Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Public History as Labor

This week’s readings introduced us to the living history museum, its living history performers, and their role in the larger work force. The historian Amy Tyson examined the Historic Fort Snelling, a living history museum in Minnesota, in The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines. In her study Tyson coined the term “emotional/public history proletariat” to explain the idea that while historic sites were entrusted with educating the public, they were also responsible for providing personalized customer service and positive interactions with visitors. In this way, living history performers were just as much a part of the general cultural work force and were subject to many of the tensions and competition common to the workplace environment. Tyson’s principle argument is that workers in cultural institutions seek to maintain a self-identity rather than adhere to the collective identity “embedded in the larger workplace culture” (Tyson 24). This is seen in various examples throughout Tyson’s study, particularly in her examination of the relationship between living history performers. Many sought to maintain their autonomy as they developed various skills specific to their character that would set them apart from their coworkers. In seeking to solidify an identity for themselves, tensions arose when workers competed with one another to maintain a foothold at Historic Fort Snelling. Methodologically, Tyson’s work is reminiscent of Cathy Stanton’s The Lowell Experiment, which Tyson cites heavily throughout. Tyson, like Stanton, conducted an ethnographic study of workers at these respective historic sites. Tyson, however, immersed herself as a living history performer during her job at the Fort. Stanton called for public historians to be reflexive and understand that they are not exempt from the various forces that we look for in visitors. Tyson responded to this call, particularly in her explanation of her quasi-conflict with a fellow coworker. In Chapter 4, Tyson talked about when she was reprimanded by a coworker for forgetting her shoes during her “performance.” Tyson writes that, “Although being subject to this kind of surveillance was upsetting in and of itself, what was especially upsetting to me was that I was made to feel alienated for doing something that I had felt was a minor but nonetheless thoughtful contribution to the larger organizational goal…” (Tyson 132). This situation highlighted that Tyson was not exempt from the workplaces forces that made her feel excluded and shamed. Tyson’s immersion in the situation of her subjects provided an excellent element to better understanding the taxing emotions of the cultural sector, particularly at this site. Tyson’s work extended Stanton’s study at Lowell. However, while I am a proponent of self-reflection as a public historian, I wonder if Tyson was too emotionally invested in her subjects and if that negatively colored her ability to write her research conclusions. But perhaps I am being too harsh - after all, she did state that she wanted to demonstrate how this work could become emotionally taxing, which Tyson did effectively.

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