Living History Interpreters: Playing Soldier or Public Service?

The Wages of History by Amy M. Tyson opened many discussions about the lived reality of interpretive work, but also hearkened on a broad contemporary issue facing the arts and culture world: funding.  Tyson’s Introduction reflected on the late 70s-80s when “the new social history” or history “from the bottom up” came to be, in the face of job instability.  She wrote on page 9, “The proliferation of public history n the 1970s should also be seen as a response to the shrinking academic job market, wherein professional were forced to look beyond the ivory tower and toward places like museums, historical societies, and preservation agencies if they wanted to be employed in their field.”  Perhaps the conditions which fostered the development of public history (as we arguably know it today) are rooted in a very similar funding landscape as what is discussed in 2013.

Tyson’s discussion on pages 56-57 about Gavin’s frustration with new construction at Fort Snelling in the face of lay offs was not surprising.  Even in the current funding climate, longtime employees of humanities nonprofits lose positions because most grant funding does not cover operational costs.  Project or construction or exploration grants are often supported, but salaries are difficult to gather.  Without the funding to sustain salaries, even the most devout employees risk job loss by working for historic or arts nonprofits.  Have public historians always been at risk?  When was funding stable?  Are there patterns in risk-taking in public history in the face of funding uncertainty both in the 70s and now?

Another critical thing within Wages of History is not based on content, but on the crafting of the book itself.  Tyson used oral history to source her work, and because I am currently using oral history to inform my own research, I was deeply intrigued by the way she handled the interviews in her narrative.  Tyson’s use of oral history at all illustrated a bravery in her own writing– I have had conversations with my own professors in which I was warned about the ghettoizing of public history and oral history.  Still, she made the critical second step in using oral history; she fact-checked what her interviewees shared with her about Fort Snelling and placed those interviews in context.  Does she handle every interview perfectly? No, but she did execute the use of oral history fluently.

Tyson dealt heavily in the issues of living history interpreters having to play soldier while offering public service, looking to serve as emotional access points to history while also performing customer service skills.  She suggested at the end that the best way to grapple with these competing needs is to hire people who are “intrinsically motivated to perform cultural work,” (176) and then manage these people well by giving space for worker voices to be considered in decision-making processes.  In this way, Tyson ended with statements that might serve beyond public history organizations only, but also to cultural organizations at large.

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

I’ll end with a link to Ask A Slave, Season 1, Episode 2… because I read a book about costumed living history interpreters, and Azie’s Ask A Slave playfully, cleverly, and critically examines the work of one particular costumed employee. (for those unfamiliar with Ask A Slave, it is a web series created by Azie, an actress and former living history interpreter at Mount Vernon, as a satire on her experience portraying Lizzie May, a slave belonging to Martha Washington.)  Is Azie playing slave here or is she performing public service?  Is it something else entirely?

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