This post is part of a series on the experiences of our Pohanka Interns at various historic sites working on the front lines of history as interpreters and curators. Dr. Jill Titus explains the questions our students are engaging with here.
After working at the Manassas National Battlefield Park for about a month, I can readily accept the findings laid out in Thelen and Rosenzweig’s survey without any surprise. Having the opportunity to work the information desk, give guided tours, and conduct research for various purposes has given me the privilege to see how excited the general public is about history. The various forms through which people interact with the past at Manassas include instruction through our guided tours, the museum, the hourly movie, or the junior ranger program; individual learning or self-discovery through self-guided tours; physical interaction through firing demonstrations and hands on exhibits such as the artillery display; and ancestral research.
Witnessing visitors engage in such activities certainly indicates that they, for whatever motivation, are interested in history and desire to learn more about the past. Based on these encounters, I have observed that among these visitors, the most common motivations driving their engagement with the park have been ancestral research/general family history and a sense of national pride or community. Between these two respective incentives, (family and community) I have found that those visitors who are researching about ancestors who fought in the Civil War are the most excited about the past and spend the most time doing activities related to studying the past. I have found this to be one of the most appealing parts of my internship as well; helping interested visitors learn about an ancestor and enjoy the thrill of active research, and seeing the delight and satisfaction of the guest.
Even for guests who do not have ancestors who fought in the Civil War, I believe there are ways that they could experience this kind of thrill and satisfaction as well. Perhaps such guests could be given the name of an actual Civil War soldier, similar to the identity cards visitors receive at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and encouraged to go through the process of researching this particular person’s role and ultimate fate in the conflict. However, it is true that people have particular motivation to research their ancestors because they take pride in the roles their ancestors played during key moments in history and pride in the fact that they are the descendants of such people.
Nonetheless, a sense of community on the national level also draws a lot of people to Manassas National Battlefield Park. Interest in the Civil War for many visitors originates from the realization that all Americans today are still affected by the conflict some 150 years later. Guests come to the park to learn about the war that cost more American lives than any other conflict to date, divided the union, ended slavery, and proved to be the greatest test of the nation. Many visitors come to Manassas and other Civil War battlefields to strengthen their sense of national pride; learning about such a crucial time that really defined the values of the United States enriches that sense of national community. Ultimately this may be the more common of the two motivations; not every American has ancestors who fought in the Civil War, but all certainly are a part of the national community. Nevertheless, no matter the incentive, tens of thousands of visitors come to Manassas National Battlefield Park every year; some just to enjoy the trails and nature within the park boundaries, but most to engage in activities relating to the past and learn about history.