Pohanka Interns and the Presence of the Past

By Jill Ogline Titus

Over the past four years, nearly 70 Gettysburg College students have completed summer internships at some of the nation’s leading Civil War sites through the CWI’s Brian C. Pohanka Internship Program. These students have spent their summers giving public tours, working with museum collections, conducting educational programs and archival research, engaging visitors in conversations, and experiencing the rewards and challenges of doing historical work in the public sphere.

This summer, we’ve asked our interns to reflect on the approaches to history modeled by visitors to their sites, and more broadly, on the nature and character of popular understandings of the past.

While we’ve all heard the laments that Americans have scant interest in or respect for the past, the little research that’s been done to date on popular attitudes toward history actually provides a tantalizing rejoinder to this narrative of gloom and doom.

Twenty years ago, historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen conducted the first-ever national survey documenting the ways in which Americans use and understand the past. Rosenzweig and Thelen went on to publish their findings in a ground-breaking book, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. You can read a short synopsis of the survey findings here.

Somewhat to their own surprise, Rosenzweig and Thelen found that most Americans are profoundly interested in history, but embrace a past that is more deeply personal, more wound up in their experiences of their own families, more participatory, and at times more rooted in a narrative of decline than that pursued by professional historians.

Interns were asked to contextualize their observations through exploring the relationship between Rosenzweig and Thelen’s findings and their own impressions of visitors to their sites. Particularly, they were asked to consider the following questions:

  • What are the various avenues through which visitors to your site pursue interactions with the past? What drives them to pursue these interactions?
  • What frameworks and lenses are at work in shaping their understandings of history?
  • To what extent does a family, personal or communal past shape the way a visitor interacts with the broader narratives interpreted at your sites?

Over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll be featuring several students’ reflections on the frameworks shaping popular perceptions of history. Stay tuned for dispatches from the front lines of history.

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