We public historians love to sing praises about projects we are involved in that are successful. We are equally eager to dig holes to bury those initiatives that never got off the ground–or crash and burned if they did. But there are a lot of lessons to be learned in our mistakes and a group of public historians decided to air out their dirty laundry last week at the National Council on Public History meeting in a session specifically devoted to failed projects. Unfortunately, the session occurred at the same time as the one I was facilitating, but I heard great remarks about it. You can read John Barlow’s thoughts on the session here. It also inspired me to air out my dirty laundry of a project that I worked on for TWO YEARS that never saw the light of day. I have been curating a list of projects the past few weeks that I feel best represents my professional experience and skills for my portfolio. I included projects throughout the various stages of my graduate career, but I did not know what to do with my Graduate Research Assistantship project at West Virginia University.
I was tapped at the beginning of my master’s degree to work on a special project between West Virginia University and the National Park Service to research and design a website for the Civil War 150th. I was not a Civil War historian and the project did not make me into one. I was a fresh set of eyes on a narrative that has been consciously worked and reworked for the past 150 years. The theme for the website was “From Civil War to Civil Rights,” which did not please everyone in the Civil War community. One criticism was that the theme made history seem linear instead of multi-faceted.
My role in the project was quite small in the scheme of things. I worked with several other graduate assistants to research and create metadata for the website. We wrote narratives for each state during the Civil War and various interpretive themes such as battlefield preservation and minorities during the conflict. Much of the minutiae was spent researching sites state by state associated with the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement. We created metadata, which was then integrated in an interactive map by a contract firm responsible for the website’s design. When the map was finished, we suddenly had a visual representation of Civil War memory on the landscape. It was incredible even to a non-Civil War historian like myself.
One of the most striking things I learned was how Civil War memory moved west after the war. I volunteered to do the western states in order to avoid states like Virginia. I was amazed to find Grand Army of the Republic buildings and veteran cemeteries in the Pacific Northwest, which are tangible reminders that veterans moved west after the war, taking their experiences and memories with them. Their legacies remain and I was recently reminded of this when I met a gentleman involved in a Civil War reenactment group in northern California. My sister is an eighth grade teacher near Sacramento, California, and she lamented to me how hard it is to teach Civil War history to kids that have never been to the eastern United States. I said, “Nikki, the veterans moved west! That’s how you teach the Civil War in California.”
How nice would it have been if my sister could have shown that interactive map to her students or plan a field trip to a site nearby. Unfortunately, the website was completed, but never launched. From what I understand, there was a disagreement between the NPS communications office and the history program. The communications office had laid claim to Civil War Sesquicentennial marketing activities, including the website. They launched their own, which has served as the central portal for all commemoration events. It appears that this website is much more stripped down than the one that we had proposed, leaving many tough questions unasked.
The fate of the project was beyond my control. So what can I learn from it? More importantly, how can I translate this experience in my C.V., my portfolio, or a job interview? I certainly have an expanded knowledge of Civil War and Civil Rights history that I did not possess before, particularly the contestation of memory and the legacy in the western United States. But I realize that if I am ever in an administration position, which I hope to be someday, this situation has made me aware of potential conflicts and competition between departments within the same organization. I would much rather work WITH a department than compete with it. I would try to find ways to leverage assets so that we could have a better project together rather than compete for funds. I would also be more sensitive of the partnerships that would be impacted by failed initiatives.