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America's History in the Making

A Nation Divided

In the Video

Edited Hands on History interview with Colonel Keith Gibson.


Colonel Keith Gibson is the Executive Director of Museum Programs for the Virginia Military Institute. He also works as an historical consultant on feature and documentary films including the 2002 film Gods & Generals. He was interviewed in his office at VMI, and on location at New Market Battlefield in Virginia.

Q: Hello, let's start with your name and position.

Gibson: I am Colonel Keith Gibson, Department Head of the VMI, Virginia Museum Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia.

Q: Can you tell us what that job entails?

Gibson: The Head of Museum Operations for VMI is responsible for the daily care and feeding of the historical collection we have here. VMI is the oldest state-supported military college in the nation, and has the oldest public museum in the state of Virginia. We've been collecting for 160 years now, and have amassed over 12,000 artifacts. Usually, items are presented to us by family members or by people that have used them. That makes our collection very important to researchers who are looking for an artifact, or for a cultural, material connection to the past.

Q: How did you first become a film consultant?

Gibson: My first opportunity to work with public history in the field of film was about 20 years ago in New Mexico. I was working on a project called Dress Grey. It involved a cadet corps, ostensibly West Point. I was asked to help them with their uniform costuming, making sure those things were accurate for that particular film. Particularly in film, accuracy helps convey a sense of believability, and of being there. So historical details all go into film making just as much as scripted words, and into creating the place where the film is represented.

Q: A couple times you used the phrase "public history," can you explain that further?

Gibson: Public history is sort of the great crossroads where the academic and the public community meet in understanding history. It really where history becomes real to the general populous, not just to those interested in family history, the origins of their home, or an artifact that they find in their attic. Public history is the realm in which people really begin to understand and find their place in time. It's an exciting and really relevant place to be.

You see interpretive costuming and historical accuracy in exhibitions, open-air museums and documentary and feature films. All of these are ways events, people and places are brought to life for the general public.

Q: How has your own personal understanding of the Civil War been shaped by your work in public history?

Gibson: My interest in working in public history and presenting public history particularly in documentary and feature films has evolved from a deep-seeded sense of the importance of "being there." It's important not to just read great works, but to stand on the ground where great events took place. One of the ways that we can virtually or vicariously do that is through film. Millions of people might have the opportunity to witness a great historical event, such as a battle scene, a political confrontation, or a duel through film. The experience can be enriched by visiting the place where the event actually occurred.

My sense is that you can read about a battle, but when you are there looking at the mountain range, looking at topography, where the water line is, where a good encampment might be, where the natural lines of the fence are, it becomes much more obvious to you.

Q: Can you give me a brief description about what you do as a film historian?

Gibson: I work as a film historian when a screenplay is in development, or when doing site selection—choosing the place that best conveys the historical event. I work with wardrobe designers to make sure clothing, hair and other elements all reflect the period in which the event is a part. I also work with set designers to make sure the dressing of the set is supportive of and appropriate to the scene that the screenplay is trying to convey. So I'm fortunate to be involved from inception to completion in the process of converting a novel into a film. For example, with the novel Gods and Generals by Jeff Shaara, I was involved in refining and reconstructing it to work for film. Through the actual filming process, I make sure those historical details that contribute to plausibility and believability are accounted for.

Q: And how do you balance your role: speaking for the historical accuracy of the filmmakers who are more concerned with he drama of the story?

Gibson: Balancing the requirements of a historian and the needs of a director is always one of the healthy but tense relationships that exist on a historical project. Ultimately, the director is going to be the arbiter of what is actually done, but you help present public history in a documentary or feature film. You must know exactly how things should be, so that the director can decide how to best sculpt a scene. He might take some of your advice and discount some of your advice, because his ultimate objective is to create an engaging, entertaining product and move the story along. Our daily lives do not jump from one dramatic moment to the next, nor does history go from one dramatic moment to the next. So there is some sculpting and editing that naturally takes place with any historical story presented on film, turning the story into an hour, hour an half, or two hour-long, plausible sequence of events. So there is a natural distortion and bending of history that will take place, and as a historical consultant you would simply acknowledge that up front.

Q: Why do you think the Civil War is represented so much in popular history? What is it about the Civil War in particular that is so engaging for people?

Gibson: Quite often, historians reflect on the amazing interest of the American public and folks from around the world on the American Civil War. In many ways it was the war in which our experiment with representative government came of age. The country that came out of Civil War in 1865 is not the country that was engaging in war in 1861. The Civil War really tested the mettle of America, and made the country what it is today. We have an intimate association with the Americans of the Civil War. It was not that long ago, so it's common to find someone whose great-great-grandfather served with a known regiment. Or that their personal land was devastated, that their family fortune was ruined. Or that their great-great-grandfather returned from the war with a metal of honor that has been lovingly passed down through history.

Q: Do you think it's the emotional resonance and the experience they have from just watching a film that draws people to these Civil War films?

Gibson: I think that there is a real emotional connection to stories about our family's connections, especially we see those stories portrayed and carried out faithfully in film.

These are America's coming-of-age stories. I am inclined to believe that we are far more interested in exactly what uniforms and the markings on the back of buttons looked like than those folks ever were back in 1860. But today, we want to know as much as we can. We want to understand why they did what they did. And we seek understanding through the details in the artifacts that have been left with us.

Q: Why do you think there is such a hunger for that connection?

Gibson: I think our fundamental fascination and interest in historical drama, and particularly how we portray the Civil War on film shows that we are looking for ourselves. We are seeking an understanding of ourselves and of our time from the historical record that precedes us. We want to know the motivations of individuals who did great and noble things, and that of those who did not-so-noble things. We are still those same people, motivated by the same passions and desires. When you see those people of the past brought to life in film, it's easier to make that connection than simply breathing life into them through the pages of the textbook.

Q: As a consultant, how do you help the filmmakers actually filter content and decide what actually ends up in the final product?

Gibson: It's been interesting working with a number of different directors and producers over the years and comparing their approaches to the finished products, and my role in assisting them and developing that finished product. Sometimes you feel you've had a significant impact, and sometimes it's just a casual impact, maybe only a glimmer, and when you see the finished product, you wonder, "Is that what I worked on?" There are certain directors that will have such a clear vision of what the finished product is, it's almost as if it's already running on a screen in their mind, and you're there to help them simply flesh out those images. Others have a more general sense ... of the details and context of the story, and that's left up to a whole army of other folks, including historical consultants, experts on costume building and design, set design, and experts on those myriad of details that come together in a production.

Q: Can you explain a how you work specifically with prop masters and prop designers in choosing items that are going to be portrayed in films?

Gibson: When a historical consultant works with a prop master, on an artifact that specifically relates to a historical figure, then the prop master often will come to examine the original artifact if it exists in a museum collection. Prop masters, my experience has shown, come with an enormous wealth of knowledge, and a great scope of understanding of material culture. But if, for example, they are portraying the sword of a particularly famous individual, then they will try to replicate that as best they can and seek out the original artifact for their use in the film.

When the historical character has clothing that is preserved in public collections then the wardrobe staff will come and examine that clothing because it tells them so much about the construction of the period piece, how it would have fit the individual, and about the individual's stature. Sometimes even posture can be reflected in how the clothing item has molded to the individual over time. So there are little secrets that are hidden in these artifacts that can be brought out and conveyed in film.

The uniforms that Steven Lang wears portraying Stonewall Jackson in Gods and Generals were meticulously replicated after the costumers came to the VMI Museum and examined then in great detail, taking copious notes about construction techniques and fabric. They did an excellent job in recreating them.

Q: As a consultant, how do you assist the costume designers when they're here at actually looking at the uniforms?

Gibson: A historical consultant for films can be thought of as a conduit, or a broker between the person who creates the project and, in this instance, the cultural material of the past. Providing access is one of the key ways that we can help in that process. Our personal knowledge of how these items were used, and how they fit into the daily lives of these individuals can be reflected and carried on in the development of a project.

Q: What are some of the personal rewards that you get out of your work as a film consultant?

Gibson: One of the important things about working in film is that our efforts to bring history to the public will be expanded in a huge way. A documentary or a feature film project—even a commercially unsuccessful one—will have an enormous audience and a long shelf life.

Historians have the opportunity to reach a large number of people and perhaps encourage them to go and do their own research, to visit a place to immerse themselves into that time and location for their own personal enhancement and enjoyment. That's what's gratifying in working with film, that you have an opportunity to speak to a huge number of people and provide them with an accurate and correct statement of the past.


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