Monday, April 9, 2012

At Civil War sites, social media and relevance

National Park Service rangers were armed -- with cameras -- on the rolling battlefield at Shiloh last week, snapping photos of guided tours and other programs marking the 150th anniversary of the deadly engagement.

Like orderlies carrying urgent messages, they rushed the images to a webmaster who posted them on Shiloh National Military Park's Facebook page. Take a look you will see an impressive collection of photos, videos and vignettes.

Shiloh was the third stop, after Fort Sumter and Manassas, for a group of NPS employees who are shaping the agency's social media engagement during the sesquicentennial.

They gave out cards bearing addresses for Shiloh's website, YouTube, Flickr and Twitter accounts.

This week's focus will be at Fort Pulaski National Monument near Savannah, Ga.

It comes amid reports of increased attendance at some Civil War sites. But as USA Today pointed out in an article last Friday, the average visitor to the nation's parks is getting grayer.

According to the article, visitors ages 16-24 are most underrepresented. James Gramann, a Texas A&M professor writing a book on people and parks, said his concern is that the NPS "is maintaining a 21st-century relevance."

I did notice young people at Shiloh while I was there a day and a half. Several asked questions of rangers and expressed knowledge of what happened there in April 1862.

But as at other Civil War events I've attended, there were few people of color.

That's where the relevance comes in. The park service has attempted to bridge this gulf with its "From Civil War to Civil Rights" theme.

Twenty miles away from Shiloh, the NPS's Corinth Civil War Interpretive Center provides a deeper look at the "war's meaning and significance."

David Vela, Southeast regional director for the National Park Service, told a crowd attending a program at Shiloh that the NPS has published "Hispanics in the Civil War," which tells stories of those who served, including Union Adm. David Farragut.

About 20,000 Hispanics served in the Civil War, Vela said.

Parks, museums and other venues increasingly are looking at the role of African-Americans in the Civil War.

"Our aim is to make this period relevant in our lives," Vela said.

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