The Emotional Toll of Public History

Amy Tyson, in The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines, examines the work of the living history site Fort Snelling. Tyson writes that her book “examines museum interpreters as service workers and cultural producers.” (Tyson 4) Tyson, who has a PhD in American Studies, worked at Fort Snelling herself, and in a slightly similar way to Cathy Stanton (who worked as an ethnographer at Lowell NHP), draws upon her experiences as a costumed interpreter in addition to interviews with workers and archival materials. She analyzes the workings of Fort Snelling masterfully using a mix of historical, anthropological, and psychological approaches. She argues that “those who choose to invest themselves in the worksite did so because they found it emotionally fulfilling to connect with others through the medium of living history, and also because the structure of the worksite encouraged these workers to create strong self-identities (rather than collective identities) that were embedded in the larger workplace culture.” (Tyson 23-24)

Tyson’s book is compulsively readable and more digestible and memorable than other work we’ve read this semester, such as Stanton’s The Lowell Experiment, Jessie Swigger’s History is Bunk, and Handler and Gable’s The New History in an Old Museum. Her emphasis on the emotional impact interpretive work has on employees is fascinating and studied in-depth. While Stanton, Swigger, and Handler and Gable either interviewed workers at their respective sites or used archival materials to analyze their work, Tyson makes this the brunt of the second half of her book in an effective way while relying on interviews.

The first section of her book, “Public History’s Emotional Proletariat (1960-1996)” is less compelling than the second section, “Historic Fort Snelling’s Front Line (1996-2006).” The first chapter, “Performing a Public Service: From Historic Site to Work Site (1960-1996),” discusses the history of the site, noting its significance for the role it played in several historic events, such as the Dred Scott decision. The second chapter, “‘Our Seat at the Table’: Interpreter Agency and Consent (1960-1985)” is perhaps the least interesting of all the book’s chapters and discusses a grassroots collective of the  Minnesota Historical Society that called themselves the Caucus. The Caucus fought against seasonal employment and lack of sufficient healthcare. Chapters that discuss these same topics were also in the work of Stanton, Swigger, and Handler and Gable, so while Tyson’s scholarship on these themes is important, it is perhaps less original than the second half of her book.

Tyson finds from personal experience and from interviews with her colleagues that interpretive work has its rewards, such as having positive interactions with visitors. There are drawbacks, however, including feeling drained after work. She interviewed one employee who said he had to limit the number of activities he and his fiancee would do on the evenings he had off from work, since he was so tired and wanted time to decompress. Similar to what Swigger noted at Greenfield Village, visitors to Fort Snelling also emotionally connected to the exhibits at Fort Snelling. Tyson uses the Lois Silverman’s research on the “therapeutic potential of museums” that “shows how artifacts at museums have the capacity to elicit powerful emotional responses from visitors,” which leads them to share personal stories and memories. (Tyson 99) Often such responses do not relate to the didactic message museum staff wanted visitors to take away. If visitors to Fort Snelling chose to share painful memories or stories, employees tended to break out of character to listen to and comfort the visitors. This is just one example of how interpreters had to meet the needs of the visitors, often at their own emotional expense. While Swigger made sure to discuss how such interactions took away from the pedagogical purposes of the item on display or exhibit, Tyson instead focuses on the impact the interactions have on employees.

Tyson describes the games of authenticity that played out among Fort Snelling staff members and how those games impacted staff along gendered lines. The section on “Skinning the Muskrat: Performing Class and Masculinity” is particularly fascinating, as it describes how men at Fort Snelling would challenge each other to assert their masculinity in sometimes uncomfortable ways. Tyson also delves into how the testing of site employees is ineffective, as it encourages rote memorization instead of cultivating the ability to  place the site in a larger historical context. Furthermore, such ineffective testing furthered the mentality that historic details are either right or wrong.

Tyson does not shy away from discussing how Fort Snelling has dealt with–or chosen not to–“painful histories,” such as slavery and the violent interactions white settlers had with Native tribes. Tyson notes that the work of slave labor within the Snelling household is largely invisible, and such erasure is encouraged by a lack of recruitment of African American interpreters and the focus on the military history of the site and the daily lives of soldiers. It is left up to interpreters to decide whether or not to discuss topics like slavery, and they tend to rely on “comfort clues” taken from the visitors. The guide given to interpreters titled “African-Americans at Fort Snelling, 1820-1840: An Interpretive Guide” stated the following: “Rather than focus on the negative aspects of black life, especially slavery, interpreters should emphasize African American’s positive contributions to Minnesota’s history.” (Tyson 155) However, such practices at the Fort changed after 2006 with the hiring of a new manager, a new program manager, three new site supervisors, and the creation of the new position of program developer. Fort Snelling moved away from first-person interpretation to a “modified third-person” method, which makes it easier to use culturally sensitive rhetoric. They also created new signs in the Commanding Officer’s Kitchen, “Slavery in Minnesota” and “The Commandant’s Servants,” in addition to the Dred and Harriet Scott Quarters. Tyson is careful to discuss that the Fort will have a harder time addressing the history of colonialism and the destruction of Native culture and peoples.

Overall, Tyson’s work is engaging and provides insight into the emotional work of public history. It is a welcome addition to the site-specific studies of Colonial Williamsburg, Lowell, and Greenfield Village.

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