By Marc Van Horn
At an early age, I experienced firsthand the dramatic emotional and intellectual effect historical sites can have on the public. My interaction with places such as the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania and the medieval town of L’Argentera, Spain, awakened a ceaseless passion. My experiences as a child resulted in later academic endeavors in history and anthropology in adulthood. As I pursued my bachelor’s degree in those fields, it became clear that historic places gain great meaning by benefiting the public, especially by sparking curiosity in tomorrow’s historians and anthropologists. I also realized that my role should be to make history relevant and important to a wider audience, and that there is no better classroom in which to accomplish that than at a historical place. However, this became clear to me only after working in historical interpretation. As a graduate student in the Cultural Resource Management Master’s program at CMU, I have had the opportunity to contribute to a number of projects involving the public and historic sites. To me this is the most direct and effective way to foster the respect and stewardship of history in modern society.
During the summers of 2016 and 2017, I served the public as an historical interpreter at Fort Mackinac, a site managed by Mackinac State Historic Parks (MSHP) on Mackinac Island, MI. This work led directly to my completion of an internship in public history under the guidance of Katie Mallory, Curator of Education at MSHP, and Dr. Brittany Fremion, my advisor in the Department of History here at CMU. Specifically, I conducted primary source research into the environment, sanitary conditions, and medical practices present at Fort Mackinac in the 1870s through the 1890s. My conclusion was that Fort Mackinac was an unusually healthy and desirable posting during those decades, which aligned with the research of others I had also examined. Before this undertaking, I had developed a rudimentary version of a short, guided walking tour of the fort focused on issues of health and sanitation. After my own research into various post surgeons’ correspondence with the Adjutant General of the U.S. Army located in New York, and research into the art of historical interpretation itself, I was able to greatly expand and improve my walking tour. As a result, I received generally positive feedback on my tours, certainly better than I had before. This experience taught me that the public can greatly benefit by the hard work of historians to bring the rich heritage of historical sites to life in an accessible and digestible way. Thusly, we can more directly and efficiently benefit humanity through our beloved discipline.
I am currently serving as graduate assistant in museum education at Central Michigan University’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History under the direction of Caity Sweet-Burnell, the Museum Educator. The core of my responsibilities includes editing and reorganizing a series of museum programs titled “Michigan Through the Ages.” I began by fact-checking and sourcing the information found within the programs. I then reorganized the program outlines, focusing on clarity, design efficiency, and brevity. Since we have come to understand that learning takes many forms and occurs in different ways, I sought to include as many hands-on and interactive activities as possible in the programs. Also in my duties as a graduate assistant, I have often been tasked with designing and implementing new programs for after-school groups. Once again, my approach required flexibility, coordination, and adaptability in order to present appropriate programs in effective ways. Every situation brings unique challenges, waiting to be overcome through perseverance, patience, and innovation. In many ways, barriers to interpretive and educational programs can be seen as metaphors for the obstacles against fostering historical understanding in society.
From my experiences I learned that the roles of a historian are to unearth forgotten truths, revisit and revamp the pursuit of learning, and foster dialogue and collective understanding. It is not enough to remain in our ivory tower, content to advance our own isolated goals and largely evade those of the public in perpetuity. My work in public history has allowed me to refine my belief that the gap between academia and society in recognizing and respecting our heritage is most effectively bridged through historical interpretation at our most important sites. Our ivory tower must become a forum built on common cultural ground, a place open to all and constructive for all.
Marc Van Horn is currently a student in the Cultural Resource Management Master's program at CMU, and he is working as a graduate assistant at CMU's Museum of Cultural and Natural History. He earned his bachelor's degree in history and anthropology form CMU in 2009.