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. 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.
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.’” 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. 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?
 Amy M. Tyson, The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 38-39.
 Ibid., 2.
 Ibid., 99.
 Ibid., 102.
Edited for Clarity from Source: The Emotional Wages of Practicing History by Bridget Hurley