The concept of a Civil War “park historian” seems straightforward. Here is someone who might recite the history of the reclamation of a battlefield from individual realty transactions. Here is someone who might tell the history of the surrounding farms and villages. Here is someone who should know the significance of the topography comprising the field. And, perhaps, here is someone who is familiar with the scholarly controversies surrounding a battle, especially with regard to terrain.
Well, we can dream, can’t we? Because what we often get at the micro level of the battlefield tour are some glittering generalities and sweeping movements of the arm to show how some ill-defined horde approached an ill-defined line situated on undelimited countryside: nothing like the crisp red and blue lines in your battle-centric history, dear reader. No pacing off of positions. No reference to precise battle formations. Vague or fragmentary reference to times of day. Imagine whatever you want because the “historian” is merely your daydream facilitator.
If the National Park Service implementation of the idea “park historian” is poor, can you believe that they also have positions such as “chief of interpretation?” The best face to put on this, and I am reaching to the stars here, would be that in the early days of the NPS, the “chief of interpretation” might be concerned with interpreting terrain vis a vis the battle.
Nowadays, this is another history position, actually a higher history position. Interpretation demands what pop history cannot provide: throrough analysis. No place for talespinning and theatrics here. However misguided, however Stalinist the concept of “chief of interpretation” may be, it at least hearkens to a kind of scholarly activity.
It is a measure of breakage within the National Park Service history function that the new “chief of interpretation for the Northeast Region of the Park Service” sees his job as one of delivering excitement and entertainment.
... when he arrives here at the end of August to take over as superintendent of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, he'll balance the requisite pencil-pushing with his true passion: storytelling.
Mr. Russ Smith says, "There's more drama in history than in fiction."
What analysis? What controversies?
Mr. Smith’s interpretation duties appear to be limited to selecting among the most thrilling presentations of the same underlying story structure, one unbothered by the passage of time, of scholarship, of analysis.
There is no business like show business, baby. Fifty years of pop history “drama” and “stagecraft” claim another unwitting victim.