"The Cultural Diamond." Life After Trek. Accessed October 31, 2017. https://cunyonline.digication.com/gary_eckerson_life_after_trek_
In The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History's Front Lines, Amy Tyson contextualizes the uneasy experiences of historical interpreters and reenactors within the scheme of the new economy. In doing so, she explores issues of historical "authenticity" and shared authority, while alluding to the gendering and racialization of emotional labor. For employees at Historic Fort Snelling in Minnesota, "connecting with visitors through the mechanism of history" is understood as a privilege (19). Like Rosenzweig and Thelen found in the mid-1990s, most Americans believe historical institutions are the most reliable sources of "historical fact." Tyson probelmatizes the power dynamics of historical legitimacy, how interpretation is contested between front-line workers (those engaging with audiences face-to-face) and management (those policing their narrative construction behind-the-scenes).
Tyson explains that historical interpreters are trained to both engage historical "accuracy" and provide excellent customer service. I'm intrigued by Tyson's application of sociological and economic frameworks (Marxist ideology) to the problems of public history. To expand on her interdisciplinary method, I'd like to introduce Wendy Griswold's cultural diamond (background here). Tyson opens with the question, "What does it mean for society when knowledge about the past is regarded as a product that can be delivered by interchangeable and low-paid workers?’’ (6). According to Griswold's diamond, in addition to critiquing the cultural object (the past as consumable; the "immersive" experience of the tour, reenactment, and participation), we must contextualize it within a scheme of production, asking who is creating these histories, who is consuming them, and why?
Who are the creators? Tyson's book is centered around the push and pull between front-line workers and management, how it informs the cultural product. But she skirts the question of the consumer, neglecting to identify the audience when it matters most. Chapter 5 begins with two attempts to interpret the history of slavery at Colonial Williamsburg – "the country's most well-known living museum" (145). Tyson describes how, in the 1960s, Black maintenance staff members covered a tape recording about "the life of a slave cook" to prevent visitors from hearing it. She interprets their reaction as "embarrassment," stemming from a supposed lack of racial consciousness, pre-Black Power. If Tyson were to interrogate the content of the tape itself, the positionality of the interpreter on that tape, and visitor demographics – in tandem with the Black staff members' discomfort – she could have more substantively analyzed the situation. Picture this: a white interpreter working at a historic colonial site in the 1960s records a script about "the life of a slave cook" for a white audience. The tape is likely paternalistic in tone; at best, it is a sanitized account of atrocity that is both romanticized and dehumanizing. Black staff members are forced to listen to this tape – a white interpreter speaking to a white audience about nameless Black bodies bustling about a kitchen in service to some long-dead white people. These Black maintenance staff members themselves likely clean up after these white interpreters, these white audience members – performing more services and emotional labor than any of the "front-line" workers Tyson writes about. Their smothering of this tape recording did not come from a place of embarrassment, but one of defiance – an obstruction of the white historical gaze, rather than "censorship."
Given my own suppositions, one can understand how easily Tyson's vague account could be misconstrued. The same is true of her discussion of Williamsburg's short-lived African American Interpretation Program (AAIP) and their controversial 1994 "Estate Sale" program. Tyson only goes so far as to locate the problem in terms of the medium of presentation (i.e., reenactment), constraining it to a supposedly universal "emotional and intellectual discomfort" (146). She pays no mind to the white onlookers at this reenactment of a slave auction. Which begs the real question, not of whether living history does justice to painful subject matter, but of why? For whom do we perform history, write history, interpret history? Indeed, assuming public history hasn't been completely overtaken by the sensationalist, money-making schemes of neoliberalism, where do the well-intended set their sights? On educating the masses? Put another way, who benefits from witnessing enslavement? Assuming living history is a medium of empathy, who here needs to be taught empathy? White people. Even comical renditions of historical reenactment speak to this dynamic. In Azie Dungey's "Ask A Slave," emotional labor, white ignorance, and the white gaze are all glaringly apparent. Meanwhile, Key and Peele's "Civil War Reenactment" intrudes upon the insularity of white people reenacting history, their erasure of POC from those narratives out of guilt and fragility. Historic interpretation – history itself – is an enterprise, portioned as mass produced experiences of nostalgia and nationalism.