Saturday, August 25, 2012

Remembering Where We Are - Part 4 - Interpretation

As many of you probably know by now, in my day job I am a museum professional. More specifically I work in the field of museum education. As a result, I can't help myself from critiquing exhibits and interpretive programs when I visit historic sites. As I researched the John Slyder property for my latest series of blog posts, I came across some incredibly interesting articles about Granite Farm that dealt with an interpretive initiative by the National Park Service in the 1970s and 1980s. I thought highlighting these articles might serve as a fitting conclusion to this series.

In the last 10-15 years, the National Park Service has attempted to expand its interpretive content at Civil War sites. In addition to detailing the military history of the war, the NPS now interprets the causes of the war, including the central role that the institution of slavery played in initiating the conflict. This overdue movement began to take shape at a conference of NPS battlefield managers in Nashville in August of 1998. Gettysburg National Military Park took an important step towards this goal when it opened its new visitor center and museum in 2008.

In addition to expanding its interpretation with regard to slavery in the last ten years, I believe that GNMP has done a commendable job in attempting to expand offerings about the civilian experience during the battle. Through public-private partnerships, GNMP assisted in the establishment of the David Wills House Museum, and began to offer interpretive walking programs of downtown Gettysburg. These positive developments not only diversified the visitor experience for those who may not enjoy military history, but also became a vital part of economic revitalization plans for Gettysburg.

Article about the Slyder Farm from the Gettysburg Times,
October 7th, 1972.
At one time I believed that all of this represented the first major attempt to broaden the story of Gettysburg beyond the armies who fought here. Yet, in researching the Slyder Family I discovered that as early as 1970 - at the height of the "new social history" movement - the park had begun developing interpretive programs to help visitors better understand the experience of civilians. An article in the October 7th, 1972 addition of the Gettysburg Times reported on the decision to make Granite Farm a "working organic farm." The article explained that the farm's "purpose is to be 'authentically equipped and operated as a living historical farmstead for the educational use of local elementary school children.'"

The park put quite a bit of effort into developing this working farmstead it appears, and even went to the trouble of moving several buildings to the Slyder Farm site. Perusing GNMP's list of classified structures, you will find that the smokehouse - though standing during the Civil War - moved to the Slyder Farm in 1973. In 1974 the park had the blacksmith's shop moved from Blue Ridge Summit.

August 21, 1978 article in the Gettysburg Times
By 1978, the farm had opened, and the Gettysburg Times reported on the park's new time machine:
Park service interpreters Vernon Patton, who lives in the restored farmhouse all year, and Sue Ulrich, who spends much of her summer cooking in the farm's summer kitchen, dress in period clothing and attempt to give visitors the feeling of a pre-Civil War lifestyle.... Sam Osborne, a blacksmith for more than 53 years, works on weekends in the farrier's shop, which is more than 200 years old and was moved to the farm from near Blue Ridge Summit in southern Franklin County.
How popular the living history farm became, and when it finally ceased operating as a living history station, I do not know. I suspect it had something to do with budgetary reasons however. On May 24th, 1982, the Gettysburg Times ran an article titled "Granite Farm to reopen this summer." The article states that "the farm was closed during the last summer's tourist season in a cost-saving effort brought on by cuts in the park service budget." Perhaps the budgetary problems of 1981 were an omen of things to come.

May 24, 1982 Gettysburg Times 
If anyone out there has memories of visiting Granite Farm during this period, or has knowledge of why the park discontinued it's use as a living history farm, I'd love to hear from you. To me, this interpretive initiative sounded like a great way to help visitors understand the cost of the battle to those who lived and worked the land that the two contending armies fought over.

On a final note, it does appear that the efforts to make the John Slyder Farm an educational space to learn about 19th century agriculture and the battle's effect on local farmers continues to live on. One of the many experiences that school groups can choose when visiting the park today is a program called "The Impact of War." The program takes place on Granite Farm, and while it does not involve any living history components, the objectives of the program remain similar. The goal is to "instill a sense of ownership for the Slyder farm in the minds of all the students who visit it, thereby establishing a sensibility and connection to the impact that wars have on entire generations of Americans - soldier and civilian."

No comments:

Post a Comment