By Chris Graham
Greenback America Guest Curator
Transcribing focus group interviews is rather tedious. We used the free version of InqScribe, slowed playback to about .6, and typed out every, uh, word, and, us, pauseovertalk, and like, so, getting the accuracy, essence, like, ok, if you will, of the conversation. The way human beings talk is remarkably different from the way we write! We had about five hours of recorded conversation and the four of us needed a week and a half to get through them all, review our own work, and then review each other’s work.
The next step is coding and analyzing, in which we search the transcriptions for common words, themes, thoughts, and quantify their frequency and meaning to find patterns that were not apparent in our preliminary observations.
But until then, our preliminary observations reveal a great deal of useful information. Each focus group had its own personality, and told us different things, but we can draw some common threads from the conversations.
They expressed a deep interest in exploring how United States monetary policy impacted ordinary people, particularly African Americans, women, and white southerners. That visitors want stories about historical people is no surprise. This does offer us a challenge, though, because our source material (Mike’s dissertation) focuses chiefly on policy-makers. The immediate result is that Mike is directing us in new research on these stories. It has been great fun and we’re finding fantastic things.
Only with prompting did the groups’ historical imaginations connect them to issues of money and their lives today. But with prompting, they readily accepted that connection and spent time pondering it.This was a surprise to us. We expected a conflation of past and the present at the start—for our groups to say—“Oh, using a new Greenback was like using Bitcoin!” But presented with a historical scenario, they pushed further into the history. What this means for us is that, while comfortable making connections to current issues of people and their money, we will be disentangling those stories and introducing them at the end of the exhibit space.
The groups articulated an interesting tension between their understanding of cash as emblematic of freedom and federal monetary policy as a system of control in their own lives. A lot of this has to do with the Federal Reserve, which is critical in the larger history but will be outside of our story here, and it speaks to Mike’s point that ordinary Americans today are detached from monetary policy while nineteenth century Americans made it central to their political economy. But our takeaway here is that we need to focus on the historical actors who “lost” in the new system of legal tender and banking regulation as well as those who the system empowered.
A SIDE NOTE: It is not often that we have conversations with forty young people who are culturally competent but largely avoid Civil War history. Our focus groups, ultimately, had to focus on our exhibit, but our “warm up” questions prompted them to think about ways they encountered Civil War history in their own lives. Many told of being dragged to battlefields by parents and thus disinterested today. Others mentioned being shown the local Confederate monument and having immediately critical responses. Some never thought about it until they moved to Richmond, where you can’t escape it.
In all, southerners with family connections, others with no connection, white people, black people, they expressed a critical detachment from—and an active distaste for—traditional approaches to teaching the Civil War. Many people had a deep interest in knowing more, but don’t want to get there through military narratives. These, then, are the audiences we need to find a way to talk with.
For these reasons, we believe that our topic will be far more accessible to the “21st Century audience.” But in a larger sense it presents a challenge. Most museum collections and historic sites—indeed, the larger non-documentary infrastructure of Civil War public history—are built around battlefields and military artifacts.
But that’s a post for another time.