post.
Frassanito’s study of historic photographs have helped the National Park Service restore parts of the battlefield to their original appearance. It was he who revealed that the iconic image of the dead Confederate “sharpshooter” in Devil’s Den had been staged.
This year, a highlight of the annual Civil War Institute Summer Conference was a panel on the importance of Frassanito’s work, ending with a surprise visit by him.
Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
Posted: Fri, 30 Aug 2013
Next on your reading list
Share this story: