After earning 142 Junior Ranger badges from National Park Service sites across the country, I looked forward to the day when I would stand on the other side of the desk. For eight weeks this summer, I had that opportunity. As an interpretive intern at Gettysburg National Military Park, I interacted with the public on a daily basis and talked about one of our nation’s most significant events in the place at which it happened.
During my summer in Gettysburg, I was able to learn more about the field of public history through experiencing it firsthand. As an interpretive intern, I interacted with people from around the nation and world, discussing the Civil War at large, and the battle of Gettysburg in particular. Whether I was stationed behind the information desk or out in any of the park’s 6,000 acres, there was always a visitor with a question. Often, the questions were simple: “Where is the bathroom?” or “Do you have a map?” Occasionally, a visitor would ask a challenging question, about a controversial commander on the field, or a specific detail of the battle. I quickly learned that these latter types of questions were usually educational opportunities rather than something to be afraid of.
Informal interactions with the public led to countless enlightening discussions, yet one of the most exciting aspects of being an interpretive intern was going into the field and giving formal programs. While each program has a specific set of objectives that must be explained in some form, there was plenty of space for creativity. My first program, “Four Score and Seven Years Ago: Lincoln and the Soldiers’ National Cemetery” allowed me the opportunity to explore some of Gettysburg’s most fascinating facts.
Being from the state of Illinois, I grew up familiar with Abraham Lincoln. The license plates for my home state proudly proclaim, “Land of Lincoln”, and it seems that every town in Illinois has some connection to the man. Being in Gettysburg, and seeing images of Lincoln throughout the town and the park forced me to think about the concept of the “Land of Lincoln” in a larger context. During my program in the cemetery, I explored with my visitors how the public’s memory of Lincoln has changed over time, and what role Gettysburg has played in that transformation.
While in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, I also took my groups to the grave of Lieutenant Sumner Paine of the 20th Massachusetts, an eighteen year old who died at the battle of Gettysburg. Through discussing his life, I hoped to show visitors how his individual story fit into the larger story not only of the Civil War, but the narrative of the United States. In doing so, I aimed to help visitors understand that the American story is made of countless individual stories, woven together, rather than a few famous stories scattered throughout time.
Beyond being in the cemetery and behind the information desk, I also spent a lot of time reading and researching aspects of Gettysburg. During the battle anniversary, I had the opportunity to assist a ranger who was conducting a massive battle walk program. It was exciting to see so many people engaged and dedicated to learning about the Civil War.
Perhaps the most inspiring portion of the summer, however, was assisting with the park’s children’s programming and swearing in new Junior Rangers. Because of the monumental impact the Junior Ranger program has had on my life, it was exciting to be on the other side of the desk. Talking about our nation’s common ground with a future generation of American leaders, I wondered if perhaps I was also talking to Gettysburg National Military Park’s future interpretive interns.
– Jensen Rehn
Intern at Gettysburg National Military Park