Are Tourists Falling Out of Love with Civil War Battlefields? Public Historians Respond

Are Tourists Falling Out of Love with Civil War Battlefields? Public Historians Respond

Two monuments at the Gettysburg Battlefield. The one on the left is General Alexander Hays, and the one on the right is dedicated to the 126th New York Infantry Regiment. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Last year I published a post on this website about visitation trends to Civil War historic sites within the National Park Service (NPS) during the Civil War Sesquicentennial from 2011 to 2015. After looking at the numbers I concluded that visitation to these sites remained relatively strong, but not everyone feels the same way. Two recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and Politico argue that historic sites throughout the United States are losing both visitors and their general relevance as tourist attractions. The Wall Street Journal article focused specifically on Civil War battlefields and painted a bleak picture of the future; no more battle reenactments or living history performances, gift shops going out of business, and a generation of young people who lack “respect” for history.[1]

While it is fair to discuss the future of Civil War battlefields and historic sites more broadly, these articles fall short in one crucial way: they leave out the perspectives of the public historians who make their living interpreting history at these sites. Curious to learn more myself, I put a call out on social media asking for comments in response to three of my own questions about visitation to Civil War sites. A few public historians who work at these sites responded and their comments are summarized below.[2]

1. What do think about visitation trends to Civil War battlefields today?

Almost everyone who responded warned that visitation numbers needed to be placed into context. Eric Leonard pointed out that NPS historic sites experienced a forty-year decline in visitation from roughly 1976 until the mid-2000s. “The Civil War Sesquicentennial and ‘Find Your Park’ campaigns have helped buck that trend,” argues Leonard. Jake Wynn pointed out that non-military historical sites have something new to offer visitors. He cited the National Museum of Civil War Medicine as an example of a site that has experienced tremendous growth over the past ten years. Stephanie Arduini gave a thoughtful answer, stating that “All history sites are trying to understand the larger decline in numbers, but [I] suspect it’s a combination of competition for limited time/funds, disconnect with older narratives not relevant to contemporary audiences or are too nostalgic at the expense of accuracy, and even aspects of design/platform for how visitors want to engage.” And Chris Barr reminded me that people visit historic sites for a range of reasons not necessarily connected to history education. “A lot of our parks that are near relatively large urban areas have growing visitation. Runners, hikers, joggers, etc…. Those people are every bit as much visitors as anybody.”

It seems that the bigger question, as Leonard suggested in his comments, is how to make all historic sites more relevant in the future.

2. Do children have a lack of respect for history?

A common talking point I’ve seen online suggests that young people are glued to their cell phones and not interested in visiting historic sites. At the same time, I have also seen articles contending that nature sites such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone are “being loved to death” because of record visitation and young people who will stop at nothing to get the perfect image for Instagram.[3] In both cases alleged visitation trends are unfairly blamed on young people. In reality, the primary drivers of historic site visitation are currently older Americans (Generation X and Baby Boomers, for example) who have more time and disposable income to travel. Ultimately young people are shaped by the environment around them, and they are more likely to be interested in history if they are exposed to it early in life. The comments I received from others echoed my own sentiments.

Barr suggested that young people respect history as much as previous generations and that “one day [in the future] today’s young people will grumble about kids not respecting or caring.” He also pointed out that the history curriculum in K-12 education has evolved and the Civil War simply isn’t given as much emphasis as it used to. “If you’re 70 years old right now the Civil War Centennial hit when you were in middle or high school,” said Barr. “The conflict loomed large and took up a huge part of the curriculum you studied. Your grandparents may have been alive in the 1800s and there’s a chance you may have even met an elderly Civil War vet when you were a little kid. You definitely knew children of Civil War soldiers and the conflict was still in living memory.” But today “somebody in an 11th grade US History course right now was born in 2003, the same year the US invaded Iraq. Your curriculum has to run all the way up through probably 9/11.” It isn’t so much that students don’t respect history, Barr argued, but that they might “feel a stronger connection to eras other than the Civil War.”

Several commenters spoke to the need of finding new ways to hook students into Civil War history using more primary source documents and interactive activities. Arduini spoke to the larger challenge of building an environment—both at historic sites and elsewhere—in which “learning is built based on their curiosity and inquiry instead of rote memorization, and also where the adults in their lives feel both comfortable and confident supporting their learning.” That challenge partly means finding ways to deal with decreased field trips for students amid increased time for standardized tests in the classroom. Leonard asserted that blaming young people for visitation declines is “lazy and stupid” and cited the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger program as an effective example of providing students the chance to learn and “speak to their experiences.” Finally, Andrew Druart offered an optimistic take on the future. Druart, who leads the “Civil War Kids” initiative for the American Battlefield Trust, cited Pamplin Park in Petersburg, Virginia, as an example of a site that emphasizes youth education by “finding personal connections and reading diaries from those who lived it to help kids better understand the human perspective.”

3. What new, dynamic ideas can sites implement to achieve relevance?

All commenters stressed the importance of finding new strategies for meeting young people where they are. Several emphasized the importance of audience-centered education and facilitated dialogue techniques in educational programming. Barr explained the challenge to me in a straightforward way: “Many of us who choose to work in these sites are ‘buffs’ to varying degrees. Where we fail is when we try to come up with something to force our interests on somebody else.” Understanding what visitors bring to the table (and why other people choose not to visit at all) is a crucial aspect moving forward. “We all have this idea that building relevance or connection is still going to be a ranger-centered or historian-centered endeavor. [But] relevance and audience building won’t come from a cool new topic to talk about, or a new subject to emphasize on a tour. It’s going to come from us being facilitators for the public to make their own connections and experiences,” said Barr.

Arduini and Wynn both highlighted the importance of using historical artifacts and documents in education programming. Arduini suggested that part of the challenge is using “contemporary design that helps people feel like the stories are contemporary and relevant.” She cited the new American Civil War Museum’s efforts to use colorized photos in their permanent exhibits and a larger effort to build partnerships with organizations not previously associated with Civil War history sites as two different ways to create a culture of honesty, accuracy, and inclusion in the museum’s historical interpretations. And Leonard differed slightly from Barr’s arguments by stressing the importance of more explicitly interpreting the Reconstruction era as a relevant and crucial historical moment in U.S. history. “All [Civil War sites] have Reconstruction stories,” he asserted. Leonard would also like to see a reevaluation of living history programs, both in content and methods. “Are we doing living history because visitors have come to expect it, or because it’s the most effective means for communicating a subject?”

Should Civil War battlefields and related sites be worried about future visitation trends? I believe that the Wall Street Journal article painted too gloomy a picture that almost implies a crisis is at hand. I also reject the notion that young people are to blame. Nevertheless I fully agree with the various commenters that new ideas for innovative outreach, programming, and interpretation are crucial moving forward. There are no easy answers, but we need to keep placing the perspective of public historians working at Civil War historic sites front and center as this conversation continues.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay reflect the personal views of those who were willing to be interviewed. They do not reflect the views of their previous or current employers.

 

[1] Cameron McWhirter, “Civil War Battlefields Lose Ground as Tourist Draws,” Wall Street Journal, May 25, 2019, accessed May 30, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/civil-war-battlefields-lose-ground-as-tourist-draws-11558776600; M. Scott Mahaskey and Peter Canellos, “Are Americans Falling Out of Love with their Landmarks?,” Politico, July 4, 2019, accessed July 7, 2019, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/07/04/are-americans-falling-out-of-love-with-their-landmarks-227258.

[2] Most of these conversations took place on Twitter through Direct Messaging on July 7 and July 8, 2019, between Jake Wynn (@JayQuinn1993), Chris Barr (@cwbarr), Stephanie Arduini (@ACWMuseum), Andrew Druart (@AndrewDruart), and myself (@NickSacco55). The conversation between Eric Leonard and myself took place on July 7, 2019, through Facebook Messenger.

[3] John Coski, “Whither Public History?,” The Civil War Monitor, June 25, 2018, accessed June 26, 2019, https://www.civilwarmonitor.com/blog/whither-public-history; I responded to Coski on my personal website. See Nick Sacco, “The Times Are A Changin’,” Exploring the Past, July 9, 2019, accessed July 9, 2019, https://pastexplore.wordpress.com/2019/07/09/the-times-are-a-changin/; See also National Public Radio, “Instagramming Crowds Pack National Parks,” National Public Radio, May 28, 2019, accessed May 28, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/05/28/726658317/instagramming-crowds-pack-national-parks.

Nick Sacco

Nick Sacco is a public historian working for the National Park Service as a Park Ranger at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He recently had a journal article about the Grand Army of the Republic published in the Indiana Magazine of History entitled "The Grand Army of the Republic, the Indianapolis 500, and the Struggle for Memorial Day in Indiana, 1868-1923" (December 2015). Nick also runs a personal blog about history, "Exploring the Past," at https://pastexplore.wordpress.com/.

7 Replies to “Are Tourists Falling Out of Love with Civil War Battlefields? Public Historians Respond”

  1. Here at Gettysburg, one upper ranked park ranger, has expressed to me personally that if he has his way, no “costumed” people would be allowed in the Visitors Center but only one day a year. I was told that, being in a Union uniform, that I could not allow anyone to take my picture while in the Visitors Center, nor was I allowed “to talk”. I got the impression that he’d just as soon get rid of all reactors from the park. I have yet to hear from any visitor that they do not appreciate the living historians and re-enactors here in the park and that they’d be very disappointed if there were no “costumed” people here.

    1. Hi Mike,

      Thanks for your comment. Since I don’t work at Gettysburg I can’t speak directly to how they feel about history reenactors or specific park policies on the matter. I know that at a lot of places you’d probably need to get a special use permit or some sort of permission from the park ahead of time before wearing period clothing and speaking with visitors. A visitor could easily mistake you as a park employee and I’m just guessing the staff wants to cut down on any confusion in that particular space.

      Regarding living history as a whole, I see both the pros and cons. On the one hand, it can often be very entertaining and enlightening when the person/group knows the content and can communicate it effectively. But I’ve also interacted with reenactors who had a really poor understanding of the history and it can lead to a lot of confusion for visitors. NPR had a segment a few years ago where they featured a Civil War reenactor at Gettysburg who was going around telling visitors that there existed tens of thousands of Black Confederates during the war. This is the sort of thing that needs to be improved upon moving forward.

  2. Hello, Nick,
    Thank you for responding to my comment.

    I agree that there are many re-enactors who do not have a good knowledge of the civil war. I’m still 4 classes short of a Masters Degree in Civil War Studies. I have a library of 450 books on the CW of which I’ve managed to read about half of them

    As for the limits imposed on me at the Visitors Center here in Gettysburg: I’ve been going into the Center, dressed, for 9 years. I rarely talk about the battle as, well you know – Grant and Porter weren’t there during the battle. I talk about the weapons the men used, the food they ate, the destruction left behind. I also direct people to the theater, the museum and the bathrooms as well as posing for pictures with kids of all ages from 3 to 90. All together from photos taken all over the park, I’ve received over 6,000 prints back from people who appreciated my being there. So why all of a sudden, am I not allowed in?

    Thank you for the work you do, Nick.

    Mike

  3. The proof is in the pudding. I was born in 1950 just 5 years after WWll. Every National Holiday every house on every block displayed our National Flag. You saw it block after block after block. I bought my home in 1982. Since that time and even before you are lucky to see three flags on my block on every National Holiday Most blocks are lucky to be displaying one flag. There is no patriotism like there once was. Why! Our history is dead to those generations that followed mine. As a kid the only parades were Thanksgiving day Parade, Armistice Day(Veterans Day) Parade, Decoration Day(Memorial Day) Parade, Independence Day Parade and Labor Day. Now everyone is more concerned with their culture. Example, Cinco de Maya, Greek Independence, Puerto Rico Day, just to name a few. We are all Americans, start flying our National Flag and worry about the future of your kids, not your homeland you left it so you
    so you could make a better life for you, your family and their future. Fly the Flag of These United States every National Holiday if not, every day.

  4. Hi Nick. Just came across the journal, very nice piece. I must add that the history of the Civil War in particular is hopelessly tainted by the Lost Cause. I’ve written a screenplay to fix that, focusing on the charge of the First Minnesota at Gettysburg.

    I’m a Browns fan, lifelong Cleveland sports torture victim. I know one thing from that experience – if instead of hailing the winners of games which cast legendary Browns teams to the ashes of history, and everyone instead hailed the losers (Browns), that would taint the sport in question irreparably, and no one would give a damn about that sport, forever. See Pickett’s Charge, the loser, and the First Minnesota’s charge, the winner. Which one is in the history books? It’s as if for 160 years ESPN never talked about John Elway, but instead Bernie Kosar. Younger generations aren’t stupid.

    Hoping to change that.

    1. Hi Tim,

      Best of luck with your research and film. I’ve always rejected the notion that only the winners get to write the history. Advocates of the Lost Cause have most certainly had their opportunity to write their own version of history.

      1. Thanks for the good wishes. The Lost Causers are still writing the loser’s history in the 21st century. Go look for the First Minnesota’s charge on the American Battlefield Trust’s website. Hint. It’s not even there.

        http://www.timrusso.org/2019/06/the-lost-causes-money-maps/

        To carry along the CLE sports analogy, Bernie Kosar threw the go ahead touchdown pass to Brian Brennan late in the 4th quarter of The Drive game. Imagine that being a defining moment of NFL history. Bet you don’t even know Bernie threw that TD lol

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