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The Wages of History

The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History's Front Lines

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    The Wages of History
    Book Description:

    Anyone who has encountered costumed workers at a living history museum may well have wondered what their jobs are like, churning butter or firing muskets while dressed in period clothing. In The Wages of History, Amy Tyson enters the world of the public history interpreters at Minnesota’s Historic Fort Snelling to investigate how they understand their roles and experience their daily work. Drawing on archival research, personal interviews, and participant observation, she reframes the current discourse on history museums by analyzing interpreters as laborers within the larger service and knowledge economies. Although many who are drawn to such work initially see it as a privilege—an opportunity to connect with the public in meaningful ways through the medium of history—the realities of the job almost inevitably alter that view. Not only do interpreters make considerable sacrifices, both emotional and financial, in order to pursue their work, but their sense of special status can lead them to avoid confronting troubling conditions on the job, at times fueling tensions in the workplace. This case study also offers insights—many drawn from the author’s seven years of working as an interpreter at Fort Snelling—into the way gendered roles and behaviors from the past play out among the workers, the importance of creative autonomy to historical interpreters, and the ways those on public history’s front lines both resist and embrace the site’s more difficult and painful histories relating to slavery and American Indian genocide.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-268-4
    Subjects: History, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. INTRODUCTION Customer Service Superstars
    (pp. 1-24)

    APRIL 2, 2001

    After initial greetings in the lobby of the Fort Snelling History Center, my co-workers and I take our seats in the auditorium. Nearly fifty people—mostly seasonal workers hired either as gift shop clerks or costumed guides—are gathered for the annual spring training at this Minnesota historic site. Behind me, I hear male co-workers joking about the costume-measurement forms we guides are filling out: ʺHey, what are you putting for your bust size?ʺ In a caricatured, effeminate voice someone responds, ʺLetʹs see …ʺ While this might have offended me during my first season, now Iʹm familiar...

  6. PART I Public Historyʹs Emotional Proletariat (1960–1996)

    • CHAPTER 1 PERFORMING A PUBLIC SERVICE From Historic Site to Work Site (1960–1985)
      (pp. 27-54)

      On a spring Sunday in 1965, Mr. Richard J. Weiss—a lifelong resident of Minnesota—visited Fort Snelling to fly kites with his children. While there, he and his family toured the old Fortʹs buildings and visited the newly opened Fort Snelling State Park, which lay at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. Dismayed by what he saw, Weiss wrote a concerned letter to the Minnesota Department of Conservation noting that he had ʺnever seen a historical place in suchpoorshape.ʺ¹

      Weiss described his visit to the state park as a disappointing ʺlong walk through uninteresting bottom...

    • CHAPTER 2 “OUR SEAT AT THE TABLE” Interpreter Agency and Consent (1985–1996)
      (pp. 55-84)

      In 1980, Gavin saw an ad in one of the local Twin Cities newspapers advertising a job for a blacksmith at Historic Fort Snelling. College educated and in his early thirties, Gavin admittedly did not have experience blacksmithing, but he had read books on the subject with great interest. He applied for the position, got the job, and began his first season at the Fort in 1981. Thrust into a living history work culture that—given the antics of Company H—he described as ʺliterally, a madhouse,ʺ Gavin nonetheless relished this new job, which not only allowed him the opportunity...

  7. PART II Historic Fort Snellingʹs Front Line (1996–2006)

    • CHAPTER 3 THE WAGES OF LIVING HISTORY Rewards and Costs of Emotional Investment
      (pp. 87-115)

      Oliver:The first year at the Fort was the honeymoon year. I felt like nothing could go wrong; when things did go wrong, I was either naïve enough not to know it or I didnʹt care. I was just so grateful to be in a challenging, intellectually stimulating environment—certainly in comparison to retail—and the feedback I got from fellow interpreters and from the public was an amazing ego rush.

      During the second year, cracks started to appear in the veneer—the politics that come with any job: various staff members continually butting heads, and the limitations of the...

    • CHAPTER 4 PURSUING AUTHENTICITY Creative Autonomy and Workplace Games
      (pp. 116-144)

      Martin:When I was younger and I went to play with my friends, we would play army and run around in the woods. And sometimes I feel like if we would run around a little bit more at the Fort, thatʹs what we would be doing, you know? We have schedules we have to follow during our game of army, but itʹs the same thing. I think that this is a key part of it: if you get to work with other people who are good interpreters and visitors who want to participate in the interpretive experience, those are the...

    • CHAPTER 5 INTERPRETING PAINFUL HISTORIES Emotional Comfort and Connecting
      (pp. 145-171)

      Jacob:I think itʹs good that somebody talks about [slavery at the Fort], but I donʹt want it to be me. I feel somewhat uncomfortable talking about it.

      In Colonial Williamsburg—the countryʹs most well-known living museum—we can see the genesis of living historyʹs attempts to tackle the painful historical narrative of American slavery. With the stated aim of telling the story of eighteenth-century Williamsburg residents, Colonial Williamsburg was a tourist attraction for three decades before it attempted to interpret the lives of eighteenth-century free and enslaved African Americans, who made up roughly 50 percent of Williamsburgʹs population in...

    (pp. 172-178)

    Taking a historical perspective shows us that the mushrooming of first-person living history museums across the landscape in the early 1970s was coterminous with the expansion of the service and knowledge economies. Largely charged with the tasks of performing preindustrial skills for postindustrial tourists, interpreters at these sites became the linchpins of living museumsʹ ability to produce meaningful experiences for visitors. The growing body of scholarship on these types of public historical spaces has shown that while frontline interpreters have been valued for their interpersonal and affective potential as ʺcustomer service superstars,ʺ they have also tended to be devalued within...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 179-216)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 217-225)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 226-226)