This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.
The first time I ever gave an interpretive tour was two years ago at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War in New Market, Virginia about a farmhouse that was in the midst of the fighting. My supervisor told me to make the house a home. Her advice to make a human connection between visitors and the past has influenced my style of interpretation, and I have carried it through other various internships including my time this summer at Richmond National Battlefield Park. While working in Richmond, I have been challenged, and challenged visitors, to think differently about the conflicts and battles in and around Richmond. The style of interpretation at Richmond National Battlefield Park follows what Freemen Tilden believes about interpretation: provocation is elemental to effective interpretation. Although it comes with its challenges, provocation brings opportunity and diversity to the visitors’ experience and sheds new light on concepts they thought they understood before exploring the park.
My last post recounted some of my favorite takeaways from my Civil War road trip this summer. But this trip was about more than just mosquito bites and cheap donuts; it was the first time I ever visited a historical site as a student of public history. My first tour was with Elizabeth Smith ’17 at the Sunken Road at Fredericksburg. Elizabeth’s tour was unique in that she was able to connect the events that transpired along Marye’s Heights, a moderately nuanced subject, to President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a very well-known subject. I was delighted to see this connection that appealed to a wide audience. For the hardcore Civil Warrior, Elizabeth’s accounts of the 5th New Hampshire and Cobb’s Georgia Legion gave the military historian exactly what he or she was looking for. Tying the mortality of the common soldier and the pathos of the war-torn nation that was so evident at Fredericksburg to the familiar and powerful Gettysburg Address gave the casual Civil War enthusiast something relatable (and perhaps it provided a new perspective to the hardened military historian as well). Her knowledge of her audience combined with her ability to connect broad themes to specifics and the importance of location demonstrated Elizabeth’s skill as a public historian.
A few days ago, I was working the desk at the Cold Harbor Visitor Center when a burly man with a goatee walked through the door. Approaching the desk, he told us in a thick southern accent that he was looking for an ancestor who had fought at Cold Harbor 150 years earlier. He believed his ancestor had been wounded and taken to a hospital in Richmond. He told us that several days earlier a ranger had assured him his ancestor would have been hauled into Richmond on a railroad, not a wagon, as he had previously feared. He was looking for confirmation of this. “I want to make sure that I can tell my mother that he didn’t suffer, that they didn’t haul him all the way in on a wagon,” he explained.
Ashley Luskey will be speaking at the 2014 Civil War Institute’s Summer Conference on the War in 1864 during which she will give a lecture on Cold Harbor and its contested memory. Luskey is currently a Park Ranger at Richmond National Battlefield and is working towards her PhD in History at West Virginia University. In anticipation of the Summer Institute, Ashley Luskey answered student questions about her research, her lecture topic, and her connection with Gettysburg College and the Civil War Institute. Let’s see what she has in store for us this summer:
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: