Remembering Britain’s Forgotten Civil Wars

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The striking and very effective sign at the entrance to the National Civil War Centre’s Civil War Gallery.
I recently visited the National Civil War Centre located in Newark, Nottinghamshire.   According to its visitor guide its purpose is as follows:

“We aim to uncover this crucial yet under explored turning point on the history of the British Isles and world beyond, through human stories, fascinating objects and our programme of temporary exhibitions and events.”

The Museum is located in the old Magnus School, itself an historic building parts of which pre-date the Civil Wars.  It is spread over five floors, occupying both the old school building and a new section that links the museum to the town’s Palace Theatre.  The site houses both the National Civil War Centre and the Newark Town Museum, although as the name alludes, the core business here is to focus on the British Civil Wars.

National Civil War Centre
The National Civil War Centre located in the former Magnus School in Newark, Nottinghamshire.
The heart of the museum is the Civil War Gallery in which the story of the Civil Wars, and the story of Newark during those wars, are very cleverly interwoven. Newark, like many towns and cities during this period, spent time under siege.  In Newark’s case there were three, the first, and very short-lived, in February 1643, the second in February and March 1644, and the final and longest from November 1645 to May 1646.  As an aside, one of the legacies of these sieges is the Queen’s Sconce, a fortification on the south western outskirts of the town, which still exists today and gives a very good idea of what a Civil War fortification looked like.

Returning to the museum, the Civil War Gallery includes displays of uniforms, weapons and other artefacts, a range of interactive exhibits and games, a film show, and dressing up opportunities for children. The space is airy, nicely laid out and well lit.  The narrative thread is good and one comes away with a very clear idea of both the overarching story of the wars and Newark’s role therein.  As with any museum or heritage attraction a key component of a successful visit are the staff, and those here were both friendly and well informed.  The final component of a visit to this museum is the interesting and imaginative smartphone app that has been developed to work alongside the museum and a National Civil War Trail around Newark. The app takes visitors on a tour around Newark highlighting key locations, such as the Queen’s Sconce mentioned about, and includes augmented reality elements to bring the story to life.  This is a nice feature that extends the museum’s reach beyond its walls, as well as offering the visitor more from their visit.

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The impressive Civil War Gallery at the National Civil War Centre.
This was my second visit to the museum since its opening in 2015 and it was plain to see that this is a dynamic place that is constantly developing and adapting to visitor feedback.  In the last ten months the buildings have been fully completed, some of the content upgraded, and as was pointed out on a sign, enhanced as a result of visitor feedback. Additionally the museum was hosting a second round of temporary exhibitions, more of which shortly.

Beyond the Civil War Gallery the museum includes elements of the original Tudor school that have been restored and are now available for viewing.  Two rooms are dedicated to the Newark Town Museum, and there are also four rooms dedicated to temporary gallery space.  The latter are currently housing an exhibition of Civil War medicine which, as well as looking at gruesome 17th Century surgical activities, also includes an examination of hospitals, medicine and military welfare.  This is a particularly well-put together exhibition with some lovely exhibits, including a wheelchair that belonged to Parliamentary Commander-in-Chief, Sir Thomas Fairfax.

Fairfax Wheelchair
Sir Thomas Fairfax’s wheelchair in the “Battle-Scarred” exhibition of Civil War surgery, medicine and military welfare, in the National Civil War Centre.
Overall this is a great museum that sheds a new and well-executed light on what is an oft overlooked and unappreciated part of British History.  And I make this point with some disappointment.  These wars were crucial in forming the Britain we have today.  The confirmation of the constitutional monarchy as the principle by which Britain would be governed was a fundamental outcome of these wars, an outcome that was subsequently affirmed in the Bill of Rights of 1689.  These were formative events for Britain; in the same way the America Civil War was for the United States, yet the knowledge of them pales into insignificance compared to the American Civil War.

Britain is full of sites of significance and relevance to the Civil Wars.  Many of which are neither marked nor remembered.  In some cases attempts to do so have fallen by the wayside, which makes the establishment of this museum even more impressive.  Some years ago attempts were made to develop a visitor centre at the battlefield of Naseby  (14 June 1645), unfortunately this did not get the traction and funding that it needed, and now somewhat less ambitious plans are being developed.  Now don’t get me wrong, I am not claiming that the British Civil Wars are completely ignored. Naseby does have some interpretation, with viewing stands and interpretive boards, but for such a major battle of the First Civil War, it really justifies more.  It was the battle at which the Parliamentarian New Model Army had its first full scale deployment, and came out successful, laying the foundations of the modern British Army.  Yet there is little to encourage people to visit the battlefield and engage with its significant story.  It is crying out, at the very least, for a visitor centre to enable that engagement.

There are of course places where the Civil Wars are marked. In the city of Worcester, itself the site of a siege and the last battle of the Civil Wars, the Commandery tells the story of the Civil Wars in Worcester. Likewise a number of Civil War battlefields are marked with memorials to the conflict, but in very few places are there detailed interpretation panels, museums or visitor centres, all of which are necessary to help visitors to connect these memorials and monuments to the action and explain their importance.   There are some resources available for the dedicated to access and learn more.  These include the Battlefield Trust’s excellent UK Battlefields Resource Centre, an online portal that has maps and information about most Civil War battles.  But despite these resources, and perhaps because many of the physical locations associated with the wars are not as well marked as they could be, I think the British Civil Wars are largely forgotten. Indeed I suspect that many a British citizen’s knowledge of these wars is at best superficial and at worst nothing!

Exhibition Case
Some of the beautifully presented artefacts on show at the National Civil War Centre in Newark.
Therefore against this backdrop of the relatively limited interpretation and recognition of the British Civil Wars amongst the heritage landscape of Britain, it is good to see a museum like the National Civil War Centre appearing, and helping to raise that profile. It does so in an engaging, interesting and entertaining manner, and through its app and trail, connects the museum and its visitors with the wider history and landscape of the town of Newark. I hope it continues to thrive and that its popularity grows, as it is making an important contribution to telling the story of this crucial and formative period of British History.

Signs, guides and videotape…

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One of the many interpretive signs that adorn American Civil War battlefields.

One of the challenges facing anyone running a heritage site is how to interpret, or explain, the site to visitors. The aim is alway to impart information in a manner that engages, educates and entertains them. I deliberatly use the term heritage site here, as I am primarily envisaging large spaces, usually outdoors, rather than the more controlled environment of an indoor museum, where technology, immersive audio-visual techniques, and traditional graphic panels can be used in large quantities. On such heritage sites the interpretation may have to bring to life a building, some ruins, archaeological remnants or an empty field that was once a bloody battlefield. In this blog post I want to explore some of the methods that can be, and are being, used to do this.

The key to any such interpretation is to present a balanced blend of accurate historical facts, an understanding of the place being interpreted and engaging storytelling. These days there is a range of ways in which this can be done that go well beyond the humble, but still much loved, guidebook.

For many years the tried and trusted interpretive board has been a good start. The image below shows one of a set located on the English Civil War battlefield of Naseby (14 June 1645) in Northamptonshire. This board has all the essentials. A couple of maps to show the course of the battle, some images to show the sort of troops fighting the battle, a narrative and in this case a very useful panoramic photograph to help the viewer relate to the ground they are observing.   Indeed this board, and its compatriots elsewhere on the site, do an extremely good job in providing the visitor with an understanding of the battlefield.  They are also supplemented by some resources on the Naseby website to help orientate the visitor before they arrive.

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A good example of an informative and engaging battlefield interpretation board.

The image below is an interpretive board at Bletchley Park that has to do a little less in the way of interpretation than the Naseby one, as it is sited in an already well-interpreted heritage site. But through the use of wartime pictures and quotes from veterans, an empty space within the site can be brought to life for the visitor.

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An interpretive sign at Bletchley Park showing what activities happened on the ground in front of the board during the Second World War, using period photographs and quotes from veterans.

Such interpretive panels of course have their limitations. They are inanimate, they can be damaged and they can’t answer questions posed by the visitor!  Therefore for the many people there is probably nothing that beats a human interaction to bring a place to life. Indeed the less physical interpretation there is on a site the more this will tend to be so. A human guide has some obvious advantages over a static board.  She/he can interact with the audience, understand their needs, answer their questions and provide a more bespoke experience. Today human guides are employed in a raft of heritage sites and by numerous organisations.  These range from stately homes and heritage sites that have their own teams, to peripatetic battlefield guides taking groups of visitors on tours to sites around the world.

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The author in full flow conducting a guided tour of the American Civil War battlefield of Monocacy (9 July 1864).

But is all cases the key to delivering high quality guiding is to have a good and effective training or development programme.  Most sites using guides have their own and organisations such as Britain’s ‘Blue Badge Guides‘ provide training programmes for multi-site guides, whilst the International Guild of Battlefield Guides provides a validation process to set a quality standard for battlefield guides.

One of the best guide training programmes I have come across is the Gettyburg Licensed Battlefield Guides training programme. Why is this? Well first of all it has a very demanding four-stage selection process. A Written Examination is followed by a Panel Interview, then a Mandatory Information and Orientation Programme, and finally an Oral Battlefield Examination. Quite a few hoops to jump through before becoming qualified, and the end result is a high quality cadre of well-respected guides.  But to me the most interesting thing about this programme is the underlying philosophy.  Even before entering its selection process candidates are asked to answer a very important question.  Is guiding for you?  In particular they are asked to consider a set of more detailed questions:

Do you love to teach?  Are you a storyteller?  Are you an extemporaneous speaker?  Are you a simplifier?  Do you love people?  Are you comfortable speaking to groups?  Are you flexible? Are you patient? Are you humble?

A very quick analysis of this list will reveal that, and it should come as no surprise to any high quality guide, the key attribute needed is to place ones audience at the centre of things. Unfortunately this sort of focus is not always evident in some guides.  Standing in front of an audience and interpreting a place or a battlefield requires self-confidence and a strong element of showmanship, traits that can be at odds with the humility and visitor focus outlined above. Sometimes the ego takes over and the guide becomes the end in itself, rather than a vehicle to interpret the place for the visitor.

Another challenge with human guides is quality control.  The guide has to walk a fine line between being an historian and a storyteller. No one is going to stand for a hour on guided tour if the guide is not engaging and entertaining.  But this should not mean that the guide lets the truth get in the way of telling a good story!  I have been to guided tours in more than one location where myths have been more prevalent than reality.  This therefore requires that the training programme must have a validation or quality control element to it.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti human guides – far from it I’m one myself!  But the limitations and issues highlighted above must be considered when they are used. And there is one other significant limitation to a human guide and that is that they are not always available! But these days technology is on hand to help with this particular problem.

Today, with a smartphone in many pockets, there has been a huge growth in app technology to assist the heritage visitor.  These come in a variety of shapes and guises, but all have some overarching benefits to those trying to understand a price of heritage or those trying to interpret it. These benefits are principally the ability to provide consistent, accurate, high-quality and repeatable content.  As a user you can be delivered hours of quality material on a handheld device which can be explored at ones own pace, both at the site being visited, or at leisure in ones hotel room or at home. For the interpreter, visitors can be provided with a whole raft of content, using a range of media and with a consistent standard of delivery to every visitor, so quality control is never an issue.

Battle App Overview
A screenshot from the Civil War Trust’s Bull Run Battle App® Guide

By way of a very good example of this genre, I would highlight the United States’ Civil War Trust’s Battle Apps® Guides series of guides to some of the key battles of the American Civil War. The screenshot above is taken from the app for the First Battle of Bull Run (21 July 1861).  As can be seen the quality of the mapping is excellent and activating buttons marking stops and places additional content is exposed, as cab be seen in the screenshot below.

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Another screenshot from the Civil War Trust Bull Run Battle App® Guide showing some of the more detailed content.

As mentioned earlier this technology also allows the embedding of a whole range of static and dynamic media, from contemporary photographs and maps, to sound clips and video.  The example below, taken from the Bull Run app and featuring Civil War Trust’s Director of History and Education Garry Adelmen, demonstrates how a visitor can almost have the best of both worlds.  A human guide recorded talking about a location, with the flexibility of having the information to take away on their own portable device!

This technological approach is of course not without its limitations too.  At the moment it can’t answer a question from a visitor in the way a human guide can.  There are also technical issues in the form of battery life and the need to download some content which might be difficult on a remote site without data connectivity.  But as a mass method of providing interpretation there is much benefit in this approach. In the future I suspect that other technologies will emerge to enhance this form of interpretation.  For example the potential to use wearable technology, such as a Google Glass style device, integrated with interpretation.   There are teething problems to resolve in this area, but the possibilities are very exciting.

To conclude I have looked at a number of different methods of interpreting heritage sites. None should be looked at in isolation and there is great value to the visitor of a heritage site in having a layered approach that uses some or all of the methods highlighted. This gives the visitor choice and variety, and a range of opportunities for them to engage with the site, be educated by it, and have an entertaining day out.