A Grain of Salt

Well, it was bound to happen.  I knew that someday I would look back at one of my blog entries and regret writing it and undertake in learning advance computer skills simply in an effort to erase all evidence of its existence from the internet.

I just didn’t expect that moment to come so soon.

I have just returned from my first Public History class, where we were introduced to some of the main themes and debates that surround the field of Public History and, as with any good upper/graduate level university class, I did not leave with any concrete answers or definitions and, in fact, I have more questions now than I did 6 hours ago.  I just don’t see how I’m going to wade through all the debates, discussions, definitions, terms and rhetoric to find “my voice.” I just don’t see it happening, so I will likely be changing the title and goal of my blog to something a little less ambitious.

One of the items that I struggle with (and I have already been thinking about this one for a few years) was brought up when we were discussing “living,” “open-air” or “pioneer” museums.  These are the types of museums that depict a particular time by having an area maintained or restored (or, in some cases, fabricated) to show visitors what life was like “back then.” This often involves people dressed up in period costumes, engaging in activities (chores, crafts, etc) that were typical of the time being presented.

This discussion was brought up in response to an article we read by Patricia Wood entitled “The History Site as Cultural Text: A Geography of Heritage in Calgary, Alberta.” In her article, Wood examines two such living museums in Calgary (“Heritage Park Historical Village” and “Fort Calgary Historic Park”). I am referencing this article not to criticize or analyze it, but because it is the most recent piece of literature I’ve read on the topic and it is, I think, fairly indicative of the concerns that exist for these types of museums.

In Wood’s case, she criticized the sites in her case study for their historical inaccuracies (use of items that did not actually exist in the set time period or place) , tendency to glorify the time period (by omitting certain economic or social realities that existed) and their focus on commercialization (entrance fees, souvenirs, corporate investors), among other things. Intellectually, I agree with the issues that Wood, and others, have raised.  It is important to be historically accurate; it is important to be inclusive of all cultural, ethnic and religious groups and it is important to tell the “whole” history and not just the fun or happy parts.

Unfortunately, you simply can’t tell this history in these types of museums.  Who wants to visit a museum with sewage overflowing into the streets or where the employees / volunteers yell racial slurs at each other from across opposite sides of the track?

Although I understand, and to an extent agree with, the arguments against these museums, I find it hard to be too critical of them.  I think these museums serve a certain purpose and benefit certain people and I’m inclined to say that they aren’t damaging to society or brainwashing our children to believe a false version of history.  After all, weren’t we all taught a “simple” version of history as children, which  grew more complex as we went through school? If you compare your 4th grade understanding of Confederation to your 12th grade or university understanding, aren’t they completely different stories? Can’t there be different “levels” of history?

However, I do recognize that I have a different perspective on the matter because I am a student of history. I have been taught how to examine a museum, film or monument and, even if I’m unfamiliar with the subject matter, deconstruct the language, tone and rhetoric being used and evaluate whether or not it is a comprehensive or reliable version of history.

I think that those who criticize living museums (and other popular uses of history) fear that visitors are leaving them with a false understanding of history. Critics fear that these visitors accept the history that is presented to them with no questions asked.  I’m not convinced that this is the case (and for anyone reading, especially those outside the field of history, please feel free to weigh in).

As I mentioned in my introduction, I left class today with no definitive answers.  Wood criticized living museums, but was unable to come up with a solution to make them more historically accurate, while still appealing to audiences of all different ages, backgrounds and levels of education AND all the while being economically feasible in a field that has not exactly been known to be lucrative.

Unfortunately for you, after you’ve spent all this time reading (or have you all given up?), I too don’t know what the solution is.  I don’t want to present the public with historically inaccurate museums if they are going to walk away thinking they know everything there is to know about the subject.  However, I don’t want to dismantle every museum, heritage site or monument that doesn’t uphold the ideals and standards of academic scholarship (nor, just to clarify, does Wood – this is me oversimplifying the debate).

Perhaps, then, we shouldn’t worry too much about the different versions and levels of history out there and we should instead focus on arming the public with the tools required to analyze and interpret these types of histories themselves.  Instead of teaching “names and dates” history in junior-high and high school and saving all the theory for university, perhaps we can incorporate more research tools, analytic skills and critical thinking into the history curriculum.  Perhaps then, the historians will be able to relax and enjoy the horse and buggy ride, while the public visits the museum with a grain of salt.

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One thought on “A Grain of Salt

  1. Pingback: The Importance of Self-Reflection « Virtual Voice

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