Saturday, November 13, 2010

MARAC Fall 2010: Commemorating the Civil War

Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge and Reading Railroad Bridge, Susquehanna River, as seen from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 12 November 2010.

Even though, in all likelihood, I won't be actively involved in my employer's or my state's efforts to commemorate the Civil War sesiquicentennial, I was drawn to this morning's "Celebrating the Sesiquicentennial: The 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War" session. New York State just wrapped up a quadricentennial commemoration, and the nation as a whole is a bit agitated at the moment; thankfully, we don't seem ready to slaughter one another, but I think I'm starting to see how Americans might come to believe that taking up arms against one another is necessary and justified.

I'm incredibly glad I opted to attend this interesting and thought-provoking session, which highlighted commemorative activities underway in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland, and I'm going to devote this post to what were, for me, the session's takeaway points:
  • Diversity of perspective and experience will be at the forefront. Barbara Franco (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission), who served as both session moderator and panelist, set the stage by noting that commemorations say more about the values of society at the time of commemoration than about past events, and, in one way or another, the panelists drove home this fact: Franco, Liz Shatto (Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area, Maryland), Mark Snell (Shepherd University and West Virginia Sesiquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission), and Laura Drake Davis (Library of Virginia and Virginia Sesiquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission) all asserted that their state commemorations would foreground the experiences not only of the white male citizens who made up the bulk of the combatants but also those of African-American soldiers, civilians, and slaves, male non-combatants, women and children of all races, recent immigrants, and other people affected by the conflict.
  • The Web will be central. Pennsylvania, which has a statewide commemorative planning committee, and West Virginia and Virginia, which have official state commemorative commissions, are building Web sites that will serve as portals to information about events held throughout their states, digitized archival materials, and other resources. Many organizations in Maryland, where local and regional organizations are spearheading the commemoration, are also using the Web to drive interest in the sesiquicentennial. Moreover, the Web is also being used to drive citizen participation. All four states are using social media to publicize commemorative events, and Virginia is encouraging citizens to bring family letters, photographs, and other Civil War-related materials to special scanning sessions held throughout the state and to allow the resulting images to be posted on the Web. Pennsylvania, which has incorporated a scanning station into its mobile exhibit, is encouraging citizens to allow scanned materials to be posted to the Web; it's also encouraging citizens to use a Web-based form to tell their families' stories.
  • Visual and multimedia materials are also important. All of the panelists stressed the need to make history accessible and compelling, and several of the mare using audio and video productions to capture the interest of students and adults. West Virginia has prepared a DVD containing several 20-minute video segments and has distributed a copy to every public school in the state, and a DVD designed for classroom use is also a key component of Virginia's commemorative effort. Maryland's Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area is working with an acclaimed documentary filmmaker to produce a 60-minute film and will be involved in a variety of other commemorative film and video projects. Nicholas Redding of the Civil War Preservation Trust, which seeks to ensure that battlefield sites are preserved, noted that his organization has made extensive use of posters and other materials created by volunteer graphic artists.
  • Policy makers want to see economic benefit. Mark Snell emphasized that West Virginia opted to create a formal commission to oversee the commemoration because it hoped that commemorative activities would attract tourists to the state, and Barbara Franco, Liz Shatto, and Laura Drake Davis also noted that their state and local leaders hoped that well-done commemorative events would boost the local economy. They may be on to something: as Snell noted, research indicates that, as a rule, visitors to historic sites stay longer, spend more money, are better educated, and are more likely to make travel recommendations to friends than the tourist population as a whole. (I suspect that people who travel to conduct archival research also fit this profile.)
  • Absence of a state or national commission isn't necessarily a liability. At this time, it is highly unlikely that a U.S. Sesiquicentennial Commission will be formed, and Maryland is not alone in opting against establishing a state commission. Although such commissions can help to guide and sustain commemorative events, they are not all-powerful. For example, the U.S. Centennial of the American Civil War Commission, which was formed as the civil rights movement was at its peak, proved unable to stop numerous Southern states from commemorating the war in a racially exclusive manner; in fact, both Mark Snell and Barbara Franco noted that the current emphasis upon the diversity of Civil War experiences and perspectives is in part an effort to overcome this bitter legacy. Moreover, although federal and state commissions that provide financial and other forms of support can be helpful, local governments and regional organizations can be extremely effective. As Barbara Franco noted, grassroots enthusiasm, not centralized planning, was responsible for the initial success and the lasting impact of the U.S. national bicentennial celebrations that took place in 1976. When you think about it, this observation makes sense: it's a lot easier to channel enthusiasm than to generate it, "grassroots" is not a synonym for "disorganized," and commissions run the gamut from extremely effective to profoundly dysfunctional.
What a great session. I came away from it energized -- I really want to find out more about New York State's commemorative plans -- and a bit wistful: I became an archivist because I had a deep passion for the mystery and contingency of history and a belief in the immense value of the historical record, and at this point in my career I don't spend as much time with records as I would like. I'm more than a bit envious of all of the archivists who are doing lots of hands-on work relating to this commemoration.

1 comment:

Ray LaFever said...

Bonnie, this was very interesting. I've started planning for blog entries next year related to my town's experience in the civil war. I'm now curious about what our county historian might be doing. Thanks for spurring me on. Ray