By Carolyn Wallace
What does it mean to host a military reenactment in the 21st century? Cliveden, a National Trust Historic Site located in the Germantown neighborhood of Northwest Philadelphia, began consistently hosting reenactments of the Revolutionary War Battle of Germantown in 1977. These reenactments are now the centerpiece of the annual Revolutionary Germantown Festival, one of the largest history festivals in Philadelphia, educating generations about the War of Independence and the struggle for liberty. However, since 2018 Cliveden received feedback questioning the impact and relevancy of the reenactment given the rise of gun violence in the surrounding neighborhood and the country at large.
In 2020, Cliveden received funding from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage and the Interpretation and Education Fund of the National Trust for Historic Preservation to explore that question. The central purpose of the project was to gather reactions from key stakeholders and with input from scholars wrestle with the organization’s interpretation of the American Revolution.
How can Cliveden tell the authentic story of the Battle of Germantown that is relevant to the community and not an over-simplified version front-loading violence? How can Cliveden include different perspectives in the reenactment? With societal shifts over the past 40 years, Cliveden was compelled to confront these questions to face the reality of gun violence in everyday American life. The hope was to discover the impact the current interpretation of Revolutionary-era history has on the communities that Cliveden serves.
For eighteen months, starting in early 2020—before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic—Cliveden Staff, project partners, and consultants met virtually and onsite with small groups to hear from constituents about what mattered, what worked, and what needed help. Through this project participants listened and learned from one another.
The stakeholders engaged during this project came from two major groups—local community members and participants from the reenactment community. Responses from both groups were diverse, but some major takeaways included:
- Consumption of alcohol in close proximity to use of firearms is problematic. This occurred both during the festival and at events following the festival.
- Compensating participants is important but can be problematic depending on the behavior of the paid participants with members of the local community.
- The reenactment community enjoys their meaningful interactions with the public, helping to educate people about America’s founding period.
- Some participants were unaware of programs already being offered by the site.
- Desire to have more interpretation, including first-person, focused on other experiences during the Revolutionary period beyond the life of soldiers.
- There were mixed feelings about the use of firearms, and some desired to limit the amount of noise from weapons.
- Increased marketing can help let the community know the event is coming and what to expect.
- There was a desire to connect past to present and to lift up social issues.
The initial plan for the project included six focus group meetings with members of the public, reenactors, and students from a local school co-operative and four Cliveden Conversations, a program model focused on sharing content that often connects past and present followed by a facilitated discussion.
Data gathering was also planned for the annual Revolutionary Germantown Festival where visitors could experience the activities and reenactment and share responses. However, 2020 had other plans. Two of the initially scheduled programs were completed prior to lockdowns in Pennsylvania. Staff and consultants re-grouped and moved to offer programs virtually on Zoom, and in-person where possible during the summer. Google Form surveys circulated via email and social media were also employed to gather input.
The pandemic offered an opportunity to try potentially radical ideas with the festival in 2020. Instead of having the festival centered at Cliveden, programming was spread throughout the Germantown neighborhood at 15 historic sites to limit crowds. This change not only created a deeper engagement with partner institutions but produced a more historically accurate event. There was no reenactment, but firing demonstrations offered a limited glimpse into military life. Encampments, first-person interpreters, lectures, and activities for children rounded out the day.
With the project completed, Cliveden staff and board have evaluated some next steps for the festival. Some ideas include:
- Offer more programs leading up to and after festival to expand the perspectives on the American Revolution and its connections to today.
- Offer only one reenactment during the festival.
- Continue to work with partners in Historic Germantown consortium to offer programs at other sites to spread the festival throughout Germantown.
- Update and increase marketing efforts to bring greater awareness to programming.
- Create advisory committees with members of the local community and reenactors to provide continued input for programming.
As part of wrapping up, a printed final report and video (below) were created to share findings and next steps from participants and project consultants.
Lessons Learned and Takeaways
The engagement over the past year, despite many unexpected challenges, offered opportunities for not only the project but for the future of the festival. Being flexible was important last year as staff discerned how best to move forward in a year with a variety of social challenges and a global pandemic limiting in-person interaction. Some of the restrictions brought on by the pandemic offered the ability to pilot ideas in 2020 instead of waiting for the future. Looking for the silver linings and opportunities was an important lesson.
A major takeaway from the project is the continued importance of talking with constituents in open dialogue. Many strong and often diverse opinions were offered. Some participants believed that the project was a method toward the perceived cancellation of a cherished event, a belief that required further conversations to attempt to clarify. Comments on social media included, “[I] really hope significant changes are not forthcoming. I will trust the process for now.” and “Are they considering doing away with the reenactment??”
A key issue raised by community members was that, “Nearby neighbors cannot opt out of the audio stream of gunfire from the battle. It is inflicted upon them, and that is no longer appropriate. Please engage the public through other aspects of period-specific history.” Part of honest open dialogue is also that not everyone is going to agree and often emotions will run high. Making sure consultants and staff have the tools to help deal with the variety of responses is imperative. Also finding ways to meet constituents where they are was an important lesson.
Project consultants ranging from academics to first-person interpreters and a women who lost her son to gun violence added valuable perspective. Including different voices in the conversation help to expand the narrative and ask the difficult and often most important questions.
Ultimately, staff found that the power of place and connecting to others was most valuable.
“History at times is best learned by experiencing it.”
Carolyn Wallace is the Education Director at Cliveden, a National Trust Historic Site.