The Dangers of First-Person Historical Interpretation

22 08 2012

On Monday, Tom Peace posted a piece called “Colonialism and the Words We Choose” on the blog.  Peace is a postdoc at Darmouth College in New Hampshire.  Peace’s blog post began with a description of his recent visit to an unnamed local museum where the guide used antiquated language to describe the Natives who lived in the region before it was colonized by whites.

About two months ago I was in a local museum with my family learning about the eighteenth century history of the community in which the museum was located. In many ways we had a typical country museum experience. We were met by costumed interpreters and told the stories of the building and the people who lived there. Then we learned about some of the broader historical context. For our guide, the story this museum told hinged on the European settlement of the “savage wilderness inhabited only by Indians.”

Peace appears to have been deeply offended by the guide’s use of this language.

Within a few hours,   Christopher Dummitt, a historian at Trent University, has replied to Peace’s post on his Everyday History blog.

I’m not a public historian. I know that people who work in the field of public history read my blog. They are doubtless more qualified to speak about the words used by the interpreter at the museum. However, I will offer my thoughts. Many moons ago I worked at a historic site where I wore period costume. When showing visitors around the property, I always spoke about the people who had lived there in the third person. The more experienced staff did “first-person interpreting” in which they pretended to be a historical figure brought back to life.  For instance, they would profess to be mystified if a visitor’s phone rang.

Anyway, I strongly suspect that when the museum employee who referred to the local Indians as “savages,” he or she was speaking in character. Whether or not first-person interpreters should speak in character, especially about issues related to race, is a debatable point. There is always the danger of a visitor misinterpreting what is being said. However, I feel that there is value in first-person interpretation, as it’s more entertaining for the visitors, provided the staff have the skill to pull it off. 



2 responses

22 08 2012

Historical interpreters will always self-censure to some degree. I doubt visitors to the South’s antebellum homes want to hear racist remarks about niggers, coons, kaffers or what have you – it is interesting that the label ‘native’ or even ‘savage’ is considered less offensive.

Whether or not interpreters should sanitize their language in order not to cause offence is something I’m not sure about. The stuff I read in 19th century correspondence is often pretty shocking to our sensitive 21st century ears – it might be a good antidote to romanticized visions of the past if the public is occasionally confronted with the vile language and ideas prevalent at the time. But I doubt they’d be leaving a large tip for the interpreter.

23 08 2012

Yeah, your point about revenue is a crucial one. Museums can’t afford to risk alienating visitors.

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