So we come to an end of my blogs as VPP. Some no doubt are ready for a change, and others have been supportive and given me great encouragement. No matter which might be your stance, here it is.
While at the NAI Conference I was asked by a friend, who was the better historians, those who lived through an event or contemporary writers of today who can research and have a view separate from the event.
To me, both are better historians. Those who write today are usually well researched, have a great deal more materials available for their works, regularly provide prefaces and conclusions about historic events, and relate the outcomes and post history to the event. Analytically, these contribute a better understanding of the history and accuracy of the materials that may be lacking in the first person renditions. As a researcher, historian, and on site trainer I regularly rely on these resources to create program layouts and for materials for my own writings and lectures. Having a collection of histories to work from allows me the opportunity to assess the important aspects of a historic event and to draw my own conclusions for presentation as well as checking historic accuracy of the materials and chronological order of events.
However, no matter how well researched a particular event or activity might be it is missing an essential aspect; the human, passionate, often biased perspective that a first person rendering offers. These narratives and renderings may be myopic in historic accuracy or in presenting the “historic whole” of a particular moment in time and they may well have a definite slant in their presentation, but, they allow the reader to gain a personal insight to the culture and personality of the writer. My great grandfather, when recorded by the WPA in the 1930’s about his memories of the Civil War and what he remembered about any battle replied,
“ I was concerned only with what was three feet in front of me, what was to my immediate right and left and what was behind me. I cannot recall any specific orders, sounds or smells. I was scared to death and felt nothing but numbness when each was over.” But the timbre of his voice, the tightness and precise wording he used in the interview when speaking of the War, and the change in his tempo told a great deal about his emotions, especially when compared with the introductory conversation he had with the interviewer. His response to the question, “Can you give us a Rebel yell?” gives me a real insight to his personality. I can almost see the “Luzader smile” that is seen in his photo images and that seems to be the trademark grin that is seen in images of my grandfather, my father, and myself as he answered, “ Hell no, son. The noise would scare you to death and the effort would kill me!” That is the image I always want to capture and convey to the public when I am planning and presenting any living history program; the human element and personality of a person of the past.
It is the greatest weakness in so many historic interpretive programs that the individual human element that is based on the age, heritage, background, social status, situation, culture, personality, and essence of the individual is inadequately addressed. It cannot be scripted. It cannot be taught. It cannot be faked.
It is something that is felt by understanding, reading, researching, and committing oneself to the immersion of the ‘soul’ of an individual and how that person fits into the jigsaw of our past. Too many locales believe that demonstrations, scheduled events, scripts, and regulated costuming are the essentials to historic presentations. Those sites also look at the entertainment and theatre of an event or activity to draw in the audience. Historic accuracy of culture, materials, and personalities are too often put aside so that the ‘comfortable’ and the expected can be illustrated to the public without thought about who we are attempting to portray and honor.
I will summit two situations that have occurred to me, events that took place twenty seven years apart from each other. During the 125th. Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg I was involved in the battle recreations while depicting my great grandfather John M. Luzadder. I was wearing his vest and coat that traditionally held to be the ones he was captured in during the battle and I was serving in the reactivated unit he fought within. Yes, I know, you do not use originals and risk their destruction while participating in such events, but, this was not only a battle recreation for me it was also a way to honor my great grand father, his personal history, and his sacrifices. While being interviewed about my participation and my personal mission during the program I was informed that there was another person portraying a John Ladder in another area. I went to examine whether it might be another decedent and thus, a relative. What I discovered was a tall lanky tobacco chewing, swearing individual standing barefoot in his camp regaling a group with tales of hill-billyish drinking bouts and tall tales.
I was a bit put off. When he had quieted a bit and sat down I approached the individual and asked his name. It was not Luzader, or the period Luzadder. Nor, upon inquiry, was he related to John M. Luzadder. I asked how he came about portraying my great grand father. He had picked his name from a book and wanted to portray someone from “West Virginia”. There was a long discussion about accuracy: in his writings and narrations John M. Luzadder had described how he had traded his worn out shoes in Chambersburg and acquired a new pair prior to Gettysburg and how he was glad he had as he was captured and the shoes lasted through his confinement. Thus, he was not barefoot. He was also a Jew who abhorred both alcohol and tobacco contrary to the aforementioned portrayal and far from having a hill-billy dialect and inflection the WPA tapes validate a college educated soul with a defined Piedmont accent. Now as to the tall tales, well, that is an inherit trait.
And as to the swearing, not one relative who met and knew the man would have believed that aspect as he was known to have enforced a non-swearing standard with all his friends and family.
I pointed these out to the fellow and was asked why I cared what he did and when I produced my identification that provided my name and explained my connection to John M. Luzadder he blandly stated, “Who cares. I’m here to have fun.”
Alas, I have heard like statements far too often and have been concerned that the attitude displayed is too often what causes my field to suffer so and to be muddled in being considered a profession or professional interpretation.
The other was at this year’s NAI Conference. I was being told about changes that were taking place at one of my favorite sites and how the new administration was creating a place that was more “fun” for the interpreters and , “if site B is doing it, it’s good enough for us as well.
Well “Site B” is nearly 1000 miles from the locale in question, and represents numerous time periods on its site, and, frankly I professionally believe the mentioned “site B” is doing a poor job in their professionalism. Most importantly, and I asked this of the person regaling me with the tale of the changes, why should one be proud their site is a follower and not a leader in the field as they were once believed to have been?
“Well, it’s more fun! We don’t have to worry about all the accuracy.”
Portray and honor. That has been a goal of mine in my field for years. Not only to educate, but to allow the audience to know and understand our past peoples and cultures in a better vein. It allows us to see a more authentic past so that we can understand the whys and wherefores of our heritage and historic events. It allows us to have a chance to see both, or multiple sides of our histories: why some would consider Nat Turner’s Rebellion as acts of terrorism while others see it as acts of rebellion and freedom. We can better understand why my parent’s high school in West Virginia named Adolf Hitler as a unifier and savior of Germany in 1940 and how 800,000+ Americans joined the American Bund, goose stepping and arm raised saluting while carrying American flags prior to our being at war with Germany. It illustrates how a Civil War Union soldier would consider mutiny after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued because he had joined to preserve the Union, not to end slavery. The understanding of the people and how they lived culturally as well as materially aids in understanding why the 1920’s saw not only Mississippi as a KKK influenced state, but also how the population of Indiana and Colorado ranked high with KKK memberships. It better explains how fears and prejudices created the situation that produced the Sand Creek massacre. How we as a people overcame all of our hardships and created various histories throughout our collective American past and various cultures by our individual uniqueness.
My profession can not be learned just through a script, or costuming, or demonstrations, or theatre, it must be learned through education, professional commitment, and training, as are ALL interpretive fields. To do less for any interpretive programming is not only unprofessional, but sad. And to view any interpretive field as primarily entertainment is lacking in foresight. But that is just my opinion. An opinion based on fifty five years of interpretive experience throughout the world.
Yes, I know, it is a bit preachy, but this is my last blog as VPP and I wanted to clear my head on why I have been a member of NAI since 1994. I want all of us to improve our understanding of the importance of why all fields of interpretation need to be treated in the same professional manner and why we should expect the same professional standards for all fields of interpretation, including what is commonly called, “Living History”.
I will leave you with on last thought. Fifty five years of public interpretation in many different studies from theatre, to music, to public speaking, to nature, and history and culture has taught me that the best thing we can do to become better and to improve all of our fields is to follow the advice from my father, “If it ain’t broke, improve it.”
I wish to thank all who have have challenged me in the past years of my serving as Vice President of Programs, those who have served with me in so many committees and task forces, those who trusted in me, those who took the time to work with me or talk with me, all the board members and officers, members of NAI who I have met, all those who have supported my wife and myself through difficult times, those who have shared meals with me, walked with me and traveled with me. I especially wish to thank the NAI Presidents, Vice Presidents, Secretaries, and Treasurers of the board and the staff of NAI for all the assistance you have provided me through these years.
John C.F. Luzader
Soon to be, the Ex-Vice President of Programs