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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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Production of History, Myths, and Tours

I’ve been writing about the controversy over Philadelphia’s plan to license tour guides to work in the historic center: useful local regulation or affront to free speech? This flared briefly into a national story while I was out of the country, and I looked into it after reading Swarthmore professor Timothy Burke’s comments on Cliopatria. That’s one of the central blogs of historical study due to its home at History News Network.

Burke offered this take on the issue:

There has already been the standard objection that this test is an unnecessary bureaucratic or regulatory burden. I’m somewhat sympathetic to that argument, not the least because I wonder what kind of test is likely to come out of Philadelphia’s municipal bureaucracy, and about how such a test is likely to acquire all sorts of encrustations and excesses over time.

But my real objection is...

I teach a class called “The Production of History” where I try to focus on the way the past is known, debated, contested and reimagined in public life, the way that historical knowledge circulates in everyday contexts. It’s tremendously difficult to get many of my students to progress past the point where they view popular or common conceptions and representations of history as errors in need of official or scholarly correction, where they start to see that how the past is known and imagined, told and retold, is something to understand and think about, not simply correct or repair.

So the problem with the proposed regulation in Philadelphia is not just the question of what kind of standard the city will end up establishing. It is also that the city is going to try to regulate fabulisms and retellings out of existence, to be a positivist nanny. I trust in the tumultuous processes by which stories about the past come into being, and through which stories about the past are evaluated by audiences (including tourists).
At first, I read Burke as saying that he values the silly stories some tour guides tell as teaching material—an approach only a history professor could take. But on third or fourth reading, I finally caught up to what he was saying. He accepts “fabulisms and retellings” as a necessary part of the process of producing fresh public understandings of the past; he trusts that process to work itself out, just as many economists trust the market.

Burke’s brief essay appears to take for granted that his readers (most of whom are, after all, other academic historians) are also aware of those “tumultuous processes,” fabulisms and all, and other their value; no examples seem necessary. In contrast, as he notes, most history students, history fans, and members of the general public are concerned with “getting it right” factually.

I think there are some weak spots in this argument. First, even college professors like folks to acknowledge documented facts. The complaints that led to Philadelphia’s new law weren’t about tour guides stating debatable points, such as how much the Navigation Acts motivated popular opposition to the Crown in the 1760s. They were about guides reportedly saying that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln had dinner together. I presume any test for tour guides would focus on the most solid, documented facts.

Equally, I’ve found many members of the public to be interested in the “Production of History.” How do we know things about the past? What did earlier generations believe? What are the big debates in the field? What new evidence has appeared? To be sure, people often ask those questions with an underlying belief that there are definite answers about what happened in the past, and that historians have the job of ferreting out those answers rather than just keeping track of the “tumultuous processes.” But I think the public is ready for some ambiguity.

Secondly, in Philadelphia those valuable tumultuous processes have produced the Betsy Ross House as one of the anchors of the historic district. More visitors to the city probably know Ross’s name than that of any other Philadelphian of the time but Franklin. And yet there’s no solid evidence linking her to the creation of the U.S. flag, as her legend has it. Yes, it’s fascinating how Americans have come to remember Ross so much more than such contemporaries as Thomas Mifflin, Esther Reed, or Margaret Thomas. But historical tourism in Philadelphia may not have the best record of helping audiences evaluate the stories of the past.

Finally, to return to my analogy about economists trusting the market, most of those social scientists also see the need for some government regulation. (Some economists don’t, of course.) In the same vein, governments often step in to influence the generation and spread of stories about the past: by publishing records, vetting textbooks, preserving sites, erecting statuary, choosing holidays, employing history professors, &c. Testing and licensing tour guides would be just another government step in Philadelphia, one that other cities and sites have already taken.

So we still have the original question of whether Philadelphia’s plan is a useful or an unwarranted intrusion into the marketplace/process.

TOMORROW: My own prescription for the City of Brotherly Love.

[ADDENDUM: By coincidence, the latest issue of Colonial Williamsburg magazine contains an article by Ed Crews titled “The Truth About Betsy Ross.”]

1 comment:

Larry Cebula said...

We have all been annoyed at shallow, silly, and just plain wrong historical interpretation. Last week my wife and I led a group of 20 teachers from around the state of Missouri on a week-long tour of historic sites along the Missouri River from Saint Louis to Kansas City. We met some tremendously knowledgeable folks along the way and learned a lot.

But at different places along the way we were also told that 1) slaves used quilt patterns to signal one another along the Underground Railroad, 2) beds were short because people were shorter "in those days," 3) old houses had few closets because you were taxed on doors "in those days," and other similar nonsense.

But what are you going to do? As bad as the academic job market is, we are never going to find people with history PhDs manning every historic site. And even if we did they would be useless and boring, we mostly are not trained to do public interpretation.

The real point of this regulation is to decrease competition among historic tours and keep prices high. It is classic rent-seeking.