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.
As a summer employee at Gettysburg National Military Park, my responsibilities include everything from leading interpretive programs on the battlefield to answering questions at the ranger information desk. No matter the situation, I am usually communicating with visitors who are trying to exploit the maximum benefit possible from their time at this bountiful historical resource. The average visitor at the park is one that has never visited the site before, has very little knowledge of the options for interacting with the historical landscape, and has limited time to spend on the battlefield. In this regard, sometimes even explaining to a visitor his or her options becomes an interpretive experience, but that is to be expected.
The most common questions visitors ask are those pertaining to the basic events surrounding the Battle of Gettysburg, but those are not necessarily the questions that serve them best. For that reason, the art of interpretation makes it possible to make direct connections between the Gettysburg National Military Park and each and every visitor – meaningful connections that they never knew could be made in their short time at the park. I have been blessed this summer to learn the basics of this art and be a part of these visitors’ transformative experiences at Gettysburg. This is a crucial undertaking, for the National Park Service preserves this battlefield for the visitor, and it is the visitor that gives life and meaning to these once desolate fields.
Spending time with park rangers during two weeks of training and while developing my first program taught me the importance of interpretation, not regurgitation. In other words, the job of an interpreter is to make meaningful connections between the visitor and the resource and inspire personal interactions linking intangible ideas to the tangible resources available to the visitor. In that respect, although visitors may find it interesting that Samuel Weaver was the man in charge of reinterring the corpses of Union soldiers from the battlefield to the National Cemetery, they will probably forget his name twenty minutes after leaving the cemetery. Hopefully what a visitor will not forget in years following my program is the way that they felt when I related the anticipation of the 20,000 travelers awaiting President Lincoln’s “appropriate remarks” in the Cemetery in 1863 to their own memories of awaiting President Bush’s televised response to the 2001 bombing of the World Trade Center. I often try to answer general probing questions with personalized responses that connect to the visitors’ unique backgrounds as well, such as pointing out the monument of their home state on a map as a possible stop on their tour. With the techniques I have learned thus far this summer and the experiences I have had with the public, I would definitely agree with Rosenzweig & Thelen’s findings that the vast majority of people relate to the past in terms of their own individual experiences.
The desire to experience the past in such a specific way, though, can be detrimental to some visitors’ experience. I recall one man who asked me to point out the most important sites on the field that would give him the Southern perspective on the battle. I responded that, “We don’t divvy up our perspective between North and South here, that’s what started the Civil War.” Historians are methodologically trained to pursue objectivity in constructing their theses. Visitors, on the other hand, are generally not trained historians, and their primary objective is often self-fulfilling. Therefore, such as with the man seeking a “Southern perspective,” while this sort of subjective approach may prove satisfying, it can blind a visitor to the totality of what Gettysburg has to offer. This summer I have realized that no matter what one’s own convictions about history may be, only with an open mind and a hunger for unbiased understanding can the past be truly interpreted.
Nevertheless, most visitors have a much more enriching and enjoyable time on the battlefield when through interpretation they are able to relate a part of themselves to a part of the battlefield, often by sheer accident. When this happens, visitors experience a sense of pride and stewardship of the past that they never expected to encounter. Working on the battlefield this summer and being a part of this interpretive experience has been life-changing; I have enjoyed every minute of it.