With my internship at Richmond National Battlefield Park landing in the middle of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, I have been fortunate enough to experience the world of public history during a major anniversary. However, going to school at Gettysburg College during the same anniversary provides me the academic side of historical interpretation. There has been a great debate about the connection between these two worlds. Whether this connection exists or not has been the question of the summer for me, and while working with Richmond National Battlefield Park, I believe I have found my answer:
All summer, I have had the pleasure of engaging excited, enthusiastic children who search through the visitor center for the answers to the little orange Junior Ranger booklets. This program, designed for children to be engaged with the historic site, contains not only the simple crossword puzzles and mazes, but also a scavenger hunt on the maps of the city of Richmond. The more they explore, the more curiosity takes hold of their excited minds, and they begin to ask me questions about what they have found.
More than once, I’ve listened to these kids gush to their parents about how excited they are to go back to school and show their teachers what they found on their vacation to a National Park. The simple activities here in Richmond, such as learning how to load and fire a cannon or picking up information about the George McCellan and Ulysses S. Grant on the 1862 and 1864 maps stay in their memory, ready to be sparked again once they are learning about the Civil War in school.
Apart from the Junior Ranger program, individual school groups that visit for a field trip are combining the work of academic historians and public historians in a single program. Even though it is at a younger school grade level, these trips affect the students’ interest and could be the life changing trip that leads to a lasting interest in the Civil War, or even history in general. How many historians say that their interest was sparked by a trip somewhere or by a talk from a historical interpreter? The foundation of an academic historian’s work is laid by these kids’ programs aimed to pique curiosity.
From a ten year-old Junior Ranger to the group of fifty fifth-graders, these hands-on experiences spark interest that could last for a lifetime. This interest will be alive in the future history students professors will have in the classroom. With my internship in Richmond coming to a close, I put my faith in these children’s programs to hopefully encourage another enthusiastic student fill my place as a future intern. And this student just might have a secret sash filled with Junior Ranger patches hidden in the closet.