Guest Post: Steven Elliott on Public History at the Morristown National Park

Today’s guest post comes from Steven Elliott, a PhD candidate in American Military History at Temple University. Elliott (@EastJerseySteve) is writing a dissertation about the American War of Independence, tentatively titled “The Highlands War: Soldiers, Civilians, and Landscapes in Revolutionary New Jersey.” He has worked for seven years as a historical interpreter at Morristown National Historical Park in Morristown, New Jersey, which is the subject of this guest post.

“The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation,” Freeman Tilden, NPS

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A depiction of the 1780 winter encampment at Morristown, courtesy of Morristown National Historical Park Collection.

Despite Tilden’s call to action, provocative interpretation at many National Parks remains a challenge, especially for Revolution-era sites. As many Americans learn (or re-learn) their history at public history venues, rather than through books or schooling, the Park Service can play an important role in bringing challenging interpretations to popular audiences. Yet, this can be difficult for Revolutionary-era sites, many of which were created to focus on “heroic narratives” emphasizing military campaigns and political leaders. In this post, I reflect on my personal experiences in attempting to challenge visitors’ assumptions about the Revolution, as a seasonal park guide at Morristown National Historical Park in Morristown, NJ.  

Morristown’s main attractions are the Ford Mansion, the home of a wealthy widow used as Washington’s headquarters in 1780, an adjacent museum, and Jockey Hollow, the 1780 encampment site of 10,000 Continental soldiers. Founded in 1933, throughout the early decades of the park’s existence, these venues served to reify the heroic, military narrative of the war. Tours of the Ford Mansion emphasized Washington’s leadership, while Jockey Hollow highlighted soldiers’ patriotic dedication to duty despite poor pay and chronic food shortages. The museum included a hagiographic hall of “Washingtonia” as well as an abundance of period weapons. Absent were any discussion of the Revolution’s origins, internal dissent, loyalists, neutrals, class conflict, blacks, Indians, or women. Indeed, the very sites chosen for preservation (headquarters house, camp ground) makes more difficult presenting narratives outside of the traditional political/military story.

Nevertheless, recent years have witnessed shifts towards a more nuanced interpretation. A “War Comes to Morristown Exhibit” highlighted how the army’s arrival forced residents to choose sides, and they did not always pick the Patriots. With the advent of multiculturalism during the 1980s, the Park placed new emphasis on the experiences of African Americans, Native Americans, and Women, though often in the form of special programs coinciding with Black History Month or Women’s History Month. In the late 2000s, a major renovation of the museum did away with the guns and Washingtonia, replacing them with a Colonial Style Gallery emphasizing consumer culture (hat tip to T.H. Breen) and a Pamphlets of Protest Gallery (with a nod to Bailyn and Wood).

Despite these shifts, it remains a challenge to bring complicated interpretation to visitors on a daily basis. Old-stock patrons have received the museum renovations unfavorably, with more than one angry parent firing off letters to the superintendent, complaining that the “gun room” of their childhood has been replaced by newspapers and things “kids don’t care about.” Turn-out at special events highlighting the role of women or blacks in the revolution remains low. In an era of declining budgets and overworked staffs, there’s little money or manpower to spare for community outreach events that might attract a younger or more diverse crowd.[1]

Given these constraints of what the park has to work with, how can a guide bring a more nuanced perspective to public history venues such as mine? The Revolution suffers the irony of having a very rich and contested historiography, yet the general public subscribes to a straightforward narrative of taxes, revolt, and war. How can one provoke a dialogue about the origins of the Revolution on a historic house tour, or bring new perspectives on the war during an outdoor hike? Here are a few successes I’ve had, during my time at the park:

  1. Using the site’s perceived disadvantages as strengths. Morristown suffers from its relative anonymity; rarely capturing the attention of scholars or the popular public, it has long been overshadowed by the more famous winter encampment at Valley Forge. Moreover, New Jersey’s story in the Revolution, aside from being home to a few of the more famous battles, is little known, its path to rebellion unfamiliar compared to the stories from New England, Virginia, or Pennsylvania that often make it into the text books. So, a quick background at the start of any program detailing New Jersey’s path from colony to state, one in which support for independence was late-blooming and tepid, complicates many visitors’ preconceptions. Explaining why Valley Forge is more famous than Morristown often leads to a wonderful dialogue on the nature of memory and commemoration, what stories are preserved, and which are forgotten.
  2. Make use of nature. The encampment section of the park sprawls over two square miles, much of it pristine forests and hiking trails, and many of our visitors tend to be more interested in outdoor activities than history. Most have a keen interest in the natural world, one that can be tied to the past through environmental history. How did the presence of 10,000 men affect the forested hills they camped on? How did climate shape the winter campaign, such as when cold temperatures froze New York Harbor, enabling an overland attack on Staten Island? A quick visitor question about Mosquito protection can lead to a conversation about that insect’s role in weakening the British army during the southern campaign. National parks, because they so often blend history and nature, make for the perfect venues to engage patrons through environmental history.
  3. Continue to highlight diversity. Even in telling a narrowly military story, there is still room in the narrative to show how the war was not fought and won by a monolithic mass of patriotic white male volunteers. Recent scholarship on the Continental Army has highlighted its ethnic diversity as well as the class divisions between officers and men.[2] The army at Morristown was likely composed primarily of the landless poor, many of them recent Irish and German immigrants. One visitor complained that description made the Continentals sound a lot like their Redcoat opponents. Provocation achieved, I counted that as one small victory for the front-line interpreter.

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[1] Morristown itself is trending younger and more diverse, with a non-Hispanic white population of 48% as of 2010. A recent downtown building boom and ample nightlife has brought an influx of young professionals as well. The region overall remains wealthy, if not white. Morris and Somerset counties are both in the top 20 in per-capita income.

[2] For this interpretation, see Charles Neimeryer, America Goes to War: A Social History of the Continental Army (New York: New York University Press, 1997) and James Martin and Mark Lender, A Respectable Army: the Military Origins of the Republic (Malden: Blackwell, 2005).

8 comments on “Guest Post: Steven Elliott on Public History at the Morristown National Park

  1. Jim says:

    As a career interpreter and public historian, my guess is that it’s always going to be a challenge, but therein lies the opportunities for provocation, and visitor engagement. History is inherently a “conservative” practice, after all . . . we seek to preserve stories about the past as we (think we) know them . . . and it’s unsettling to us to be challenged intellectually or to have our heroes made into more normal people. As a corollary to that, many people believe that “the past is the past,” that it was all written down by someone, revolves around some set of knowable facts, and so there’s not much new to learn. Any researcher knows that that’s simply not true. “Historical revisionism” is only a bad thing if you somehow feel threatened by it . . . in actuality, it just points out that there’s always more to learn and discover, and that’s the exciting part of history that doesn’t always get presented well at historic sites.

    The fun of sharing what I’M excited about and have discovered, about this or that historic place, site or topic, is what keeps this field fresh and gives me a lot of job satisfaction.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to respond Jim. I agree that one of the more challenging, and rewarding aspects of doing public history is getting our visitors to understand history as more than just a record of what happened, or explaining “what was it like back then.” Working at a Revolution-era site can be particularly challenging in this regard, given that the public often feels as if they know the whole story already. On the other hand, this makes the introduction of any bit of “revisionism” particularly provocative.

  3. Elizabeth Bertheaud says:

    As the former administrator of the Brandywine Battlefield Park I encouraged my staff to challenge our visitors’ preconcieved ideas about the American Revolution, the role of Quakers, Loyalists, Hessians, the British, and the fact that the Revolutionary War was actually a civil war. One of my favorite programs that I developed was a “quiz” type power point that I called “Which Side Are They On” to challenge the notion that the British all wore red and the Americans all wore blue. The power point was just a series of slides depicting soldiers in a variety of uniforms and the audience was to guess “which side” they were fighting for. I was privileged to watch many an Aha! moment happen while presenting that program. I’m now at Ephrata Cloister which served as a hospital after the Philadelphia Campaign which is another seldom told layer of the interpretation of the American Revolution.

  4. RF Welch says:

    Perhaps a historic site whose importance rests on the fact that it was a major army encampment is not the best venue to emphasize the socio-cultural aspects of the Revolution.
    Additionally, unless the staff at Morristown have concluded that the Revolution was waged without military campaigns and combat, the decision to banish weaponry from its exhibits appears bizarre–especially at a military site. It seems to have nothing to improve attendance, and may even deter those who persist in believing that the Continental Army and Washington had something to do with the course and outcome of the conflict.

  5. Ahoymades says:

    I could agree with Welch that military history is important, and the gun artifacts are always interesting, but broadening the story, while within the campaign is important as well. At the Old State house we have folks that get mad sometimes because we tell the story of the Massacre from both sides. People don’t want to hear that the soldiers were in a tough position and they didn’t fire on the crowd on purpose, or that the crowd was throwing all kinds of dangerous refuse at the soldiers. It doesn’t square with their view of the Massacre as an act of tyranny. I do hope that exhibits about weaponry aren’t entirely abandoned, but the whole story is more important than the pared down patriotic version.

    • RF Welch says:

      My argument was not that we shouldn’t broaden, expand, and deepen the story. Rather, that it’s a mistake to exclude elements and artifacts that were central to the story. In some places there seems to be a belief that this is a zero sum game, i.e., that if we bring in new approaches, or present overlooked/underappreciated factors, the foundational ones must be removed and locked away in a storage bin. Removing all the weaponry from a Revolutionary military site, distorts the history of the place itself, and reduces the visitors ability to comprehend, and perhaps visualize, the reality of the conflict.

  6. Thank you to everyone who has responded and created such a lively discussion. I apologize for not clarifying in the original post; the museum has re-worked its exhibits but not done away with military items entirely. Our military room includes several period muskets, pistols, edged weapons, and artillery pieces. The old exhibit had dozens of muskets racked on the walls which was visually impressive, but contributed little interpretatively. Yet, some visitors who remember the old room still find the new exhibit disappointing because it lacks the sheer number of pieces as its predecessor. The real key for the interpretive staff is to connect colonial consumer and political culture that we exhibit elsewhere in the museum to the conflict, tie the war’s causes to its actual conduct.

    I’m certainly not in the “war wasn’t that important camp.” My main point is that in interpreting the war, many visitors still expect the old George Washington and the Continental Army hero worship, rather than engaging in a dialogue about who was actually serving in that army, why they served, or what gains they made as a result of their service.

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