6 thoughts on “The True Cost of Doing What You Love”

  1. Jason, I really like how you touched on the issue of interpreters discussing painful parts of American history. I found this one of the most captivating chapters of Tyson’s book and the most instructive. Since history of atrocities against blacks and Native Americans has long been silenced, I commend the efforts of living history museums to incorporate the narratives into their agendas. Still, interpreting these hard issues, however imperative, can be taxing, as Tyson describes, on the interpreters. Her prescriptions for limiting problems include “proper training that would include regular access to relevant primary sources, work-sponsored study groups, up-to-date manuals…, and instruction on how to engage in emotionally charged conversations with visitors.” (168) The last point, the one that departs from academic study, may in fact be the most important one, but also the most under-funded. I wonder if those at the top would be willing to adopt these measures, or grant the appropriate funding. Without these avenues of additional training, the potential for insensitivity seems to loom scarily close. Training could also prepare interpreters for the ignorance of the visitors. I heard Azie Dungey, star and creator of “Ask a Slave,” speak last year and her accounts of white people’s questions reflect visitors’ various levels of baffling insensitivity and lack of historical context. At the lecture she told us that, with no prior formal historical training, she herself became passionate about the issues of racism and living history only after she started working at Mount Vernon, on the “frontlines.” Her continued dedication shows how important living history interpreters are, without or without an academic degree.

    My own experience has shown that issues of funding for training may be moot since many privately-owned sites do not care to interpret painful history at all (much like those who felt incorporating the narrative of Dred Scott into the fort history would take away from the military grandeur). Last summer I visited the Dr. Mudd house in southern Maryland where John Wilkes Booth rested during his escape after he assassinated Lincoln. The living history interpreter referred to slaves as servants. After I asked about the enslaved population at the site, she finally did use the word “slave,” but only to say, “Yes, but he was a good slavemaster.” We had a discussion right there and then about that!

  2. The discussion of loving your job even though it comes with challenges throughout The Wages of History was honestly quite depressing. I could relate so well with stories of people who were so exhausted after a day interacting with the public that they couldn’t bring themselves to converse with loved ones at home. I came to realize that this was a sign that the rewards for my job weren’t balancing out the struggle and I don’t know that it can be considered “loving your job” anymore when the sacrifices no longer outweigh the rewards. Perhaps we should be on the hunt for jobs that we love despite the less desirable aspects. On the other hand, sometimes reality rears its nasty head and we find ourselves in jobs that we do not love for the money. If one can find a job they love at some point, more power to them. Living in our current job market it is difficult to fathom having a dream job when just having a full-time job would be a dream.

    If we have learned anything from this class I think it is certainly that a passion for history and knowledge about the field does not have to come from a background of formal training. Remember the Lincoln Inquiry? With appropriate job-training, I think interpreters without formal training who have come to the Fort with a passion can be incredible assets to the workforce. What it comes down to is that people with passions love to share those passions with others. I love Harry Potter; for example. If given the opportunity to educate someone on the merits of the series I latch on even though I don’t have an English degree. Their passions will lead them to get a lot of satisfaction out of interacting with the public and that could make them ideal employees at the Fort.

  3. In regards to your first question, Tyson seems to suggest that most of these living historians are passionate for their work because it allows them to make emotional connections with the public. These workers felt important and as if they were “part of something bigger than themselves” (5). Even in the cases where workers felt drained and disparaged after working long hours or dissatisfied by the lack of vacation and sick leave, many workers were able to tell themselves that it was worth it because they “were doing socially valuable work and experiencing genuine encounters with other human beings” (114). At the end of the day they believed that the people they were working for, the public, were what really mattered, “not [to[ serve the site itself…and not [to] serve the program, or the MHS… just serve the public” (94).

    Personally, I hope to find what the workers of the Fort do in their jobs, a sense that they are helping people and getting an emotional return from investing in their work. It is one of the reasons I prefer public history to academic history; there is an aspect of public involvement, engagement, and communication that seems to be lacking in traditional academic history. However, I also understand the point that, “work is work” (81) and to a certain extent, when conditions are draining on you far too emotionally or physically (case in point- the worker who portrayed a slave master and believed that it had changed him from his soft-spoken and laid back self to someone who screamed and yelled orders even when out of character (148)) you have to step back and ask yourself if this job is worth your personal identity. This seems to be especially a question to ask at the Fort, where on the one hand workers are told that they are members of the “front line,” the face of the Fort, and are “count[ed] upon to support the public experience” (15), but then quickly after, they are told that they are “little more than routine service workers (5).

  4. Relating to your second question: as can be attested by Tyson’s observations of the experiences of front line workers at Fort Snelling, tackling the issue of interpreting emotionally loaded histories calls for expanded training. Expanded time devoted to the many stories that existed at the local site beyond military history and expanded time devoted to training interpreters on how to approach histories of violence such as enslavement, relations with the Dakota Indians or sexism. Purposefully spending extra (or even more) time on histories that involve conditions in present society.

    These decisions come from the top down. Distributing a list of socially unacceptable and acceptable terms is more than nothing but it is the most limited action that a managerial staff could take. Most likely I would guess the action was taken in an effort to save their own hides from complaint or lawsuit. It also dejects the potential for positive growth through personalized training which allows staff to understand reasoning behind the site mission(s). It avoids constructive discussion between those on the floor and those in the office. Yearly testing, take home reading and “authenticity policing” substituted for positive group building exercises. The wide gap between the part-time interpretive staff and the Minnesota Historical Society executive staff (or was it a gaping bureaucratic abyss?) was reflected by the desire staff had to refer to the organizational headquarters as the “Taj-Ma-Nina,” a jab at MHS director, (77) or management responding to the formation of an internally created group of workers battling cripplingly low moral, the Caucus, who produced their own mass distributed newsletter full of grievances with little more than a nod: a friendly welcome letter and a “comment box system” which allowed for words on paper to flow one way to site managers. (63, 72)

    Tyson brilliantly reveals the stigmatization of living history interpreters in “The Wages of History.” I don’t think this solely falls on the shoulders of upper management. She shows it is a deeper issue than that (all though perpetual part-time status and low pay do factor in), however investing greater time in the training and quality of your staff and incorporating the “newest historical scholarship” (175) could avoid some of the heavy emotional labor experienced on the front line, as well as encourage meaningful and through provoking interaction for the visitor.

  5. In regard to your second question, it is not just a matter of changing the atmosphere of the museum but farther back. this is something that has to be changed during people formative years. People have to be taught differently to effect any real change. people are uncomfortable but why? In school it is such a brushed over topic that when you are faced in your work place you haven’t learned how to go about it, without sounding like you have a definitive opinion. There are some people who can bluster their way through and its not terrible for them.

    For me I feel that there might always be this discomfort when looking and talking about the darker parts of American because we do not know how to present the information correctly. When people really start looking at these dark histories they begin to understand that it wasn’t all the black and white that we were taught in school, but many more layers. It can make us uncomfortable because it might shake of conviction of what we thought we knew. This means that it is not up to the museums at all but the way that we are taught that would make it easier for more people to talk freely about these darker histories.

  6. I certainly get why historical interpreters are often asked why they choose to go into this profession. Historical interpretation offers little in the way of pay, job security, benefits, or even respect from management. Tyson’s research, and my own experience, shows that interpretation is by no means an easy profession. Worries about financial obligations increases stress among workers. The need to constantly be a friendly and positive person who actively seeks to engage strangers in conversations can be emotionally draining. Yet, people are still willing to become historical interpreters in spite of the many drawbacks associated with this job.

    However, I think the question of why some people want to be historical interpreters misses the point. People should not have to explain why they want to do something that they love. Instead, Tyson’s book makes it clear in my eyes that the problem with historical interpretation jobs is wholly on the management side, rather than the employee sides. Institutions like the Minnesota Historical Society feel that they treat their low-level employees horribly because they do not value the contribution that interpreters make to the success of the institution. They see historical interpreters as a disposable resource who can be easily eliminated when the interpreters complain about the condition of their job. Clearly, the system as it currently stands is working well enough on management’s side, since they refuse to make any changes that will improve the plight of their workers. It is, therefore, up to the interpreters to organize collectively to improve their status in the museum. Granted, unionization is extremely difficult for public history workers. They work in comparatively small organizations, workers are often transient, and there is often stratification among interpreters. However, collective bargaining is the only way to significantly improve the lot of interpreters who love their jobs and are exploited by management because of their love.

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