I was invited to present a paper on the subject at a major military history conference at Ohio State University. This paper, and its admonitions to the military history academic culture, was received with differing degrees of acceptance. I include the text of the paper here. Enjoy.
Teaching Military History Outside Academia: Museums, Re-enacting and Responsibility
Throughout the latter half of this century there has been great interest in the presentation of military history outside the academic realms of military academies and universities. No longer is the study and exhibition of military history limited to the classroom or lecture hall. One need only follow current events of the past few years to find illustrations of how the teaching of military history has caught-on outside of academia. For example, a recent reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg attracted over twenty thousand participants and more than twice that in spectators; the United States Army announced the planned construction of a National Army Museum in Northern Virginia, with a satellite museum in Carlise, Pennsylvania; and recently the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania made the decision to construct a National Civil War Museum. There has also been a proliferation in the number of publications which deal with military history. Virtually every conflict has a glossy magazine which devotes what space it cannot fill with advertisements to watered down versions of the principal events of that conflict. The average American is more likely to obtain his knowledge of military history from one of these sources, or possibly from a documentary on the History Channel, than he is from a well-researched and written text or an in-depth lecture.
In many ways this expansion in the number of methods in which one can learn military history should be viewed as a positive development. More people than ever are now exposed to military history and to the stories of the men and women who played integral roles in that history. Unfortunately, it also creates a great deal of concern as well. Who are the men and women who develop the programs, exhibits and re-enactments that the visiting public are viewing and treating as historical reality? How concerned are they with the historical accuracy of the information and impressions they present to the average, “history-challenged,” American? While there are some wonderful success stories in the popular presentation of military history, there are also some grave concerns. Too often the historical events are obscured by the personal or political motivations of the presenters, whether they be the well-respected museum or the historical reenactor. There are even examples where social movements, like the politically-correct movement, have influenced the decision making process of what exhibits are “acceptable” (the furor over the recent Enola Gay exhibit is an example). In this environment of public interest in military history, military historians must play a integral role in ensuring that the information presented to the audience is done both accurately and with a regard to the sacrifices of the people who lived those events.
In the presentation of military history to the public, there are two areas in which military historians have played too little a role: museums (specifically living history) and military re-enacting. While there are literally thousands of museums in America which the American Association of Museums registers as being military in nature, very few of these have on-site, academically trained military historians to ensure that the programming, exhibits and lectures which are presented to the public meet at least a minimal standard for historical accuracy. Too often the development of programs and exhibits are left to individuals whose knowledge of military history is limited to their exposure to the subject as undergraduates, or to their limited knowledge of the resources available.
Among the military history programming at living history museums are re-created encampments, re-created militias and larger scale re-creations of specific battles or military events of significance. The majority of museums present these programs, as well as having historical interpreters portraying prominent military figures such as George Washington, Robert E. Lee and others. The surprise is that this programming often occurs without the presence of a single, academically trained military historian on the payroll to provide guidance. To the credit of many institutions, they have been masterful in their use of interpretive staff with interests in military history to assist in the development of some of the museums’ military programming. Even with the assistance of these well-meaning staff members, the lack of importance placed by institutions our nation’s military past has affected the presentation of military history to the public. Often programs are performed in a manner more worthy of theater than history.
Far too often in the museum field, the developers of programs, be they military or otherwise, are content with a program which the visitor finds acceptable or enjoyable. However, according to the 1987 report of the Bradley Commission on History in the Schools, 15 percent of students did not take any American history in high school and at least 50 percent did not study either World history or Western civilization. These individuals, now in their late twenties and early thirties, represent a large part of the museum attending audience. Should any museum rely on the judgment of these average visitors to determine the historical quality or relevance of a public program? Would it not be more prudent to create military history programming which meets a higher standard? Of course it would, and in the process the museum would be able to provide the visitor with an experience far beyond what was offered before. However, this can only occur when the institution has available the necessary expertise to create a program which includes both historical accuracy and personal relevance. Too often the trend seems to be to interpret the events to the lowest common denominator. The site, or individual program, provides a great deal of generic information presented in a entertaining manner, but lacking any historical substance. There is truly no reason why, in museums which deal with periods of American history so shaped by armed conflict, there are no full-time military historians on-site to ensure that the programming which takes place meets the historical standard set for all other educational institutions and programs. Educational institutions have an obligation to elevate the discussion of military history, not diminish it.
The negative results of not having an on-site military historian at a museum (capable of supporting one) are subtle to the average visitor, but glaring to the keen observer. Only last month one museum used individuals dressed as Second Virginia Regiment soldiers to kick off a golf tournament with a volley of musket fire. Was this an appropriate, historically relevant use of the image of some of Virginia’s first volunteers for military service in the Revolution? Would they have had a reenactor in World War Two era uniform, do such a thing? Oftentimes living history museums invite historical re-enactors to their sites to present military history, or to augment a museum’s own programming. In some cases, museums do not pursue re-enactment groups which have any relevance to the community, time-line or even the country of which the museum attempts to portray. History museums, as educational institutions, have a responsibility to teach history as factually as possible. Furthermore, when the institution is portraying (or supporting the portrayal by a re-enactment group) a specific military unit or subject, they have a moral obligation to see that it is executed in a method respectful of the men who wore the uniform depicted.
More active input from military historians can alter the method in which programs and exhibits are portrayed at living history museums. For example, Fortress Louisbourg in Nova Scotia, sometimes referred to as the “Colonial Williamsburg” of Canada, makes a sincere effort to blend the military history of the museum into the daily programming which takes place there. One should not be fooled by the museum’s name, Fortress Louisbourg. The “fortress” was a city on the scale of a Williamsburg and vitally more important to the French in the 18th century than was Williamsburg to the English. Louisbourg’s reconstruction, which began in the 1960’s, includes over 50 exhibit buildings representing various aspects of life in the fortified community. A community which was shaped by the conflicts it witnessed. Yet there is a difference in the presentation of military history between the reconstructed Louisbourg and other, similar living history musuems. Louisbourg recognizes its military history as a valuable aspect of its teaching curriculum. It devotes a great deal of time and effort (with few resources) towards the accurate and engaging portrayal of the military history of the city. From the moment the visitor is greeted at the main city gate, one realizes that military conflict played a vital role in the development of this community. Fortress Louisbourg employs people to learn and practice the trades of 18th century life. However, Louisbourg extends that academic pursuit, usually limited to specific trades, to the study and practice of being an 18th century soldier. When one visits Louisbourg, although a fortress, the military presence is not as overbearing as one might imagine. One mingles among merchants and bakers, sailors and housewives, and occasionally catches the glimpse of a soldier here or there. Only when visiting the King’s Bastion or Guardhouse is the military presence the primary focus of the interpretation. Louisbourg is an example of a living history museum which incorporates military history into its public programming in a manner which elevates the discussion rather than settles for the lowest common denominator of visitor entertainment. There are many history museums which could model Fortress Louisbourg in combining social history and military history programming.
Museum programs reach millions of tourists a year and present a picture of military history which, if not adequately researched and developed, can leave the observer with a clouded perception of the history being depicted. While Fortress Louisbourg has made the effort to incorporate compelling military history programming into the daily presentations of the museum, other museums still lag far behind. It is not enough for these institutions to march students around with sticks and set up a tent here and there. If museums indeed want their visitors to walk away with a complete picture of life during the period they represent, they must present the life passage of military service better. The representation of military history in history museums needs to be given the same consideration given to other social history subjects. Military historians have an obligation to ensure that the public presentation of military history gels with the scholarly research being conducted in the field. Almost more frightening than the shortcomings of museums in the arena of military history are the hundreds of thousands of “re-enactors” who place themselves in the forefront of popular military history culture. They, by far, reach more people than any museum or Journal of Military History article. More often than not these “living historians” are used by museums to develop what military programming they do offer. Yet, these individuals are often no better informed on the subject of military history than are the museums that employ them.
The concept of teaching through the use of re-enacting is not a new phenomena. Whether a Christmas pageant or a Civil War battle, re-enacting of events as a means of educating people has been with us since before the written word. After the centennial of the American Civil War, and the bicentennial of the American Revolution, re-enacting became an acceptable hobby for one interested in history to pursue. Each year the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation in Jamestown, Virginia hosts an event entitled “Military Through the Ages,” which attracts thousands of visitors for the two-day event. On-hand are hundreds of re-enactors of virtually every war since the ancient Celts, as well as purveyors of “authentic” wares. Where else can one see a German Wehrmacht unit camped next to a Roman Legion? It would seem on the surface that this kind of event is the perfect opportunity for a novice to learn more about the timeline of military history. Unfortunately, while the novice may be engrossed by the uniforms and equipment, the more informed onlooker might be somewhat wary. One book, designed as a guidebook for the neophyte re-enactor offers the following observation on the value of re-enacting:
“…Living history and historical reenactment[sic] can be very effective in special circumstances…both methods require a knowledge of history and period culture, both allow participants and spectators to experience life in the past…and both are fun for participants and spectators alike.”
On the surface that statement seems harmless enough; however, if dissected the assertion appears in a different light. As has already been stated above, statistics regarding the overall exposure of Americans to even the most basic history, demonstrate that many Americans (and assumedly those who re-enact as well) have very little historical foundation on which to build an understanding of past history and culture. For the average re-enactor to accumulate enough historical information to create an accurate impression, they must conduct enormous amounts of research. Historians recognize that research is a skill which must be taught. There is a misconception among many in the re-enacting field that simply to examine a book or two, take the information at its face value and incorporate its information into their impression constitutes research. There is no critical examination of the material by the reader, nor is any effort made to understand the motivations of the writer.
Among re-enactors of military history there is a term, “farb.” This term is used to denote anything which is believed by the observer to be inaccurate to the time period in which the re-enactor is depicting. Sometimes these purveyors of inaccuracy are referred to as “cowboys” or “polyester soldiers.” There are several variations on the phrase as well. There is “farb-fest”, “farb-a-thon”, “farby” and on and on. Often this focus on the minutia of uniform and equipage suffocates any other aspect of the impression. Many re-enactors are keenly aware of the appropriate style of button for their uniform, but are unable to inform you as to the history of the unit they represent. Often even the simplest of military courtesies is unknown to the average re-enactor. At a recent event at Colonial Williamsburg an interpreter portraying George Washington, in full uniform and accompanied by interpreters portraying his aides, was able to walk through a re-enactor unit’s camp in full view and not receive a single appropriate salute. One perusal of the Internet will turn up hundreds of websites created by various re-enactment groups, listing the sundry requirements for joining the unit. In almost every case those requirements hinge, not on the new recruits knowledge of the military history of the unit and time period to be represented, but on the amount and quality of the “stuff.” This powerful desire to not be perceived as “farby” in appearance drives re-enactment units to focus, not on the history, but on the physical bearing of their members. This is not to condemn all re-enactors as being superficial, uninterested, or unable to express aspects of their hobby outside the issue of “farbiness.” By far, the organizers of re-enactment units often spend countless hours researching every facet of their unit’s history. Unfortunately, as the desire to expand the re-created unit’s roster increases, the focus tends to shift.
Even if every person taking part in re-enacting were making an effort to research their units and periods, many of them lack the desire or ability to share that information with others. Far too often in the re-enacting world the concept of “knowledge is power” rears its head. Units are unwilling to share what research they have done with others, thus perpetuating the “farbiness” they claim to loath. The internal politics of re-enacting also hinder the ability to successfully and accurately teach the history of the period they represent. On occasion two small units will refuse a request to brigade together; thus, when the units go onto the parade field for a review by the tourists, there will ten units with five people in each unit. This inability to cooperate often leaves the uninformed visitor with the idea that and 18th century army company was composed of eight men. Rather than remedy the problem, museums who invite units to events foster it by not getting actively involved in the programming the re-enactors develop and present. They find it easier to take a path of least resistance, rather than to interfere with what are delicate political situations.
One of the greatest challenges to the utilization of re-enactors in the presentation of military history is the idea that the subject should somehow be made “fun.” Is it possible to create an accurate depiction of the experiences of a soldier in wartime and still have that depiction be fun? If so, should military history, and specifically the depiction of the sufferings and violence of war, be done in a fun way? Critics of re-enacting often point out that the re-creation of historic battles or armies glorifies war and the men who perpetuate it, sending an inappropriate message to the youth who witness those re-creations. Nevertheless, one could also argue that it does the exact opposite. By re-creating the events of a specific battle, and by doing so in a “fun” way, it does not glorify the process of war at all, but cleanses it and demeans it. After the recent re-enactment of the Battle of Gettysburg mentioned earlier, a World War II veteran wondered aloud why anyone would want to “play at war.” His assertion was, that if any of those portraying Rebs and Yanks had actually seen combat first hand they would not be so quick to want to “relive” it. Re-enactors are not the only ones who fall into the trap of trying to make the presentation of war fun. As already mentioned, living history museums throughout the country have come to teach military history in ways which they believe the public will find pleasurable. Marching around children with sticks, showing demonstrations of weaponry and equipment are methods by which both re-enactors and museums alike try to make military history entertaining and fun. The reality of war, and military service during war, is a far cry from the antiseptic portrayal by living history museums or re-enactors.
The World War II veteran’s comment mentioned above also brings up yet another issue in the presentation of military history to the public. At what point is it appropriate to depict a specific historical period? Should re-enactors be depicting World War Two units (one of the fastest growing aspects of re-enacting today) even though many of the men and women who may have served in them are still alive? What about Viet Nam? About eight years ago the Virginia War Memorial Museum in Newport News, Virginia hosted a Viet Nam War re-enactment entitled “Nam Land.” In the course of the event a Viet Nam veteran suffered flashbacks and began to fire a loaded gun in the air. Perhaps that should have served as a wake-up call to the re-enacting community, yet Viet Nam war re-enacting is catching on. A “tiger cage” made its first appearance at an event last year.
Within the last few years, there has appeared a more ominous aspect of re-enacting as well. Some individuals have begun to infiltrate the hobby and use it as a socially acceptable means to express their particular, and perhaps distasteful, political opinions. More and more, bigotry and hatred are appearing at re-enactments. The inclusion of Waffen SS units at various World War II events has angered some, and led some organizers to refuse participation of those units in the events. Recently a group of German Army and SS re-enactors had begun having dinner at a Newport News German restaurant in full military attire. Needless to say some of the patrons, Jewish and American war veterans, were offended by the display and the manager asked the men to leave. Often the members of these units choose to depict them because they enjoy the shock value of wearing the uniform of a particularly despised enemy; sometimes they choose these units simply because of their elite status. Regardless of what motivates the individual re-enactor to select a unit, he must maintain an awareness of the impact that uniform may have on members of the public. Some museums and historic sites have begun to exclude re-enactment units due to the possible offensive nature of their portrayals. If this tendency continues, it could mean that Confederate units could be excluded from future events because of the general public’s perception may be that only citizens of the Confederacy were biased towards African-Americans. If one has any doubts about these challenges of teaching military history in the field of re-enacting, they need only log onto an re-enacting Internet discussion list. There one will find every one of these issues clearly on display.
The teaching of military history outside academia has created an environment in which there are hundreds of thousands of people, in museums and re-enactments, who are viewed as “experts.” The reality is quite different. Very few museums, if they engage visitors in military history at all, invest any time or money in adequate research and program development; they certainly do not approach it with the same tenacity as other historical subjects. Until the announcement by the United States Army this year, the United States was the only major western nation without a museum devoted to the history of its fighting men and women, and the impact of that fighting on society. The responsibility for teaching the general public about the trials and tribulations of war had fallen on a number of smaller institutions which were either too small, too poor or too unwilling to adequately address it. Even museums which have the resources to present the subject-matter in an accurate and effective manner, do not. Instead antiseptic, entertaining programs are designed which get visitors through the turnstiles and into the gift shop. In many cases, an individual’s only exposure to military history at all may be the annual re-enactment or encampment held at a small museum near his or her hometown. As we have seen, this can also be a quagmire for the uninformed student who wishes to explore military history.
Ultimately, the responsibility for ensuring that military history is presented with integrity and respect rests on the shoulders of military historians. They need to reach out to these institutions and organizations and foster in them a respect and appreciation for the subject of military history which will convince them to present programming and impressions which enlighten the public rather than befuddle them. When one witnesses an inaccuracy or a controversy regarding the presentation of military history, military historians have an duty to step forward and take a position which assists in remedying the predicament. For too long, popular military history has rested in the hands of individuals whose exposure to the subject has been limited by their own particular interests and biases. Military historians, as a group, need to make their expertise available to those who need it most. Whether that be a small museum near one’s home, or a re-enactment unit which could use help in presenting its history. With the upcoming construction of a National Army Museum, military historians have an opportunity to make a statement about how military history outside of academia should be presented in the future. Hopefully, that stand will influence not just future museums and living historians, but current ones as well. This paper has presented only the tip of the iceberg. For every example given there are innumerable others that have been left out. If military historians do not provide the solutions to the problems facing the presentation of popular military history, others less-qualified will. That will have a great impact on the method in which popular military history is presented outside of academia in the years to come.
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 Ibid., 7.
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