The Wages of History by Amy M. Tyson

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

Amy M. Tysons “The Wages of History”

The needs of the “emotional proletariat” –who, through the toil of emotional labor, help to craft feelings– is well discussed in Amy Tyson’s The Wages of History. In this account, Tyson documents the emotional toil of museum interpreters by analyzing museum interpreters as service workers and cultural producers at Historic Fort Snelling in Minnesota. These workers labor tirelessly to connect with visitors through the medium of living history. All too often, these crusaders face issues of insecurity and devaluation which ultimately effects the influence they have on their workplace, on their professional standing, and on their organization. In examining the intricate relationship among these issues, Tyson sought to better understand the sites’ unique work culture by employing an extended case study method and engaging in participant observation fieldwork with the intent to improve existing social theory. Throughout her discussion, living history is defined as the display of someone’s labor for the delight of the tourists.

Tyson integrated current thinking from the field of museum ethnography with her own oral history interviews with 32 interpreters and supervisors. Her interviews establish a framework for analyzing the use of living history as a method of interpretation at Fort Snelling. Tyson also described the general experiences of other groups of people at Fort Snelling, including tourists. Through living history, tourists could immerse themselves in this everyday work life of people from the past. These performances also provided an opportunity for public historians and academics alike the chance to work in the field, conducting research and panning programs. Most importantly, the work involved in constructing living history exhibits, relied on a class of public history paraprofessionals, the costumed interpreters who occupy the center of her  research.

Tyson begins her discussion by taking a closer look at the workers of Fort Snelling, a 19th century military post that was decommissioned following WWII and declared a historic landmark in 1960. During the early days of site interpretation, workers portrayed costumed figures from the fort’s frontier past, including soldiers, laundresses, officers, domestics, and keel boat captains. Overtime, and especially during periods of declining vitiation, Fort Snelling staff made adjustments to site interpretation in order to expand the audience, and  interpreters, served as the linchpin in these efforts to deliver history in a way that was culturally relevant. Rather than simply employing public history best practices, however, Tyson argues that living history at Fort Snelling was tied to a philosophy of “customer service. The “emotional proletariat” worked to ensure customers had an enjoyable experience by  interjecting feelings and attitudes into their presentations. Supervisors instructed museum interpreters to take true ownership of the institution and to work to enrich the visitor’s experience. This was seen as paramount even as they suffered from different material and emotional hazards.

In part one, Tyson uses archival material related to the Fort’s early days to focus on interpretive programing. In this section, she draws attention to the relationship between the production of public history and the performance of customer service. This discussion includes a look at a national trend in improving historic landmarks and includes topics familiar to us from other readings such as the impact of urban renewal projects on historic sites and the necessity of government funding to help meet the Fort’s dual goal of education and entertainment. These efforts to improve national landmarks were the results of several key federal legislative initiatives as well as by the efforts from several advocacy groups like the Fort Snelling Restoration committee which was tasked with researching and producing a report regarding the costs of the Fort’s physical restoration and maintenance, the major uses of the Fort after restoration, and ideas for interpretive programming.

It was interesting to learn how Historic Fort Snelling used interpretive program planning documents to teach workers how to convincingly portray someone from the past and how to deliver customer service. In the interplay between teh two, workers known as re-enactors (those concerned with historical performances as recreational and inwardly focused) were at odds with workers designated as interpreters (a term which denoted those whose thought of living history services as primary intended to engage the public). While Tyson indicated that both types were integral to the production of living history, she also indicated that in the 1980s administrators at Fort Snelling sought to move away from re-enactors (who wanted to play soldier only). During the 1980s and 1990s, Fort Snelling administrators also made several other changes. These changes included:  increased hiring of school teachers, actors and grad students; raising the hourly wage for interpreters; hiring fewer high school students; extending its interpretive focus beyond military pageantry; and drafting a dozen new training manuals. Many of these changes were due in no small part to the efforts of advocacy groups such as the Minnesota Historical Society collective known as the Caucus which formed in 1993.

In addressing workplace issues and grievances, groups like the Caucus used monthly newsletters to communicate. They hoped to address slow morale, cuts to employee hours, and job security. They solicited the input of the workers through surveys, and they  made demands to the MHS. In response, the Historical Society administration created a welcome letter for returning employees. The “wages of history” come into focus as defined by the powerful drive to establish a positive work identity from their work as interpreters, a self-selecting group of people who sought out jobs on public history’s front line because they saw it as a unique way to connect with others through their shared passion of history.

In her interviews, workers repeatedly relayed the prevailing social stigma associated with their work. Workers went to great lengths to defend the honor of their job despite their painful awareness of the stigma associated with it, a  stigma rooted in the conditions of their employment (low wage, seasonal work, in which they were deeply invested). The interpreters experienced both emotional and physical exhaustion as well as the pain of experiencing a disjointed sense of self. All of this seemed worth it to them, however, when stacked against the wages earned in public adulation and appreciation.

One interesting area of analysis is “authenticity.” Tyson found that frontline interpreters enjoyed the autonomy to develop unique interpretive styles. Using historical evidence as raw material, workers worked hard to develop interpretive authenticity. They sang popular songs and spent time off the clock to develop period-specific skills. However, the authority of management, more often than not, sought to turn these efforts into competitive power plays resulting in infighting which had negative effects on the workplace culture and prevented frontline interpreters from reaching great potential. This invariably lead to a discussion about who held control and the power to enforce the rules at Fort Snelling as a workplace. Tyson sees the power dynamic as a three way struggle  for control of the service economy, dispersed among visitors, co-workers, and supervisors. At times, any one of the three groups might have the power to control or effect the behavior of the other parties. Supervisors encouraged a competitive environment and divided the workforce. They tended to micromanage the interpreters, giving them knowledge based exams to test fact retention rather than respecting their ability to convey information effectively. Through her interviews, Tyson learned that intrusive micromanagement was both a sign of insecurity and a desire to exercise authority within the limited structure. Although frontline workers at the Fort sometimes felt restricted by the organizational culture, it was counterbalanced by their strong desires to connect meaningfully with others, and their skill at making connections gave them a sense satisfaction despite serious limitations with their work environment.

In the end, interpreters’ struggles beg several questions. Can front line workers can maintain a sense of satisfaction for their work in an increasingly demanding customer service environment and with ever shrinking resources available to them? How can maintain their professional autonomy while also catering to the demands of museum goers who come with preconceived notions which may be at odds with the unique interpretive methods employed by these interpreters? Are frontline interpreter positions becoming more professionalized when it comes to the changing demographics of those with more knowledge (i.e. grad students, teachers) or is the interpreter position, in and of itself, a job that will forever be considered less then professional, notwithstanding the types of workers that it attracts?

Edited from Source: Amy M. Tysons “The Wages of History”by Domonique Flowers

Decolonizing Museums

In Decolonizing Museums, Amy Lonetree discusses how Native Americans have been represented in museums, and she highlights how there is growing participation and insight provided by Native peoples in the design of more modern exhibits about the indigenous people of America. Lontetree emphasizes that this shift in approach is essential, not just for creating better exhibits, but for the Native people as well.

For Native Americans, visiting museums that focus on their culture has been traditionally a painful experience, as exhibits have focused primarily on the suffering that was inflicted upon the Natives by white settlers. With current and future exhibits, it will be paramount for that they turn the focus from entirely being about the suffering of the Native people to the survival of the Native people, that despite the constant insult upon their people that started when the first Europeans landed on North America, there are still strong and vibrant Native American communities in America. “Some may argue,” Lonetree says,” that discussing this history keeps Indigenous people mired in the horror of victimization,” but “the full story of the Native American holocaust proves a testament not to Native victimhood but to Native skill, adaptability, courage, tenacity and countless other qualities that made our survival a reality against all odds.”[1] Native Americans want colonialism to have a presence in the exhibits, because without explaining the driving force that led to the genocide of the Natives there is no context to understand the problems that have plagued them. With an absence of the colonial narrative, it would lead many still to the “blaming the victim strategy” that “increases violence against” Native peoples. This also leads people to accuse Native Americans for being responsible for their current and past conditions.[2]

Museums did not just spontaneously decide to allow Native Americans to participate in the designing of exhibits overnight, however. Native American activism was critical in the process. Progress for this cause began in the 1960s, during which time there was a strong self-determination movement amongst Natives in North America. The goals at the forefront of this endeavor were to influence a change in the way that the mainstream media, movies, literature and museums presented Native Americans. The stereotypical representation of Native Americans was a large problem for them. Also, Natives aimed to have Indian remains and objects returned to the tribes themselves. In Canada, Native tribes boycotted an exhibition about Native American art, feeling that their lack of participation in the creation of the exhibit was ridiculous, since who is better suited to provide input into the narrative of an exhibit than those directly involved with the topic?[3]

Lonetree stresses that there needs to be a shift away from the traditional object-based exhibit when creating exhibitions about Native culture. Contemporary issues, rather, need to be at the forefront, so that museum exhibits are more concept-driven. For example, the issue of colonialism and its continual effects in the modern world is a topic that Lonetree regrets to admit is still absent from too many exhibitions. Museum curators prefer to present topics that are less controversial.[4] The Mille Lacs Indian Museum in Minnesota is a prime example of a museum that has broken the traditional curator-driven exhibit design in favor of one that gives agency to members of the Native tribe. During the preparation for exhibits, the Mille Lacs museum places tribal members onto their advisory board and allows them to have a strong influence on the content of the exhibit, which includes oral histories from interviews conducted directly with tribe members. This method created an exhibit where the Mille Lacs tribe speaks in an “authoritative first-person voice.”[5]

It is crucial for Native Americans to have a direct and prominent role in the creation of museum exhibits concerning their culture and history. I say this because we live in a world where Native Americans are still suppressed and marginalized by the government, and viewed as a nuisance by many others. We are currently witnessing a disgraceful display by authorities at Standing Rock, North Dakota, where members of the Sioux Indian tribe are being harassed and assaulted by authorities for simply protesting to keep their land protected and pristine for their own use, for trying to preserve a safe environment and clean water for themselves. Colonialism is still present in the United States, and the original inhabitants of this land continue to have their rights trampled.

[1] Amy Lonetree, Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 6-7.

[2] Lonetree, 7.

[3] Lonetree, 17-18.

[4] Lonetre, 47-48.

[5] Lonetree, 48-49.

Works Cited:

Lonetree, Amy. Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. Chapel Hill: NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Lightly Edited from Source: Decolonizing Museums by Dustin Linz

Decolonizing Museums

In her book, Decolonizing Museums, Amy Lonetree examines three Native American museums and in order to analyze the roles they played in shifting museum practices that focus on decolonization and indigenizing museums. For Lonetree, three museums in particular, the Mille Lacs Indian Museum, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, and the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Cultural and Lifeways, help to illustrate an important ideological shift in contemporary museum practices. In her comparative study of both national and tribal museums, she offers the reader a chance to understand new and changing museum practices, both the successes and challenges that these museums faced, as well a new relationship between Native Americans and museums.

There are many important takeaways from this book one of which stresses the importance of museums transferring curatorial authority to Indigenous peoples, which enables them to tell their own stories. The author does stress that there is immense pressure to present Indigenous communities and culture in a way that is nuanced, and effectively present “Indigenous philosophy, history, and identity.” [1] This can be achieved if there is trust built between Indigenous communities and museum professionals, a relationship that takes a long time to build.

Lonetree provided a multitude of examples that illustrate the important role that museums play as a “bridge between the communities and the public.” [2] Museum professionals need to be able build trust and be able to effectively communicate with members of the Native communities they are collaborating with in order to translate ideas in a way that audiences are able to understand. Additionally, accurate representation of Indigenous people can be achieved in museums only if their culture and community are presented as living and ongoing. Lonetree aims to emphasize that successful museums are the ones that give Indigenous communities a prominent voice throughout, dispel stereotypes, and address difficult and well as survivalist stories that occur throughout the history of Indigenous peoples.

Lonetree’s book is similar to Burns’ work in that it provides museum case studies that uncover early museum practices, which often did not give any shared authority to members of the community. Burns and Lonetree reveal that it is commonplace for people to be misrepresented in museums, and these authors highlight how difficult it was for African Americans and Native Americans to have shared authority and a prominent role in highly curated museums, from which they were previously excluded. Both of these books explore how both African and Native American people recognized that they were being misrepresented in museums and that state historical societies and museum professionals struggled with giving up their authority to community members.

Lonetree and Burns want to emphasize that more accurate representations and inclusion of first person narratives of both African and Native Americans were a reality once members of the community were able to collaborate with museum professionals in order to share their stories.

Often, both African Americans and Native Americans are portrayed as victims in museums, and almost as if they don’t have a present and continuing stories and histories. I think the goal for both Burns and Lonetree was to express how by collaborating and letting African and Native American people have curatorial input, museum exhibits will be authentic and places of understandings, healing and continual growth for all who visit these museums.

As public historians, there is always a delicate balance when it comes to stepping back and giving people agency within and museum, which we have discussed many times throughout this semester. How can public historians and other museum professionals achieve a true sense of shared authority between themselves and the community they are working with? How can both parties feel apart of the project in a way that feels natural and authentic, as opposed to forced and generic?

Comparing Lonetree’s work to Kelman’s, both authors stress the level of distrust that occurred between Native people and government personnel, historians, or anyone working for the museum or state historical society. Both Lonetree and Kelman argue the importance of getting to know the Native people and building trust by visiting their reservation, and talking with them in order to understand what they want to see in the museum, and be more than willing to involve them in the process of constructing exhibits and the museum at large.

And beyond this, both authors recognize that Native American history can not only include stories of survival and benign histories, but instead the realities and sometimes tragic past and present of Native people need to be addressed within the context of the colonization process. Telling these hard truths about colonization and its ongoing effects on Indigenous communities are difficult to hear, yet it is important topic to address and for everyone to be aware of the concept. In order to fully understand and appreciate stories of survival audiences need to be aware of what Native people had to endure and overcome, such as the “government policies and campaigns designed to destroy us.” [3] Both would agree that it will be a long time before historic sites and museums such as the Sand Creek Memorial and the National Museum of the American Indian become sites of reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and the U.S. government. This is especially the case when sites fail to address subjects such as genocide and colonization, and therefore only further misrepresents the history of Indigenous people.

Lonetree’s work and experience with tribal and national museums help us to further understand the continual evolution of the relationship between Indigenous communities and museums. In our discussion, we should discuss what we think are some of the best museum practices that Lonetree examines in her book.

 

 

 

Lonetree, Amy. Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Print.

[1] Amy Lonetree. Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Print,107.

[2] Amy Lonetree. Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Print,103.

[3] Amy Lonetree. Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Print, 110.

Lightly Edited from Source: Decolonizing Museums by Samantha Parker

Tales from the Haunted South

Tales from the Haunted South by Tiya Miles discusses the phenomenon of paranormal historical vacationing through the perspective of a historian.

In this book, Miles does a good job of covering multiple sites and addressing the major concerns when talking about some concerns she has as a historian.

Miles uses several sites as examples for her inquiry into the study of paranormal vacationing, including the Sorrel-Weed house in Savannah, Georgia, the Myrtles Plantation home in St. Francisville, Louisiana, and Madame Lalaurie’s home in New Orleans. All of these sites share stories about dead –often completely fictional and mostly African American– to lure tourists into taking the expensive tours.

The Sorrel-Weed house in Savannah is a house said to be haunted by the ghost of a former abused slave girl of Haitian descent named Molly. Her story includes sexual exploitation by her master. Typically, tour guides describe this relatinship as marital infidelity, rather than abuse. According to the story, once the “affair” is discovered by the master’s wife, she commits suicide. After the suicide, the master of the house murdered Molly in the carriage house. The tour claims that Molly and Matilda both haunt the house, but Miles was unable to prove that Matilda had committed suicide or that Molly ever existed!

Next, Miles explores a tomb and a house belonging to an abusive slaveholder who apparently still protects her old house. The tales has become heavily intertwined with local lore about the woman’s cruelty not only toward her slave but also toward her children, making it difficult to tease out a single version of story. There have actually been several books exploring the legitimacy of any of the claims against Madam Lalaurie, but the events in the story seems to be based in some truth.

The final site was the Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana. This site uses the story of Chloe, a slave turned concubine, who is abused and eventually loses an ear as punishment for eavesdropping. This eventually leads to a desperate attempt to regain favor by young Chloe, who hatches a plan that leads to the death of the family in the house and the eventually the murder of young Chloe.

All of these stories revolve around the abuse, sexual exploitation, and murder of enslaved people and most often these victims are women. Miles research shows that most of these tours have some basis in fact or reflect some grain of truth about the conditions of slavery.

These slavery inspired ghost tours are an example of “dark tourism.” Dark Tourism is marketed as a carefree adventure into the underbelly of society, to peek into the dark side of human nature or the human experience. The ghost story creates a barrier, preventing people from feeling shame or reflecting in any serious way about the horrors of the past.

While some of the visitors are legitimately looking for a chance to commune with the supernatural, disrespect for the victimm in these tales cannot be over looked.

Often, stories of slavery are considered taboo in many historical sites because they are considered too painful or “controversial,” but mask that past with a haunting and some flickering lights and it’s suddenly acceptable.

I can understand the appeal of exploring this darker side of humanity. I will confess to having my own moments of weakness and watching television shows like Criminal Minds. However, when these stories minimize or distance us from real suffering, the situation changes.

As public historians, we have an added responsibility to the public that most traditional historians don’t normally feel they have. Public historians are facilitators of getting the history more firmly into the hands of the communities involved. While house museums and historically preserved buildings usually have complex and sometimes unfortunate histories, this book makes me question their value. Dark Tourism seems to reflect a perverse form of historical voyeurism into the most under discussed and horrific aspects of our country’s past.

I believe that if we can address these issues as ghost stories , that we can all unanimously agree that we must bring these stories into the light. The lack of factual and just representation of slavery is is a well document issue especially in the South. Almost as controversial is how we solve this misreprestation of one the gruesome institution in this countries past, to which of large portion of our country’s population can traces its roots. While I don’t have the answers to how to solve this problem given the complicated emotions tied up in this section of history , I can say that I don’t believe Ghost tours are the way to go about it.

Miles, Tiya. Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slacery from the Civil War Era.The University of North Carolina Press., 2015. Print.

Edited from Tales from the Haunted South by Alexandra Runnings

The Haunted South by Tiya Miles

At first glance the main theme of Tiya Miles’ book “Tales from the Haunted South,” appears to be merely an account of the author’s journey to haunted sites in order for her to report her investigation of ghost stories and historical events attached to hauntings of the south.

However, upon closer inspection, we discover that her theme involves a more intricate look into several contours of the portrayals of African American slavery that touch on the topic of race, gender, ethnic and power inequities.
From the first pages of the book we see how Ms. Miles curiosity as to why ghost tours are so alluring invariably leads her to explore the value and meaning of ghost tours. Miles draws on the findings of Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, arriving at an understanding that our knowledge of history, especially personal history, is so compelling that most of us use it as an aspect of identity formation and meaning-making. From this basis, Ms. Miles notes that the modern ghost story can be more accurately understood as a popular form of historical narrative. Ghost stories are a controlled cultural medium for recognizing trouble in the past and acknowledging the injustices of history especially when it comes to all the atrocities that have haunted the American landscape, not least of which includes the odious institution of slavery.

Her focus on singling out the South as America’s haunted hotspot was understood to be due to the history of chattel slavery and the brutal war to end it coupled with eerie backdrops and the inclusion of the religious dominance of Voodoo in the South. Her quest leads her to write about three places that serve as key narratives which share a set of characteristics. With each narrative we learn the intricate process that unfolds as Ms. Miles tours each house, surveys historical documents, and draws conclusions that involve a juxtaposed mix of fact, fiction and folklore.

In the first narrative involving the Sorrel-Weed House, she discovers the sad tales of an abused slave named Molly and a heartbroken wife named Matilda’s whose unfortunate accounts are overshadowed by debatable evidence of the slave masters lineage. While learning the intriguing tale of the house involving scandal and suicide Ms. Miles is dismayed during her fact checking process as she quickly discovers that much of the tale amounts to nothing more than a colorful story full of half-truths and cherry picking details.

In her exploits concerning the famous Haunted House of Madame Lalaurie, Ms. Miles investigates the accounts of a cruel and merciless slave owner named Madame Lalaurie whose exploits left an indelible impact for years to come. In analyzing the horrid accounts of these tales, Ms. Miles would discover layers upon layers of narratives concerning Madame Lalaurie. Some accounts would build on each other while others would add their own special blend to the stories. However no matter how interesting the tale, Ms. Miles would come to learn that the infamy of the crimes of Madame Lalaurie cast her as a ready scapegoat for those who enjoy, but also denounce the horror or her behavior. As most tour guides would fashion New Orleans as a good place to be a slave, Ms. Miles would learn that the revulsion towards the exploits of Madame Lalaurie were nothing more than an attempt to establish her as the ultimate social “other” by playing to her denounced characterizations as a foreign born woman who was deviant in every respect while also detracting from the real horrors of slavery in New Orleans. The third narrative of Chloe and Cleo only served to add to the distorted narrative of black slaves by trivializing the experience of African American women and ignoring the bleakness of the plantation setting for slaves, as well as caricaturing the sordid social relationships between male masters and females slaves

In the end the author struggled with several realizations. On one hand, she had primarily ghost tours to thank in allowing people in the south to even hear about black slavery. African American lives, and black slavery in particular were fair game for the dark tourism industry so much that the deceased black slaves were main characters in the southern ghost tours. These ghost tours were doing the work of making black history visible and bringing them alive.

However, while ghost tourism borrowed from African America cultural expression, they also undermined the value of black history. To a lesser extent these ghost tours amounted to nothing more than money making ventures, a pure capitalistic enterprise to say the least. Dark tours (as they were refereed to as) allowed plantations to adopt the notion of haunted houses in order to boost tourism and diversify the visitor experience. If anyone were to hopefully gain commercial success it was the local black community but unfortunately they were often robbed the benefit of the ability to control the narrative of these tours. Perhaps an even greater affront that these ghost stories wrought was to marginalize the black cultural element at the expense of romanticizing or decontextualizing these tales.

As ghost stories touch on so many aspects of social identity it is interesting to ask the question as to what extent of damage could the representations of slaves as ghosts inflict on the efforts to add a voice to the lost narratives of African American slaves? Does the lack of reliable sources and context that often foreshadow these tales of woe reinforce retrograde interpretations of charged themes such as power, sexuality and gender?

Lightly edited from  Source: The Haunted South by Tiya Miles by Domonique Flowers

Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums

In Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, Franklin Vagnone and Deborah Ryan identify what they see as the major problems with Historic House Museums in the United States. They argue that the transformation of old buildings into museums for the purpose of preserving history has evolved without serious attention to audiences, to changing neighborhood demographics, or to mission. In most cases, HHMs present a “frozen” interpretation, allowing houses to become dollhouse like displays of how people lived during a very short and isolated period of time. These sites lack context and fail to demonstrate change over time.

Interest in historic house museums really heated up during the bicentennial period, when everyone was anxious to learn about the nation’s founding fathers and other early elite individuals. But most of these museums were established with no plan for sustainability. For the most parts, they disregard the needs of the public so that they can give the presentation that they believe is most important, one overly focused on material culture. As a result, visitors, especially young ones who have a thirst for technological excitement, have become bored with these “stagnant” museums that obsess over “authenticity.”[1] The authors assert that the “house and history first, visitors last” approach to HHMs needs to be reversed.[2] In Anarchist’s Guide, the main argument is that historic house museums need to loosen their grips on the reigns so that they can create an environment that is more interactive and relevant to the issues that are on the forefront of the public’s mind in the modern age.

Anarchist’s Guide describes a terrible lack of fun in HHMs, places where “levity and digital photography” still regarded as cardinal sins. The tours themselves are led by monotone docents who read from a traditional chronological script that leaves the visitor feeling detached and disinterested.[3] While this atmosphere and presentation will always be appealing to the elderly white academics that are already intimately familiar with the history of the location and the era being focused on, the majority of the visitors to HHMs are not in that realm, so there is a glaring disconnect. HMMs for the most part were created with the mission of promoting a sense of patriotism and nationalism that, again, does not appeal to everyone. In order for there to be an HMM renaissance they have to become more inclusive. To highlight how large this problem is, it is important to note that it took until 2014 for a national park to be named for an African-American woman. Hopefully this will lead to a continuing trend of HHMs and other public historical sites becoming more inclusive. It is important for HMMs to consider the demographics of their location when designing their mission statement, exhibits, and activities. If they do not do this, they become “self-serving,” by assuming that the community wants a traditional museum. It is essential to consider and ask the community what issues it would like to see discussed.[4] One issue, in particular, that has garnered a lot of attention is that the African-American narrative is absent from many HHMs. If slaves are mentioned at all, the lie is given to the visitor, typically, that the slaves were treated fairly and did not suffer, and that their owners were benevolent and loving individuals.[5] This perpetuates the paternalistic revisionism that dates back to the earliest days of the American republic.

Another big problem with HHMs is that they are archaic, lacking technological resources to connect modern visitors to the past, and limiting the use of cell phones and social media. Anarchist’s Guide discusses that it is a detriment to the museum itself for not allowing the use of cell phones and digital photography. By being so resistant to modern uses of technology, HHMs are limiting their exposure to the public, general conversations that content shared on social media can arouse, and free advertising by taking this archaic stance.[6] To compound this problem, HHMs have a tendency to discourage conversations with their visitors. Instead of accepting and creating a discourse with them, they simply speak at them for the duration of the tour, expecting them to be satisfied with the information given.[7] “There is a culture of limits and chastisement” in HHMs that dampens the experience of the visitor, disabling the visitor’s ability to experience something adventurous and new.

Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums offers a lot of interesting solutions to the problem’s plaguing HHMs. It is going to be key, going forward, for HMM designers to work hand-in-hand with the community when deciding the mission of their establishment. A stuffy old historian’s narrative and presentation is no longer what visitors want to experience. The narrative and design need to be dictated by the current hot-topic issues that will keep visitors enthralled. Rooms filled with period-correct furniture and art are cool, but that method does not allow the guest to engage intellectually with the building that they visit. It is imperative that a museum utilizes technology and personal insights from the members of the community to frame their presentation. That is the only way that these museums can attract a younger and more diverse demographic. That is how you bring people through the door who would never visit a traditional HHM riddled with ropes restricting access to rooms and “do not touch” signs. It is, however, not as easy as it sounds to loosen the reigns that much for a museum director or employee. It requires the museum’s staff to sacrifice infusing their own narrative into the museum. Additionally, a lot of museums, undoubtedly, are reluctant about making their museums more interactive and accessible, due to fears that guests could damage the exhibit items. Perhaps museums need to find a happy medium between the traditional method of HHM design and the “Anarchist’s” method?

[1] Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah E. Ryan, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, INC., 2016), 12.

[2] Ibid., 19.

[3] Ibid., 17-18.

[4] Ibid., 54-55.

[5] Ibid., 71.

[6] Ibid., 77.

[7] Ibid., 80.

Edited and Adapted from Anarchists Guide to Historic House Museums by Dustin Linz

Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums

In Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah E. Ryan’s Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, the authors address some of the biggest issues and common mistakes that face Historic House museums and provide solutions and ideas that will make these House Museums an exciting and relevant place.

The authors recognize that the problem with most American museums is that they are “institutions of white privilege”[1] and they predominately tell stories of white male conquest. Additionally, many museums and historic sites of today celebrate an idealized version of America that again, aims to celebrate the achievements and lives great white men, while at the same time ignoring the reality that demographics and interests of the community constantly change.

Many HHMs stick to the same methodology as when they first opened their doors. Based on this, many HHMs seem very emotionless, and boring to visitors. HHMs experience declining attendance rates, financial problems, and at the same times they are not responding and acknowledging the changing neighborhood demographics and the increasingly reliance and use of technology. To address these issues, the authors wanted to address these problems from a totally new perspective. HHMs have to find a way to demonstrate that they are relevant and valuable in today’s modern world, and they are able to provide all visitors an engaging experience.

One of the most applicable ideas from the book is the idea of HHMs being able to offer something valuable to and be able to have an impact on their community. For example, Grumblethorpe, a HHM in Northern Philadelphia is located in a neighborhood that was a food desert, where there was no access to fresh produce for the residents of this community. To address this problem, the Education Director of Grumblethorpe decided to replace the colonial revival gardens on the property with vegetable gardens, providing a source of fresh fruit for community residents, while at the same time establishing a youth volunteer program. This example shows that it is possible for HHMs and historic sites to to be aware of the real world problems that exist, and that this site is relevant and able to contribute to the greater good of the community.

As I was reading, there were a few ideas in the book that seemed unrealistic or would be difficult to actually pull off in reality. The authors encourage the idea that guests should be able to move freely through the HHM. I agree that guests should be able to explore the rooms of the house, but this idea could be problematic if you have guests and children all in different rooms without supervision. Additionally, all rooms might not be able to go into if a preservation project is underway, as it could be unsafe for guests to walk around the room. In class, we can further discuss the ideas that seemed too extreme, or ideas that we envision being a success.

Throughout the book, the authors reiterate major themes that will help ensure a successful HHM, such as engagement, inclusion and being overall provocative. This book is not only a guide, but also a toolkit for anyone interesting in or currently working in a HHM. In each “Evidence” section, the authors describe some of the most typical experiences that guests encounter when they visit most HHMs. While reading, I found myself reflecting on my own experiences throughout the years as a guest in HHMs, and found many of the scenarios to be accurate. For example, when the authors describe how every room in the house is pristine all objects are highly curated; it is hard to imagine that anyone lived there, as it is not an accurate reflection of the messiness of domestic life. After reading this book and reflecting back on your own experiences with HHMs, what specific aspects of HHM tours seem to stick out to you as problematic or limiting to your experience? Have you been to an HHM where they are promoting community engagement and interaction/hands on experiences with the guests? How did this manifest in practice?

The authors understand that not everyone reading will be willing to change every aspect and method of their HHM. However, in each section of the book the authors provide helpful explanations and examples so that if someone working at a HHM is reading this book and wants to put some of these ideas into practice, they would have an understanding of where to begin. For example, most people from the millennial generation especially, are familiar with and used to using and posting on multiple social media sites. But for someone from an older generation who works in a HHM, the idea of posting information or pictures of the house or ongoing preservation projects could seem overwhelming. The authors consider this and explain that when posting on social media, the tone should be conversational, as people are more responsive to posts if they feel like you are talking with and not at them. The authors are encouraging, and state that it is easy to get started and that all you need is a smartphone, and if you just spend a little time and attention each day on social media the effects can be far reaching. So the book provides reader with effective strategies to make their HHM more involved with the community and that they have the ability to reach out the members of the community and beyond in a modern and effective way. This guide can be a useful for a public historian just starting out in the field or for someone that has been in the field for decades and recognizes that a change needs to occur.

Since many of these ideas from the book are fairly recent and no doubt a challenge to the status quo, do you think people working in HHMs are willing to take on most or even just a few of the ideas in this book? Or, as up and coming public historians, do you think that it will take a younger generation of public historians to inspire the older generation to be active on social media sites, involve the community, and be willing to trust guests of these historic houses explore most rooms of the house and be able to touch certain objects?

This book can be an invaluable resource to those HHMs that need to revitalize and incorporate themselves into their community. Many of the examples and case studies provided could help shape future involvement and practices of HHMs. I believe that if these historic sites don’t at least try a few of these ideas, they will continue to face the same problems of the past.

 

 

 

Vagnone, Franklin D. and Ryan, Deborah E. Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums: A Ground-Breaking Manifesto. Walnut Creek, CA. Left Coast Press Inc., 2016. Print.

[1]Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah E. Ryan, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums: A Ground-Breaking Manifesto. Walnut Creek, CA. Left Coast Press Inc., 2016. Print, 139.

Source: Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums by Samantha Parker