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Master’s Student Cultivates Historical Interpretation Skills at Harper’s Ferry

This summer, Public History M.A. Steven Semmel was hired as a seasonal park ranger at Harpers Ferry through the Pathways program. Steven works in the living history department, which conducts their programming wearing nineteenth century clothing.


“While in this clothing, we give a program on the guns of Harpers Ferry, do firing demonstrations with them and staff different exhibits along the main park road. We also have a few weekend programs where we demonstrate how to load and fire a civil war artillery piece.”

Steven primarily leads the gun tour, fires the weapons during the demonstrations, and serves as an interpreter at the various exhibits throughout town. He has also learned how to operate a nineteenth century forge and basic blacksmithing techniques.


Performing costumed interpretation allows Steven to explore how to connect guests to history in innovative ways and how to interpret history well.


“Harpers Ferry, as a National Park, is able to combine the standard methods of interpretation with costumed interpretation. The methods taught here allow us to interpret in third person but use our clothing as a piece of our interpretation,” he said.


Another aspect of interpretation that Steven has learned is how to balance interpretation with demonstration in a way that holds guest’s attention.


“Both of our featured programs involve black powder demonstrations, which can be dangerous if done improperly. This aspect of our interpretation allowed me to certify in black powder for Flintlock and Percussion weapons for this summer,” he said.


As an experienced NPS ranger, Steven is also in charge of helping the interns and Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) with their day to day tasks. This allows him to act as a mentor in the development of their interpretation skills.


This summer, the interpretation experience at Harper’s Ferry is focusing on the Civil War to Civil Rights aspect of Harpers Ferry, but also telling the industrial side of the town itself. Steven believes that the interpretation done at Harper’s Ferry wonderfully captures visitors’ interest.


“After seven weeks working for the park, I have fell in love with working in this department. We are able to reach a public in a way that leaves a memory for the first interactions we have with them. Most of the time we are asked if we are wax figures but they immediately become interested with what we do at the park and what there is to know about the town itself.”