The Wages of History by Amy M.Tyson is a fascinating book that looks at the world of Minnesota’s Historic Fort Snelling to get a deeper understanding of the responsibilities, benefits and sacrifices of the public history interpreters. The first question that comes to mind before even opening to the first page is, “What does Tyson mean by wages?” Typically wages are thought to be monetary compensation paid to an employee, but in Tyson’s book, she expands the concept of wages to included emotional compensation [ed. note: and emotional costs]. Public history interpreters, for the most part, have difficult work situations. Most of the interpreters at the center of Tyson’s study are seasonal employees who have to reapply every season to the same position. Most are hired part-time, and, as a result, they are ineligible for medical benefits.
While the interprets didn’t receive sufficient monetary compensation, most interpreters felt that they received emotional benefits. They believe their job is important and beneficial to society, and this sense of pride –most argued– made up for the lack of monetary motivation and encouraged them to really commit to their roles. The individual pride seemed also to spread throughout the group so that all it took was a handful of inspired interpreters for the group as a whole to function better.
This intense investment did come with some downsides. The sense of self-pride in their work was often challenged by social stigmas regarding first person interpretation. The job of a public history interpreter was viewed by most outside the field as being less than a “real job.” Another side effect was exhaustion due to the unique requirements of acting as another “self” for long periods of time. This could also cause a sense of detachment or confusion. One interpreter was quoted to say that interpreters could “be completely exhausted, hardly able to stand up, and if something like that [kind of connection] happens, it will give [them] the energy to go on and keep doing it.” It seems that to the public history interpreters interviewed, all of the downsides that come with the profession are outweighed by the sense of connection with the customers and the sense of belonging they share with other interpreters.
Living history can be a very valuable tool for both performers and audiences if it is given the respect it deserves. To me, it seems, more often than not, that the interaction doesn’t achieve its full potential due to the audience’s unwillingness to submit to their role or the interpreter’s intensity frightening the audience. When there is mutual willingness to participate in the experience, public history interpretation or reenactments can help both visitors and interpreters deepen their understanding of the topic at hand. When it comes down to it, it is important to truly re-evaluate and dismantle the stigmas surrounding public history interpretation. We must address the grievances of interpreters due to unfair compensation and unreliable employment opportunities. We must empower the interpreter to give their best possible performance within reasonable limits.
While I am not personally a fan of public history interpreters, I think that they perform valuable services and are especially usefully when working with younger people such as grade school students. At the end of this book, I am left with a few questions. What can we do to help diversify the Public History Interpretation field? What sites that do not utilities interpreters might benefit from it? Lastly, what other fields might benefit from the concept or experience similar emotional wages?
Edited from Source: The Wages of History by Amy M. Tyson by Alexandra Runnings