The future of Civil War history entails ___ (fill-in the blank)

Posted on January 14, 2013 by


History is an interesting field. There are a wide variety of practitioners, some on the “inside”, some on the “outside”, and some, to some degree, with one foot in both (some overlapping occasionally, and some on a regular basis). But, the inside/outside thing is a matter of perspective. People work in certain circles, and from within those respective circles “inside/outside” does not mean the same thing. Each may tinker with the same ball of clay, but that’s not to say that they work the clay in the same way.

With this in mind, the struggle over how to deal with the future of the Civil War varies with perspective. If there are differences on how to approach the subject, it isn’t necessarily that the “outsiders” want to get on the “inside”, with the other side. Rather, the objection may be better defined as differences in opinion regarding the philosophies of approach… “how to approach, or how not to approach”… or… “I think there’s more to the approach than what’s being considered”.

What drives this brief post are considerations from various folks (seen and unseen… in open and closed social media discussions) who are questioning and/or being critical of the layout of the upcoming The Future of Civil War History: Looking Beyond the 150th, to be held in Gettysburg in March. The title of the March program is a lofty one, and addressed by about 100 program participants, many of whom are employed within academic institutions, followed next by representatives of the National Park Service (and I’m clearly a bigger fan of the NPS – as a consumer and a volunteer – for it’s frontline engagement with the general public). That seems like a lot of weight behind credibility, but… are there holes in the program/agenda? To have such a beefy title, it seems to be implied that there’s much to consider. Yes, they do cover much, but… if there is much to be considered, are there missing components?  Some of us have argued that there are, and for this, some might question our motivations. The concerns are not motivated as some might suggest, but rather, come as a genuine interest for the future of Civil War history, in which blogs certainly play a part. Let’s ramp that up even more… there is no reference to digital or electronic impact in any of the presentations. Yes, blogs do fall in this area, but in that the concerns are raised by some bloggers doesn’t mean that the same are so narrow in focus. 

Blogs fall within the larger classification of “interpretive platforms in new media”. Personally, I’m very interested in innovative uses of interpretive platforms in new media, and that’s inspired within me after having cycled through two graduate programs, back-to-back. Yes, I blog, but I have also ventured into other areas that might come under these platforms. The “innovative use” angle ranges from blogs and Websites, to interpretive signage (not so much a tool of new media, but there’s potential via new media for static signage) and satellite-engaged interpretation (most especially for sites that do not/or cannot employ signage). Employing these platforms, what can be done (while thinking outside the box and beyond traditional content delivery) that might be seen as innovative and will better serve the audience? Can innovation lead to improved dissemination of content and an improved public grasp (without being bored to death) of underlying theory? I know… it sounds like the public historian in me is emerging from an otherwise obscure side of me, and that’s not surprising considering my few years in the museum field, and work as a historically clad interpreter, from time to time. While it appears that engagement with the public (public history) will be addressed to some degree, and seemingly more on the one-on-one/person-to-person level (with, what appears to be a psychosocial approach to public engagement, but under the “Civil War Memory”  theme… a topic I’m considering for another day), but again, what about the future potential of digital/electronic platforms?

I’ll close by saying… this is not emerging simply as a matter of bloggers reacting to the agenda of the March program. In fact, it’s not a new discussion. Some of us (you might call us “history practioners, who practice when time allows”) have been talking about theory and practice in what spare time we have, for well over a year, and it’s not unusual for us to ask why certain things aren’t being discussed or employed. The discussion phase continues, but I suspect there’s more significant things to come. It’s not a matter of “if”, but “when”.