Thursday, January 8, 2015

Living History: UNO Students Help the National Park Service to Celebrate Bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans

Chalmette Battlefield University of New Orleans graduate students in public history will use interpretive exhibits they created themselves to help the National Park Service tell the story of the Battle of New Orleans for the 200th anniversary of the epic conclusion of the War of 1812.

Graduate students in the University of New Orleans public history program are helping the National Park Service this week to tell the story of the Battle of New Orleans in celebration of the battle’s bicentennial.

“Previously, most battle history focused on the American frontiersmen — volunteers as depicted in the 1957 song ‘The Battle of New Orleans’ by Johnny Horton,” said Charles Chamberlain, who helps to lead the University’s public history program. “And that’s why I would argue that these exhibits are important — because it exposes the general public to these lesser known, but important, stories about the battle.”

The epic siege that marked the final major battles of the War of 1812 took place over 17 days in the winter months entering 1815. Today marks the 200-year anniversary of the war’s ultimate conclusion at Chalmette Battlefield.

All weekend visitors are invited to “walk in the footsteps of the troops of 1815” at the battlefield and cemetery at Jean Lafitte Historical Park and Preserve, just beyond New Orleans city limits, Chamberlain said. The celebration will bring speakers, musicians and living history exhibits, including reenactments of a war camp. (National law prevents military re-enactments on the battlefield, which has a cemetery and is considered “sacred ground.”)

On Saturday, 10 of his graduate students will display interpretive exhibits they developed themselves in a high-profile highly trafficked area between the park’s Obelisk monument and Visitors’ Center.

“They will be acting as historical interpreters, almost like a docent in a museum,” Chamberlain said. “They have mostly interactive exhibits.”

Hands-On Experience

Public history is "history that is designed for the general public" and “is really oriented toward everybody as opposed to more academic history which is more oriented toward professional historians and academics,” Chamberlain explained. Alumni of the UNO public history program often go on to work in museums, historical parks and the tourism industry.

“Public history basically uses interpretive techniques that are oriented toward all age groups and an international audience," he said. "And the idea is that you want to basically have people come away with basic information about an historical topic or events that normally they would not have access to.”

UNO graduate students in public history develop skills in research methodology, oral history methodology, archival studies and public history methodology, which helps students learn to create exhibits, including online exhibits, through software and digital media, Chamberlain said. The students participating in Saturday’s events at Chalmette Battlefield are recent veterans of his class Introduction to Public History.

“I would describe it as basically a hands-on class where they learn professional development skills,” the professor said. “And so this exhibit in partnership with the NPS has given them hands on experience on how to curate a museum exhibit.”

Hands-On Experience

Last September, the National Park Service invited Chamberlain's class to interpret the history of the Battle of New Orleans for the upcoming Bicentennial Celebration. The UNO students, who are all working toward master’s degrees in public history, spent last semester developing five interactive exhibits spotlighting unique aspects of the Battle of New Orleans, the grand finale to the series of engagements that pitted Major General Andrew Jackson’s U.S. troops against an invasion by English forces aiming to seize New Orleans and end the War of 1812.

“They had to go into archives and museums and find documents and images and call professional historians who specialize in these fields. At the same time, they had to do two presentations in class. NPS rangers would attend and critique,” Chamberlain said. “It takes a lot of time.”

The Louisiana State Museum, New Orleans Historical Collection, National Park Service and other venues with locally based historical archives helped students in their search for meaningful facts and stories, Chamberlain said. The UNO Political Science Department helped enormously too, producing 42-inch-by-32-inch exhibit panels in-house on a professional printing machine.

Zeroing In

The goal of the project was "to gather information and interpret it in a way that would be digestible to the general public," Chamberlain said. Rather than focus on U.S. soldiers, some UNO students chose to spotlight combatants who supported U.S. troops but fell outside the mainstream culture of the time.

One "really interesting" exhibit depicts contributions of “the Baratarium,” a name military historians use to describe the historical figure Jean Lafitte and his band of pirates, also known as Privateers.

As many New Orleanians know, the renegade French leader and his gang based their operations in Barataria, La., where they smuggled goods to New Orleans through Barataria Bay, a passage that connects the mouth of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. Pirates traveled through bayous using pirogues and barges. Once vanquished by General Andrew Jackson, the Baratarium made a surprising contribution to the American victory at Chalmette Battlefield.

“Basically they were outlaws until the battle," Chamberlain said. "And then once they fought, they were essential to the victory based on their artillery skills."

An exhibit focused on contributions of free persons of color who fought in the Battle of New Orleans tells the story of Jordan Noble, a 13-year-old drummer who then became an esteemed local African American war veteran until he died in the 1880s. Noble subsequently fought in the Seminole Wars, the Mexican War, and…both sides of the Civil War, Chamberlain said. “He has a long history.”

The Choctaw Nation also fought in support of the U.S. in the dramatic conclusion of the War of 1812.

“General Andrew Jackson recruited them to fight and they were basically fighting guerrilla style,” Chamberlain said, adding that just as the exhibit on Jordan Noble includes a soldier's drum, this interactive exhibit includes Native American music of the Choctaw People.

“For someone who is more visual and tactile in terms of learning information, I think it’s a good way to learn,” said Chamberlain, who invited the UNO community to Chalmette Battlefield on Saturday.