Josh Van Winkle: Harper’s Ferry Intern

In a few weeks Josh Van Winkle will be graduating with a history major from Messiah College, but he is already putting his degree to good use as an intern at Harper’s Ferry National Park where he is serving as the David Larsen Memorial Fund Intern.  Here is a recent essay Josh wrote as part of his work at Harper’s Ferry:

David Larsen was a pioneer in the field of interpretation. His first encounter with Harpers Ferry National Historical Park happened when he was sixteen. His family had just moved from Chicago to Maryland and his parents decided to drag David, a lonely upset teenager, to the Park. Here, Larsen became enchanted with the blacksmith shop and the interpreter, Arnold Schofield, who was pounding away at hot metal. Schofield was able to make an ancient craft relevant to a modern teenager by forging connections between the tangible metal he was working and their intangible meanings. That encounter changed his world; Larsen soon began his public history career at Harpers Ferry. Later he worked on the Mall, and then the National Capital Regional Office.

While at Harpers Ferry he and his co-workers sat on a park bench in front of the Provost Office exhibit at the end of the day, and discussed what was relevant to the visitors and what was not. How had some encounters and programs struck a chord with visitors and not others? Throughout his career he continued to reflect on these moments outside the Provost Office as he refined his understanding of interpretation. As Training Manager of Interpretation at the Stephen T. Mather Training Center, he played a crucial role in refining the definition and nature of interpretation in the Park Service through his work with the Interpretative Development Program. One of Larsen’s core beliefs about interpretation was that it had to be relevant to the interests of the audience. Larsen said that relevance had to be established before provocation. In other words before the audience can understand or feel a connection with a resource, the resource must be relevant first. Larsen explained this in his article Be Relevant or Become A Relic in the Journal for Interpretation Research. Larsen said,

 “This only occurs ……when resource professionals—and that would be you—understand the sovereignty of the visitor. Don’t misunderstand. When I say the visitor is sovereign, I am not suggesting the customer is always right. Most of us work for protection agencies and appropriately prevent audiences from doing physical harm. However, in terms of what visitors believe, think, and feel, they are sovereign. No matter how much confidence we may have in our science and our professional procedures, no matter how enthusiastic and polished our presentations, the audience ultimately decides if the resource has value. The audience determines if they will care enough about the resource in order to support the care for the resource. This requires that interpreters and other resource professionals meet audiences on their own ground.” 

Larsen argued, we must make our presentations relevant to audiences’ needs, wants, and desires. Particularly at cultural history sites we must allow the audience to ponder “how would I have felt if I had lived back then”. Only then can we provoke visitors to form their own intellectual and emotional connections to the resource.

As a Messiah College history major, and park intern, I often talked about slavery and African American history with a diverse group of friends. For college students, how could the topics of slavery and African American history be relevant? For some of my friends, they had ancestors who were slaves. But for those who didn’t we were able to relate these topics with modern day circumstances. We discussed parallels between biblical interpretations about slavery with modern civil rights debate about homosexuality. We also tried to imagine what it would have felt like if we had lived during the Civil War. One of my friends asked me, “Josh, if you had lived back then, would you have fought for the union?” I told her that I had come to the realization a while ago that if I had lived in Loudoun County, Virginia (where I live now) I don’t think I would have fought for the Union. Now I was provoked to continue my line of thought. I told her that it is possible that living long ago, I could have been socialized into thinking that blacks were subhuman and believe the doctrine of states’ rights. When I first had this realization it was quite horrifying to me. I had always before considered myself a unionist. Now some might argue that I might have overstated the case because after all Loudoun County is the uppermost county of the uppermost state in the upper south, and the Independent Loudoun Virginia Rangers operated there as a partisan unit of southern men fighting southern men. However, Union Major General Philip Sheridan, while in charge of military operations at Harpers Ferry called my county the worst hive of secessionists. Sheridan’s soldiers were harassed by confederate guerrilla warfare.

This April, here at Harpers Ferry, we have a great opportunity on the 26th and 27th, to present the true stories of the 1864 USCT, [United States Colored Troops], who historically conducted an enlistment recruiting party in our town. For my friends and I, who are very much interested in African American history and Civil War soldiers, this will resonate with us deeply. When we had our discussion about which side we would have fought on, we were miles away from where freed African-Americans, as US soldiers, were stationed to fight for their country. How would my friends feel if they could stand in the park, where the history happened? Would relevance increase? Would my friends be able to make a deeper connection to ideas such as loyalty, freedom, war & death? Unfortunately, my friends are still back in college and will probably not be able to visit.

Yet one of the ideas that Larsen supported was that we can reach new audiences by using technology to create virtual experiences. I am helping to create social media posts that I hope you will enjoy as a lead up to our April 150th USCT African American History event. I hope my friends back at school will interact with the posts and help broaden the Park’s audience.

But what about the thousands of visitors who will arrive in Harpers Ferry to attend the April event? Will they find the USCT to be relevant, to relate to stories of black soldiers in Harpers Ferry? Yes, I believe they will. We have all at least once in our lives thought, “How would I have felt if I had lived back then”? By using interpretive techniques such as storytelling, quotes, African American solider artifacts in a special exhibit, living history volunteers and ranger staff, we can provide interpretative opportunities for visitors to consider how the USCT faced different battles, those on and off the battlefield, toward freedom and a better future.

During the Park’s April- event, I want to step into the tradition of Larsen, I want to be dressed as an 1864 United States soldier, sitting on that bench in front of the Provost Marshal’s Office with a visitor, and encourage them to ponder, “How would I have felt if I had lived back then?”OC

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