Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Best Ways to Tell History

I'm currently grappling with the question of how best to interpret history. I'm open to there being many different ways and having different options depending on the type of audience and venue for the type of history that you're sharing...but I still think that there are boundaries. At the moment I cannot fine tune exactly where those boundaries are, but I know when I think someone has stepped well past them. I'm highly skeptical of emotional manipulation (let the facts speak for themselves and let the natural emotions of the context move you, but don't try to push me emotionally in order to make a point), I don't particularly want an overly theatrical retelling of something (do a reenactment/first person interpretation or just tell it to me straight), and most importantly I am a big fan of the genuine article coupled with keeping it simple.

What is bringing this issue to the fore at the moment is my reflections on a recent trip to the Land of Lincoln. I was there on business, to meet with the Lincoln National Heritage Area board and staff, but since my business is heritage tourism that meant that I saw a lot of the sites in the area. There was quite a mix of sites, offering various types of experiences for different audiences. For me, these sites ranged from the very genuine, to the moderately hokey, to the full on fake. I'd heard a great deal about all of these sites before I came for my visit and after touring them, the controversy started to make sense.

The heritage area has a well branded wayside marker program across the state.

First, because I was thinking about the whole Lincoln experience, I noticed a lot of signs for related sites on my way. If I'd had more time, I would have stopped at them all. My major stops were in Springfield. That was both a good and a bad thing. It was bad in that the Lincoln National Heritage Area has a wealth of resources across the 42 counties it serves, so only seeing the sites in Springfield does the story a great injustice. But I was on a fixed schedule and just had time to pop in, do the meeting, and basically pop out. In that limited amount of time, I did pack in quite a few site visits (although many of them involved me either quickly walking or jogging).

I was not the only person who liked the wayside markers. I saw people reading them everywhere, and this family stopped to take a picture of the story this one told.

The centerpiece of the Lincoln experience in Springfield is the Old State Capitol and its surrounding square. The Capitol building tells you the parts that are reconstructed and gives you a sort of forensic history of the place and why things have change. They don't pretend or try to hide things. The parking garage underneath is obviously modern and they haven't tried to give it a historic-ish look to fake it up. The Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices are also on the square and they do things in a similar fashion. The law offices have been restored, but further architectural forensics have pointed out some flaws in how they interpret the building...so they tell you about that and about that process. My tour was great, it was informative and revealing and I got to feel like I was a part of the detective process, but I also got a feel for what Lincoln's life would have been like in that space.

View of the Old State Capitol building and the surrounding square. The law offices are to the far left.

Now, from checking out the websites for those two sites, you'll notice that they are both managed by the state historic preservation office...and since that's basically my training, it makes sense that I enjoyed the way that they did things. But what I liked was that there was not an attempt at chicanery. They wove in social and biographical history along with telling the story of the built environment (and how daily life would have worked within those spaces). They didn't try to ply me with aggrandized patriotic rhetoric or emotional hooks. I really loved it. It has a sense of the genuine and the honest...and integrity is very important to me.

Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices.

There was obviously a movement towards historic preservation in the area and I saw several great historic buildings that were obviously alive with new and evolving life. But the area around the Old State Capitol seemed to be particularly vibrant. Having that larger context really added to the experience for me.

A few blocks away from the old square was the only National Park Service site in Illinois, the Lincoln Home National Historic Site. I mostly liked the feel of the place. It was the first urban park within the NPS and you definitely get a feel for what the streetscape could have looked like when Lincoln lived there. The NPS building is obviously modern, but unobtrusive, and then you're turned out onto this gravel street and you can walk the antebellum neighborhood with a few people in historic dress and the rangers.

NPS welcome center at the edge of the historic neighborhood.

Here's my quibble (and this wouldn't be an issue for most people): they've done some reconstruction of what they think some of the buildings would have looked like, and some shifting around. That edges awfully close to the hokey recreated rustic villages that you see all over the country where communities have ripped historic buildings off of the landscape that crafted them to be plopped down in a fantasy village setting. The result tends to be schizophrenic and kind of sad. But this neighborhood had much more of a cohesive feel than those heritage villages (or the prototypical Greenfield Village), but I'm always very skeptical of places that take a Colonial Williamsburg approach. That means tearing out anything that doesn't fit with the time period that you're interpreting. To me that does a disservice to these historic settings because part of their story is that they evolve over time. On the other hand, you get a feel for what it could have been like for Abe to walk around this neighborhood and how close it was to his law offices and the legislature.

Only home Lincoln ever owned. There's a man in period dress walking from the house.

So, in short, I'm conflicted. The tour of the house was kind of shocking because so many of the original items are out there for you to interact with (in a non-touching way, of course). I like the way that they laid down new carpet on top of the historic carpet and through judicious use of motion sensors, they let you walk through the house in a way that gives the impression that you're just passing through like you're a guest. Considering that I'm used to the way that the Hermitage treats Andrew Jackson's artifacts (they've basically hermetically sealed the site and visitors can barely see inside the rooms), this experience was very liberating. I was also sort of honored to be able to be so close to the personal effects of such a prominent president and historic figure.

One guest decided to just hold onto his child rather than having her set off the motion sensors in Lincoln's bedroom.

My major quibble is that while our interpretive ranger was overall excellent, he blew it for me at the very end. He really knew his stuff, he could tell you about every article in each room, he wove in family history and accounts to personalize each space, he had great energy and kept us all moving...but at the end he quickly stuck in this speech to sum up our experience by saying something along the lines of, "thus you can see from his life that he was always against slavery and he fought tirelessly to battle against it and bring freedom to all people." Well...that's just not true. The bad history coupled with the overly patriotic plug...it didn't make me want to go out and wave a flag and it was an emotional plea...which I hate. It was misinformation and I expect more of an NPS site.

But the most troubling place of all was the Lincoln Library and Museum. I've heard so many things about this site and I was eager to see where I fit in the spectrum of opinions...because people either love it or hate it. I was truly unnerved. It was Disney and Ripley's-Believe-It-Or-Not do history. So you went into different shows and immersion experiences and you were greeted with a lot of technology and special effects with a rather troubling message. All of the shows engaged in multiple emotional pleas and some of their historical interpretation mangled facts so that the message could be more patriotic. The life-like museum figures staged all over the place also gave me the creeps.

The message of many of the exhibits and shows was the original artifacts were important to the telling of history...except that they didn't use them. So what they were saying and what they were showing were contradictory. There were a few original artifacts out, but they were shunted off to the side and you mostly had to walk past them (they weren't set up in such a way for you to adequately interact with them or learn from them). Even the immersion experiences (like recreating Lincoln lying in state in the Old State Capitol) could have benefited from some interpretation...because all you could do was gawk and walk through it rather than interact with it.

Where Lincoln and most of his family are buried. Why recreate a scene that people can travel just a short way to go see? Some of the museum experiences made you wonder why they created a fictionalized experience when the visitors were so close to the real place.

And while the docents were very engaging, they were all actors and some of their scripts troubled me (historically speaking). But I also worry about how sustainable this will be. It's cutting edge now, but how much will it take to maintain it or to update it? Unlike most tourism experiences, the way that this is designed it is mostly a tightly controlled and carefully timed experience. Be it a historic site or an aquarium, the trend is heavy towards self directed and highly personal experiences...but this museum goes more for a cattle herd approach. You really need to do it in a certain order for it to run smoothly and then you sit back and they operate the show and experience for you.

I like having some agency in my tourism experience. Well...basically I like having a sense of agency in most of what I do. I didn't get that in this site. There were elements that I thought were clever (like the Tim Russert news story bit) and I could see it working in another setting, but I couldn't find a balance that made me comfortable. It was all very dazzling, but I wonder if you asked a kid what she learned after coming out, what would she say? The technology seemed to be the star more so than the Lincoln story. I like using technology to enhance an experience or enhance a story, but the technology seemed to be the experience. It didn't feel homey...it felt sterile and contrived.

But they had a great gift shop. :). And the pull of consumerism in that space quickly eased the misgivings I had in my heart. I wouldn't do the museum again, but I'd return to their gift shop in a heartbeat.

No comments:

Post a Comment