J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, November 01, 2012

The Lure of Sensationalism in Boston Magazine

Earlier this month a writer for Boston Magazine contacted me seeking a quick quotation for a story on the city’s historical tourism. She asked: “Would you be able to comment on the ways that Boston sells its history as a draw for tourists? What are the ways we present the city’s history—do we do this through advertising campaigns or other ways?”

I sent back a few observations:
I don’t feel qualified to comment about Boston’s tourism advertisements.

I have noted that the region’s historic sites reflect New England’s old tradition of separatism. The Freedom Trail includes city sites, state sites, federal sites, private non-profit museums, working churches, and a burrito restaurant. Places important in the 1775-76 siege of Boston fall into four separate National Parks (Minute Man, Boston, Boston Harbor Islands, and Longfellow-Washington Nat’l Historic Site) and a multitude of municipal museums and parks. It’s amazing all those organizations work together as well as they do!

I think there’s also a tension between education and entertainment for tourists, students, or anyone else. The new Boston Tea Party Museum seems to take the most entertainment-oriented approach: visitors are constantly moving or watching and hearing a presentation or movie. Contrast that with Old South Meeting House, site of the big tea meetings. There we get to sit in the actual historic space—but of course we’re sitting in wooden pews listening to speeches, and that might just not be as exciting.

Serious historians tend to wrinkle our noses at “ghost tours” and other sensationalism. Yet as far back as the late 1700s visitors to Boston were paying to see bodies of British officers killed at Bunker Hill laid out under the Old North Church. So people have always liked sensationalism.
Not all of that got into the published article here.

The photo above is from Ben Edwards’s coverage of the 2009 reenactment of Boston’s tea meetings inside the Old South Meeting House at Teach History. This year’s reenactment is coming up on Sunday, 16 December, at 4:00 P.M., and is sponsored by both Old South and the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum. Tickets are on sale now.

4 comments:

Veritas said...

The article made some good points, but seemed to treat the Tea Party Museum as an equal to the actual historical sites in Boston which it is not. I even bristled at the suggestion that their approach is the correct one.

Don't get me wrong, the BTPS&M does some things well, and there's nothing wrong taking a fun-loving and entertaining approach to history, but you should teach the actual history, not just reinforce mythology.

J. L. Bell said...

One thing that struck me about the Tea Party Museum's format is that it doesn't leave much space for questioning. The high-tech displays present particular takes on the issues but almost nothing about sources, interpretation, open questions, &c. The guides are cheerful, but they obviously have the job of moving people through, and no one in my group (including me) asked questions during the tour.

I don't think the fact that the ships aren't from the 18th century is necessarily a drawback. Plimoth Plantation was built recently, and Old Sturbridge Village assembled on vacant farmland, both sites making historical compromises for practical reasons. But I do think the Tea Party Museum experience is more like a passive theme-park ride than most other local historical museums.

Veritas said...

Plymouth was very different because real buildings from the time period weren't still standing just down the road! But, that said, I agree with you; There is no reason history cannot be taught, and taught well, with reconstructed historical sites.

Your first comment is very apt. However, to me it is not just the way the expect passive acceptance of the history they present that bothers me; it is the fact that the history they ask me to accept is simplified to the point of National Mythology. The happy, flag-waving tale they tell is so dumbed-down that it doesn't even look like the truth anymore.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree. It would be possible to create an equally simple presentation that doesn’t invite questions from another perspective, and that would be just as bad. But it also probably wouldn't make any money.