The Emotional Wages of Practicing History

Wages of History focuses on the emotional labor of those on the frontlines of interpretation history at Fort Snelling in Minnesota. Author Amy Tyson includes examples from the broader fields of interpretative history, customer service, and temporary employment to show that the issues raised by volunteers and employees at Fort Snelling were not unique to the fort or to public history. Tyson’s experiences as a member of the interpretative staff at Fort Snelling offered her both unique insight into the toll of emotional labor and unique access to both records and to the front line employees themselves.

Tyson’s interviews and supplementary studies reminded me not so much of the interpretative work I did for Montgomery History as a docent, but rather the work I’ve done for the past ten years at Safeway as both a cashier and customer service representative.

In chapter one, Tyson explains that Fort Snelling utilized Tilden’s work and his six goals of interpretation we read about last week. Their interpretation plan focused on expanding empathy, and the management saw that as a function of customer service.[1] This interpretation plan was written in 1970, and Tyson first went through pre-season training at the fort in 2001. Thirty years later, then, customer service was still the focal point of training and employee development. Interpreters were encouraged to become “customer service superstars,” and preseason training singled out individuals who had gone above and beyond – including making sacrifices like foregoing breaks in order to engage patrons.[2]

This idea of going “above and beyond” and the strain emotional labor causes is echoed in chapter three where Tyson emphasizes the experiences of those on the interpretative front line. Maggie, a school teacher, told Tyson that “You learn to be ‘up.’”[3]  In customer service or any sort of industry with customer interaction, you can’t have a down day. It makes the employee or volunteer unapproachable, but more importantly to the company, it reflects poorly on the “product.” Being “up” all the time in order to engage with visitors is very draining, both emotionally and physically. Multiple interviewees mentioned feeling disinclined to converse with family at home or to go out and be around others.[4] I have had coworkers and customers ask why I am not smiling or my usual chatterbox self. The fact that I have been standing for seven and half hours means little. I imagine it meant little to management or visitors that it was the dead of summer and people were cooking over fires or working as blacksmiths. Despite physical discomfort, they were meant to be engaging and positive when patrons were around. Every moment was an opportunity to educate and engage the public on the history of the fort and the history life in the early nineteenth century.

Is this emotional labor something that we take for granted when we go to historic sites? After working in a customer service position for ten years I’m much more aware now of the emotional labor of others. I know some people in the class have also worked customer service jobs and as tour guides and interpreters. Do you find yourself more aware of the emotional labor of others? Have people seemed oblivious or uncaring towards the cost of your own emotional labor? What are methods and techniques that we as public historians can help to relieve the pressure of emotional labor from those around us working in the field?

[1] Amy M. Tyson, The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 38-39.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 99.

[4] Ibid., 102.

Edited for Clarity from Source: The Emotional Wages of Practicing History by Bridget Hurley

Management and public history

I will admit to being largely ignorant of what goes on the front lines of living history sites like Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia or Fort Snelling in Minnesota, the subject of Amy Tyson’s  book The Wages of History.  Honestly speaking, I genuinely do not actively seek  out living history, because frankly as an academic historian,  I do not think I am not the intended audience. When I do come across living history however, I really do appreciate the interpreters’ effort to achieve authenticity, and I usually learn something from the experience. That being said, Amy Tyson’s description of the authenticity games and their emotional toll on interpreters kind of struck a nerve with me.[1]

I am very familiar with the concept of games of authenticity. I’ve had a long if intermittent membership in the Society of Creative Anachronism (SCA).  The SCA is a group of medieval re-enactors, and the negative and positive impact of their games of authenticity are often evident (I have a great story about hair dye.) What intrigued me about this book was seeing the games of authenticity played in a professional historical, rather than a social, setting.  It left me with several questions.

The first question I have is are the games of Authenticity legitimate up to a certain point? At what point do they, instead, present preconceived notions of history that reflect our contemporary biases?  At Fort Snelling, managers assigned roles for the interpreters  based on what was historically accurate for their in the 1820s.[2]  Men were assigned to roles as soldiers and blacksmiths  while women were wives and domestics. This seems to be fairly straight forward, except I wonder how much of really confirmed and reproduced modern gender inequities. It really does not take that much digging to find that women, while not “blacksmiths” per se, women did indeed work in blacksmith shops and other professional locations.  At the same time, there were male domestics.  I am wondering why MHS seemed to use the living history at Fort Snelling to confirm, rather than challenge, modern notions of historically authentic gender roles? Their performances impacted job opportunities at the site; women held the majority of cashier and other customer service jobs.[3]

The next big question I want to ask is simply this: were the workers at Fort Snelling exploited?  And if so what does that say about our society’s view of public history and living history workers? Tyson demonstrates that seasonal workers were not considered “real” employees. (An aside, as someone who has worked many “not real” jobs, any work you do for pay is a real job!)  Those that rocked the boat were not rehired[4]. While there were pay raises after two organizing campaigns those were due more to outside influences rather than to the employees’ agitation. Tyson, in the epilogue documents a failed organizing campaign at the university of Minnesota, where she concludes a differing of opinion on unionization based on whether one is a communalist or more individualistic.[5] Tyson discusses that fact that in a labor dispute in Williamsburg the interpreters choose not side with the striking hospitality workers over fear of losing their privileged positions even though they would have benefited as well. I think that still holds as true, especially in today’s economy, where it’s the  knowledge that there are five qualified people willing and  able to replace a worker that steps out of line, that prevents union organization.

I wanted to touch on what Tyson calls the Games of Authenticity and  the management structure of the fort. Tyson states that  the  interpreters were given a lot of autonomy and resented management  stepping on their toes[6]. It makes sense for the position to be largely autonomous creatively speaking, but beyond that  there seemed to very little oversight as a whole.  Don’t get me wrong I think the idea of the lead guides was a good one, but they were not  given the tools they needed to to do their jobs, nor where they themselves given enough oversight. Which lead to the guides abusing what power they did have, which lead  the games of authenticity getting out of control, which in turn lead to unpleasant incidents like  Tyson being dressed down for not wearing shoes.[7]

I feel that had  the interpreters, and their management  had well defined processes, much of the problems Tyson described could have been avoided. For example had there been a well defined process as to who gets what role, that had been applied equally to both men and women, it is very possible  that the amount of resentment among the female guides that Tyson discusses could have been largely eliminated[8].  Furthermore, holding the male guides particularly the soldiers to a standard of professional conduct could have checked some of the more egregious behavior, like the soldier’s locker room[9].  That was frankly a textbook example of what a hostile work environment is, and the MHS is lucky that the female, or other male, interpreters either did not care enough, or more likely were too intimidated, to report and sue the MHS into oblivion.   So that is my final question,  could the excesses Tyson discusses at Fort Snelling and other living history sites been checked if the interpreters had been giving more oversight, process to follow, and held to a standard of professional behavior?

Finally I am curious about that “Dr. Meringolo” character Tyson mentions, seems like a troublemaker to me.

[1] Amy M. Tyson The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Cambridge: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.) 116

[2] Amy M. Tyson The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Cambridge: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.) 28

[3] Amy M. Tyson The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Cambridge: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.) 43

[4] Amy M. Tyson The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Cambridge: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.) 79-82

[5] Amy M. Tyson The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Cambridge: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.) 174

[6] Amy M. Tyson The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Cambridge: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.) 119

[7] Amy M. Tyson The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Cambridge: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.) 132

[8] Amy M. Tyson The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Cambridge: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.) 126 – 127

[9]  Amy M. Tyson The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Cambridge: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.) 139

Edited for Clarity from Source: Management and public history by David Cunningham

The Wages of History

The Wages of History: Emotional on Public History’s Front Lines is a very eye-opening book. The case study that Amy M. Tyson uses is Minnesota’s Historic Fort Snelling. Not only was the book eye-opening but it was also different. Different because the key figures were the workers that Fort Snelling has had over time. Tyson explains early on that she and her co-workers loved dressing up in costume and interpreting history, because working as a living history interpreter made them feel important.  (1) At the same time, Tyson recognizes the sacrifices that she and other interpreters had to make to continue their work. Many felt  expandable because they knew they could easily be replaced, and they felt insecure and devalued. (2) I found it eye opening because of the of the examples that the author uses, particularly the ones found in chapter 2 and chapter 3 regarding the grievances that the frontline workers had with their temporary job positions.

Some of the interpreters who worked for the Minnesota Historic Society formed a caucus in 1993 and half a year after the caucus was formed, it appeared that the MHS was going to solve some of the issues identified by its interpreters/employees. The MHS formed a “Strategic Planning Human Resources Subcommittee,” to identify and resolve human resource problems. However, the initiatives were hollow. The MHS provided employees with a 25% discount on the Society’s gift and book shop, but they also implemented and unrealistic policies to limit vacation time and sick pay. (3) In chapter 3, Tyson mentions the pay for historical interpreters, and it truly did show that these people must absolutely love their jobs because their wages are low. Tyson cites a 1989 Washington Post article on how Colonial Williamsburg interpreters had a tough time making ends meet. One of the interpreters in the article was making eight dollars and hour when he decided to quit. (4) Things for Colonial Williamsburg did not really change, as it pertained to their wages, because in a 2011 advertisement for a part time position as a museum interpreter was nine dollars and five cents. For Fort Snelling, the wages went up a bit, because their starting hourly wage in 2006 was of eleven dollars and forty-six cents. An interpreter that Tyson interviewed in 2004 told her that she could work at a Taco Bell and make more money and that “there is no chance for advancement and no benefits.” (5)

These examples provided were not too long ago, and while things have changed for public historians it is still rather scary to think that once graduated, we too may look forward to seasonal employment. I’m not sure if any of my fellow classmates have any plans to work as a costumed historical interpreter, but this type of job is the realms of public history and some public history jobs are in the nonprofit sector. I am not trying to inflict any doubt on potential public history jobs toward any of you, it’s just that as I was reading this book, I felt a certain uneasiness for jobs that I am personally interested in, and those are particularly jobs in museums. Some of things I read in this book also are things that I have had to deal with as I decided to embark as a history major. In chapter 3 Tyson brings up a sociologist, Erving Goffman, who describes a stigmatized person as someone marked as discredited in a normal society. Tyson brought this up because some of the interpreters she interviewed felt at some point or another, stigmatized, for returning to a seasonal job at Fort Snelling because their occupation was not taken as a “real job”. (6) This again, is something that I have endured for the past 2 years by friends and family members, asking me if I was going to be a teacher or could I even find a “real job” with a history degree. I guess some people think that if someone has a history degree they can only find jobs in academia. This book was a great read, and it really resonated with me. The first questioned that I would like to pose derives a bit from one the readings that we did a couple of weeks ago regarding museums and their practices. Fort Snelling saw peak tourism in 1976, the bicentennial celebration of the United States, and according to the Minnesota Historical Society attendance has not been reached that peak since. (7) The drop of visitors was consistent with other museums across the United States, why has there been a drop of visitors in historic museums? Museums decided to implement a “Plan B” which was designed to “speak more intensely to visitors learning preferences and their persistent desires to connect to the past”. (8) Does a plan B cheapen the experience and render tourist guides or interpreters obsolete. The second question is more of personal one, have any of you been “stigmatized” or questioned about being a history major? If so, how have you all gone about handling it?

1. Amy M. Tyson, The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 3.

2.Tyson, The Wages of History, 5.

3. Tyson, The Wages of History, 74.

4. Tyson, The Wages of History, 91.

5. Tyson, The Wages of History, 91.

6. Tyson, The Wages of History, 90.

7. Tyson, The Wages of History, 12.

8. Tyson, The Wages of History, 12.


Edited for clarity from Source: The Wages of History by Saul Espinal-Acosta