To Preserve and Protect: Fostering Public Awareness in Shared History

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 Marc Van Horn running a museum education program at the Bohannon Schoolhouse (Mount Pleasant, MI).

Marc Van Horn running a museum education program at the Bohannon Schoolhouse (Mount Pleasant, MI).

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.

But Do I Get to Wear a Hat?: A Day of Historical Interpretation

Fort Abraham Lincoln Cavalry Post Custer House

Fort Abraham Lincoln Cavalry Post Custer House

By Alexander Greff

     UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA; CMU ALUMUS

“Hey – are you the general?” Teenagers are always the one’s who ask first, though many of their parents aren’t far behind. It’s the question I seem to get more often than anything: more than anything about the house, the field equipment, the artillery pieces, or the stables – and it leaves me seriously reconsidering my commitment to grow a 1870s-style mustache. How was I supposed to know my facial hair would bleach in the summer sun?!

It was a grand, old-timey kind of summer that I spent, working as an undergraduate history major at Fort Abraham Lincoln, on the banks of the Missouri River in central North Dakota. It wasn’t my first stint working in public history (though that had also involved a cowboy-esque persona), but it was my most memorable. My work was split that summer between leading tours at a recreated Mandan Native American village site, and the adjoining 19th century frontier fort, which just so happened to be the final posting of George Armstrong Custer (only a Lieutenant Colonel after the Civil War, mind!) before the Little Bighorn. The fort posting also involved full living history -- the men in the blue woolen uniforms, the women in cotton dresses with petticoats and bonnets. Come the festival days of mid July, which involved activities in close proximity to horses, it was hard to tell who suffered most in the heat. And despite precipitous attempts to grow my hair out in a cool, period fashion, it was one of the best history related jobs I’ve had.

Public history is great for getting a real sense of the people’s perceptions of our field. You find out what interests people most about the past, like a real sense of connecting to famous or everyday people. Every time I had to put down my open-fire roasted cowboy coffee and explain to a family that I was not General Custer, but rather his aide dè campe and not fit to wear his fancy buckskins, I’d always get a laugh. Except with the teenagers. They laugh at nothing, but the unease of a docent earnestly describing the purpose of a fainting couch. Then they would laugh, because it meant talking about corsets. And this was public history – the conversation between the fixed stories of historical folks and objects, and the people with all new faces and interests to passed down our dusty road every day. If nothing else, working in public history is like being an improv-academic – you find that every person is interested in something different -- from cast iron cutlery, to the stables, to the firearms -- and that you’re responsible for keeping them entertained and, hopefully, letting them walk away better informed about the past.

Sometimes this goes awry and chaos becomes the teacher. On one day, with a particularly large tour, my colleague led the way under the line of cottonwood trees in front of the main house. From the back of the group there was little time to warn him of the six-foot long bull snake sliding out of the branches before it landed on his head, sending half the students running back towards the parking lot. “How lucky were these students?” I thought, nobody else every gets to join us in directly reliving all the parts of living on the frontier. Snakes were only one of the frequent interactions with the conditions of the past that, at least through terror, compelled visitors to think more about their own relationship with history…and how to safely approach a guest book laid across an outdoor veranda. (Another story, but I’m sure you can guess…)

Most days, working in public history was about taking all the mundane parts of the past and being given the chance to remember that history is full of weird things that interest people. The public historian is in the unique position not just to reach out to, but also to engage with the public in a way that research and writing doesn't often allow. And it's a great opportunity to remember the people (alive or long passed) who first interested you in history and to pass that opportunity on. So mind the snakes, grab some cowboy coffee, and try not to let the handlebar mustache distract you too much from jumping into history!