The Wages of History: crying in the locker room at Fort Snelling

So, Amy M. Tyson’s The Wages of History is a little terrifying; the anecdotes from former interpreters at Fort Snelling — the confusion and humiliation they recalled for Tyson — reminded me of testimonies made by former scientologists or cult members.

I’m not comparing scientology and living history interpretation, of course, but I, for one, had no sense whatsoever of how places like Fort Snelling operate(d), with their insular, consuming workplace cultures. The demands of the work itself (physical and emotional), the levels of performance involved, the suffocating management structure, how the work is so incredibly gendered, how “work” and “play” permeate each other and how power is expressed within those categories. . . I can’t imagine I was the only one who thought as I read this book, This is all very weird. Don’t these people know that what they’re doing is very weird?

There’s so much to talk about here, and no doubt Tucker –who has done some living history– will have a lot to share with us in class, but instead of summarizing the entire book I thought I’d jump right to some of Tyson’s conclusions/recommendations at the end.

Part of the problem with reforming the abuses of emotional labor that happen at places like Fort Snelling, Tyson contends, is that places like Fort Snelling set themselves an impossible task: they have “ethical (and scholarly) responsibilities to tell the full and ‘checkered’ story of the Fort on the one hand — civic obligations to make the site available for those patriotic pilgrims looking for a national sacred space to confirm their own place in the American story on the other.” This is a conflict we’re all familiar with, and while I would rather privilege that second set of duties over the first (no contest), that tension isn’t going to go away any time soon. Add to this that these are commercial spaces to the core, as Tyson outlines in Chapter 1.

Here are three of Tyson’s proposed solutions, which aren’t mutually exclusive and which I’ve broken up sort of arbitrarily.

One idea (page 171) is something we discussed when we read From Storefront to Monument: that museums “might do well to take up the challenge of historicizing their own creation as museums and touristic spaces. …. [I]f sites could start to ‘interpret themselves’ the public might be better equipped to recognize the roles these places have played in reproducing mythic narratives, and in silencing painful histories.” This is a bid to reconcile the narrative problem I mentioned above.

The dollars-and-cents aspect has to be addressed: institutions like Fort Snelling ought to recognize the importance and the difficulty of “frontline” jobs like those of costumed interpreters and change pay and benefits structures accordingly. Among many other things examined by Tyson in this study is the disparity between just how much frontline workers (“poorly paid but generally well-educated and committed,” 16) were willing to do for their employers versus how little their employers were willing to do for them, both materially and in prestige. Frontline workers constitute a reservoir of (potential) enthusiasm and (potential) expertise that can feed back into the institution if given a channel. Making that happen means institutions “embracing the principles of participatory democracy” and its ramifications. Easy enough to say “Amen” to that, right?

Tyson identifies the difficulty of organizing/collective action in the field of “culture work,” but holds that projects like the Minnesota Historical Society Interpreters Caucus (“wherein interpreters…joined to articulate the value of their labor and to improve the conditions of their individual working lives”, 175) and other efforts at organization efforts are ways forward. She’s really calling for people involved in frontline labor to recognize the importance of what they do and act as if they deserve to get well-treated for it.

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about: if you imagine a Fort Snelling — or a Fort McHenry, or wherever — changed along the lines that Tyson suggests, it doesn’t look very much like the sort of public history institutions that most of us are familiar with (or any institutions most of us are familiar with), does it? Tyson believes that living history has to be saved from itself, that it’s reformable, but that the end product is going to look very different than what we see now.

My first question is, what do we think that looks like? Tyson observes the changes in interpretive programming that have occurred at Fort Snelling since she left (from first-person to third-person, for example), but I share Tyson’s skepticism about the “transformative power of living history to interpret painful past events” (168) (and frankly, I’m pretty skeptical of the whole business after reading this book). I don’t want to steer our consideration of this book into simplistic “living history — is it good or bad?” territory, but I don’t know that in this book Tyson makes the case for living history that I’ll need to hear before I think of it as a particularly viable resource in the public history toolbox. Did I miss something?
My second question has to do with something Tyson raises a few times: the idea of “history as a privilege” (19) and the feeling among frontline workers that they needed to preserve “‘positions of tenuous privilege’” (174) at the expense of their own dignity or rights as workers. Kind of like internalized modesty. What do we think about that? Where does that feeling — which I think is very real, and I definitely feel it myself (even being in this program) — come from? What can we do to make that not the case? (I think about this sort of thing a lot as it relates to community service/service work/national service; the way things are now, for various reasons, doing service work is both perceived to be and, in many cases, just is an option only for people of privilege/means. I really think that should be different, but it’s going to require big, structural changes; I think the same goes for the nature of history work.) We’re going to enter a job sector where many of the issues Tyson describes here are pertinent, and not just in the field of living history interpretation.

Also I want to throw this out there, because it’s not unrelated and I think it’s an important thought:

“[W]hat does it mean for society when knowledge about the past is regarded as a product that can be delivered by interchangeable and low-paid workers? How does this follow the trend toward deskilling and standardizing educational and learning experiences of all kinds?” (6)

Also, did anybody catch the reference to Minnesota hotdish? Love it.

Source: The Wages of History (is crying in the locker room at Fort Snelling) by Andrew Holter

Letting Go: a Handbook in Modern Shared Historical Authority Technique

Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World provides an exciting and creative “how-to” book for museum professionals seeking advice from veterans in the widening institutional practice of public shared authority. Editors Adair, Filene and Koloski curate a diverse collection of essays and testimonies from practitioners of shared authority who resonate similar messages, “museums are currently undergoing a great tide of changes – do not be frightened of this change. Rather, listen and improve from it – but if you do not adapt to these changes you risk becoming obsolete.”

Letting Go also acts as a love letter to museums. The power of museums as tools of education, healing, and community enhancement, can only increase from better involvement with their audiences. Museums act not only as trusted keepers of culture, but also as mirrors of culture. They must move alongside society, even jump it at times. Museums could simply upload their collection onto the Web in captioned flickr galleries but the digital age provides museums with better tools for delivering content and engaging with audiences.

Contributors to the book seem to be on the cutting edge of experimentation with shared authority. The introduction describes the volume’s intention to “mark a particular moment in the field” (12) where patterns of institutional success seem to indicate that a similar commitment to experimenting with shared authority has opened up public history institutions to better serve their communities. It would be fascinating to revisit the text in fifty years. Were their hypotheses proven? Do the popular and effective museums of 2065 rely on museum professionals “letting go” (or relaxing control) of their expertise, safekeeping, academically informed practices and interpretive styles?

It seems clear that “letting go” is no simple task. The Presence of the Past showed us that public perception of museums (and historic sites) are filtered entirely through lived personal experience. Even shared national events such as massive tragedies are primarily perceived at the individual level, “I was doing such and such when the planes hit the World Trade Center.” Active shared authority requires museum professionals to tap into that diverse and boundless individuality. This means added responsibility for an already overloaded and underpaid workforce. The editors assert that “museum professionals, then, supplement content knowledge with expertise at interpreting, facilitating, engaging, listening, and learning with their visitors.” (13). Public curators must also spend time designing interesting boundaries for visitors to participation in since, “audiences express themselves more creatively and confidently if operating within, not beyond, boundaries.” (12) These are not only added tasks but entirely different work skills! Would a staff member at an historic site that holds a wealth of information but has little success in group conversation facilitation be useless in this model? How can a curator rotate meaningful museum exhibits at the same time as creating engaging platforms for an increased online visitor presence? If the institution relies on volunteers as supplementation to thinly stretched staff who is going to adequately train them as ample agents of sharing authority? Do you think that Letting Go is asking for staff with new talents or even new types of intelligence? Is effective public engagement (different from visitor service) something that can be trained? How did the chapter thought pieces reflect this?

My next question is more abstract. Museums, or more broadly, collections, are intertwined with a history of power relationships. As nations conquered other nations, tribes conquered other tribes, valuable relics were collected and brought back to the home of the victors. When revolution brought democracy to much of the world, objects were passed from kings to nations. Now, whether on a national, regional, local, or even private level, educated professionals keep these objects safe. They also interpret their value and importance for the public in museums and historic sites. In Letting Go we see a destabilization of this power. We see a cry for professionals to open new passageways with the public or wager with ruin. How is this new type of society different from past societies who have enjoyed the sites that now risk antiquity? Is our modern society heightened in certain ways? Is it too self-centered?

Lightly Edited from Source: Letting Go: a Handbook in Modern Shared Historical Authority Technique by Tucker Foltz

The Key to Urban Community Revitalization: Preservation, Interpretation and Shared Authority

In Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities, author Andrew Hurley deftly analyzes how historic preservation along with careful collective interpretation can revitalize urban communities economically and socially. His firsthand observations of several projects give much insight into the methodologies of public history in general.

First, Hurley argues that although historic preservation for aesthetic purposes, or the “adaptive reuse” of functionless buildings, can contribute to urban revitalization, the consequences of such individual, surface level endeavors usually outweigh the benefits of the revitalization. (12) Gentrification, local animosity and community instability often dampen any economic success. (27) The inclusion of public history and archaeology in preservation efforts offers an anecdote, and arguably more successful alternative to traditional preservation. The “democratic impulses” of both disciplines, including shared authority and social diversity, necessitate community involvement. (53) The fruits of such liaisons foster neighborhood identity and cohesion, which in turn create stronger and lasting levels of stewardship and civic engagement. Instead of viewing preservation as simply the rehabilitation of residential houses, Hurley widens the scope to include entire neighborhoods, comprised of the human-built and natural environment (which he considers to be the “next frontier in urban historic preservation”), and places emphasis on community-shared spaces teeming with collective memories.

The twists and turns and complexities and disputes that emerged out of the Old North St. Louis Community revitalization effort reveal some of the key aspects of Hurley’s proposed methodology. Through the efforts of a local homeowners’ association group and Hurley’s own University of Missouri-St. Louis, the Old North Neighborhood Partnership Center emerged to revitalize the community, but decidedly not to gentrify and displace locals. (68) Their task, as Hurley describes, “was not simply to recover a lost history but also to develop a set of historical narratives that would correspond to specific neighborhood objectives and then deliver those narratives to residents in accessible formats.” (70) Those “who will live with the results,” must have the larger authority over what the historical narrative will become. (182) Hurley advocates for the “decentralization” of the decision-making process with emphasis on grassroots community planning and partnerships across a variety of venues, including universities, churches, and neighborhood associations. (96) More than once Hurley insists on tangible connections between past and present issues in order to achieve sustainable public interest. Archaeology and oral history, he contends, force the past into the present. (74) Archeology literally connects change to the present with each new layer of soil, while oral informants have “the experience and wisdom to interpret and explain the historical change.” (98) Finally, although Hurley does not explicitly discuss it, his own writing tacitly shows the conscious self-reflection the author and others practice in order to correct and re-correct their methods. (91) Hurley modestly downplays the role of the public history project as a catalyst for the subsequent urban renewal in Old North St. Louis. He does concede however, “…Residents have developed a keener sense of who they are, what they value and were they are going.” (91) This newfound identity creates a self-sustaining community presence, one that will succumb less easily to economic downturn and unpredictable outside forces.

Hurley offers several learning experiences and methods helpful to future public historians. As apparent in other public history case studies, the author warns that shared authority is messy. Still, he insists on a balance between the heritage-based narrative perpetuated by the community and the evidence-based academic narrative that at times contradicts it. At times, communities resisted the national narrative in favor of local ones. Other times, communities wished to evade certain aspects of the past that could tarnish their reputation. (159) Hurley cites a variety of instances, including the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing historic site, in which community organizations came together to compromise over a piece of contested history. Yet, not only do disputes over content occur, existing racial and class tensions, including wariness towards academics, can impact relations between various public history practitioners. Overall, the author’s primary prescriptions are sensitivity and deliberate social diversity across races, generations, classes and other divisions. (161, 167) Also, he embraces a variety of interdisciplinary techniques, most notably archaeology, the many advantages of which he extrapolates on in his conclusion. In short, academic methods and resources can aid in revitalization, but authority must rest mostly in the hands of grassroots organizations. (181) Community-based interpretation may be messy, but it is because of those messy tensions that a rich and long lasting identity emerges, and in the case of urban renewal, this may be the key to success.

 

1) Shared authority makes this reader anxious, as there are not clear lines on how to share it. Yet, I also see how crucial sharing authority, and especially with different groups, can be for a successful public history project. As Hurley mentions, each situation carries different circumstances and requires different levels of authority. After reading Beyond Preservation, how do the previous examples of shared authority in other case studies in other texts seem different? Could public history practitioners have used some of the methods identified by Hurley to ameliorate conflicts in their own projects, for example the various communities in Misplaced Massacre?

This past weekend I visited the African Burial Ground National Monument in Lower Manhattan, which Hurley mentions on page 47. It happened to be the 10th anniversary of the re-interment of the remains of around 400 slaves. When I arrived midday, there were six people performing a ceremony, two NPS rangers and no spectators. As I was leaving, I heard one of the participants say to another, “It’s okay that no one showed up, our ancestors know we were here.” Where has the community gone? Do you think the initial mishap of not involving the descendant community in the first place, despite its later participation, has steadily affected the site’s community involvement? Can an unequal sharing of authority be corrected and the affects not be felt? Should more authority have been transferred even after the correction?

 

2) Hurley seems to place preservation in a different category than public history. They can compliment and borrow from one another, but they remain separate entities. Yet, could not preservation, even on an individual level, be considered one type of public history? I am not sure where one stops and the other one begins. Certainly, Hurley’s public history places much more emphasis on shared authority with the public than an individual preserving their building. Does traditional preservation practice public History and public history-oriented preservation practice Public history (note the capitalization)? Is one about exclusivity and the other about inclusivity?

 

 

Lightly Edited from Source: The Key to Urban Community Revitalization: Preservation, Interpretation and Shared Authority by Molly Ricks

Achieving a Healthy History: A Commentary on The Presence of the Past

“The Presence of the Past” offers readers a case study conducted by history professionals in the 1990’s attempting to determine how Americans constitute and understand the past. There were nearly 1,500 participants (18) selected randomly, they answered home telephone calls spending an astounding average of thirty-nine minutes on the phone with the questioners. (36) This in itself was proof to the authors that the topic was important to respondents. Their answers formed meaningful and essential statistics for historians, especially historians seeking to connect with the public in a field that is often perceived as unrelatable. Terminology even produced interesting contradictions. Respondents indicated that the word “History” was “boring” or “irrelevant” These terms stemmed from personal negative memories of history class. “History they heard in the classroom was too neat and rosy, stories of times of personal and national glory they could not relate to… a narrow, white middle-class version of U.S. history.” (111) Essentially, classroom history did not have meaning because the educational structure did not account for the importance of individual connection.  Once the authors changed their approach, asking people about “the past” rather than “history,” they gathered meaningful data. Astonishingly, half of the phone respondents had visited a museum or historic site in the past year (19) and most felt it important that their children’s education include a history class (129).

Answers were overwhelmingly personal, and the authors of the study found it particularly useful to address particular themes of  family, race and religion. Respondents also spoke about using the the past as a search tool for finding meaning in mortality: an understanding of who they are, where they came from and where they are going. It was a lifelong pursuit and interpretation changed with age. Ultimately what the reader was left with was the understanding was that Americans care deeply about their past and engaged tirelessly and lovingly with it throughout their lives. Non-professionals enthusiasts were given various names in the text: hobbyist, amatur historians, popular history-makers and even “Independent users of the past”

Through survey results Rozenweig and Thelen are able to reveal agents of trust in public understanding of the past. Trust starts closest to the individual. All history is interpreted through personal connection and critical analysis. Understanding is first filtered through experience. “Looking for patterns that could help to shape their lives, respondents discovered that experiences could be used in two ways. First, they were real occurrences, bedrock events experienced with powerful immediacy- and ambiguity. But experiences had a second use. They could be revisited, reenacted, and reinterpreted to meet changing needs in the present.” (67) One respondent simply put it as, “Experience is the best teacher.” (92) If experience frames public understanding then it is unsurprising that the two most trustworthy informants for historical information were family and museums/historical sites as they stray least from the axis of the individual.

Family held a special quality for respondents; it was rated most important by every respondent across demographic lines. (22) Family evoked a sense of continuity through time. (72) It played into health and psychological inquiry (46) and shaped personal identity. (49) Family births and deaths were major page markers in people’s lives. (79) With age came a responsibility to pass on history to the younger generation and oral history played an important role in family, (40) as did tradition. (44) Family tensions coincided with major turning points in people’s lives like moving away from home (78) Sometimes the younger generations rebelled against their parents, discovering a modern self-awareness of their presence. (83) People did not however relate family to the broader “classroom history” – that being a history of “national past” or “nation-state” (129)

Respondents also listed museums and historic sites as trusted sources used to explore their pasts. Museums allowed respondents the chance to explore on their own, think critically and approach primary sources directly, viewing artifacts from the past with little to no untrusted interjection by an historian or commercial enterprise. (106) Interestingly, respondents in general afforded more trust to historical establishments that were publicly funded or nonprofit. (183) Museums and historic sites were even awarded double significance as a gathering places for family and friends. (107) They provided for an individual an interest-specific, physical space where both personal and group memories could be created, as well as a space where traditions could form and be sustained.

As I read this text I was continually overcome with the weight of the discipline that we are all inheriting as “history professionals in training.” Rozenweig and Thelen present history in all its messiness: “History Wars” threaten to tear the discipline apart, public opinion is riddled with distrust and disapproval, professionals embarrassingly drag their feet when pushed to share authority.

David Thelen ends his section of the chapter “Afterthoughts” (190-207) with a rather complex suggestion to cure our classroom conundrum. He suggests that if people connect most through experience (which includes change and reflection) then, “By supplementing the conventional classroom focus on the rise and fall of institutions [immigration, war, depression etc.] with timeless human experiences – tragedy, hope fear, love, loss – students can inquire about connections between living fulfilling lives as people and trying to change and sustain institutions.” (206) In this model students can come to their own conclusions as to if and how these markers of American history  effected change or not. My question lays on this foundation. Does Thelen’s suggestion seem possible and effective? By “students” he doesn’t differentiate between primary, secondary or college. As students are generally not fully formed individuals during the schooling years, wouldn’t his model demand a previous knowledge of how those very events caused change? How could a fourth grader make a personal connection with the Depression if they don’t have any friends or family who experienced that time that they can ask? It seems through imagination (as he does suggests), but does this not naturally happen for students in history class already?

My second question involves the first section of “Afterthoughts” written by Roy Rosenzweig. (177-189) Rozenweig doesn’t shy away from history as a political discipline, in fact it is the forerunner of his narrative. He presents racial groups as having major differences in the frameworks of their historical experience. Rozenwieg suggests that whites Americans, “less often use the past to reach beyond their families and recognize their connections to wider groups of neighbors and fellow citizens… they seem to be writing their own histories alone – or at least in small familial groups.” (187) American Indians and African Americans see themselves in a wider network of shared identity. “Their understandings of the past help them to live in an oppressive society.” (187) Rozenwieg sees history work in the present as a potential healing agent to break down historically-generated racial boundaries. Certainly this text echos narratives we’ve encountered in “A Misplaced Massacre” and “From Storefront to Monument.” Minority groups continuously fight for control of erased or skewed histories; it’s a struggle that is alive. Rozenwieg seems to be striving for a new joined national identity, fostered through shared-authority. My question is threefold: with this idealized cooperation between a hesitant public and an eager subsection of historians, what will the losses be (if any) in the essence of the discipline of academic history as it currently exists? How can the idea of national identity include a hugely diverse population of multi-identifying individuals? Rozenwieg and Thelen admit that, “One of the most important contributions of professional historians has been to foster the idea of nationalism, and the rise of nationalism in turn fostered the practice of professional history.” (123) Does “healthy history” require nationalism?

Slightly Edited from Source: Achieving a Healthy History: A Commentary on The Presence of the Past by Tucker Foltz