Thursday, June 9, 2011

Palin and Paul Revere

A great article from CNN.com-- read it here. This really, really explains Why History is important, and how it can be manipulated, forgotten, and fabricated to suit anyone's ends. Really insightful.

Or, I've also cut and pasted it below (in case the link dies):



Editor's note: Kenneth C. Davis is the author of "Don't Know Much About History," which will be published this month in a newly revised, updated and expanded edition by HarperCollins.

(CNN) -- "Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, / On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five, / Hardly a man is now alive / Who remembers that famous day and year."

If nothing else is right about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, first published more than 85 years after that legendary ride, the part about not remembering the day and year rings true.

Since Sarah Palin's impromptu discourse on Paul Revere, there has been much discussion of her account. She referred to the famed horseman as, "He who warned the British that they weren't going to be taking away our arms by ringing those bells and making sure as he's riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free."

Her words provoked an awful lot of hysteria, but not enough history, about this signal event.

It would be easy to turn this into a "gotcha" moment, to catch misconceptions and mistakes -- of which many of us are guilty. Survey after survey show that many Americans are woefully inadequate when it comes to knowing about our nation's past. So maybe we can call this one of those teachable moments that gives us a chance to bust myths and perhaps learn a larger lesson about why we are so confused about our history and what we can do about it.

First, to Paul Revere and his "midnight ride."

To set the scene. Revere's legendary ride started -- as Longfellow stated -- "On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five." The Declaration of Independence was more than a year away. George Washington was not yet in command of a Continental army. In fact, there was no army and no United States. Most of the 13 colonies' inhabitants considered themselves British subjects, many quite loyal to the Crown.

That is sad. And dangerous. It is sad because history is compelling, fascinating and instructive, if we tell the real story.
--Kenneth Davis

But it was a tense, dangerous time in Boston, then under martial law. Some 3,000 British troops, many living in private homes under the Quartering Act, were despised by the people of Massachusetts. Boston was reeling under a harsh economic blockade passed in the aftermath of the "Tea Party" in December 1773. Jobs were scarce and the mood was made grimmer by a smallpox epidemic.

Animosity between the British and the insurgents was high. When colonial militiamen seized British gunpowder from a New Hampshire fort in December 1774, the rumors of war ratcheted even higher. In spring 1775, Gen. Thomas Gage, the British military governor of Massachusetts, had one simple goal: Arrest the treasonous ringleaders of the "insurrection," political firebrand Samuel Adams and wealthy merchant John Hancock, and capture some hundred barrels of gunpowder hidden in Concord.

On the night of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere, silversmith, engraver and denture-maker, and several other patriot messengers, got their riding orders from Dr. Joseph Warren, one of the patriot ringleaders. Warren had learned through his spies that the British would move to capture or kill Hancock and Adams. Revere and other riders, including tanner William Dawes, were dispatched to warn the two men that British troops were on the move to arrest them in Lexington and seize the powder hidden in Concord.

Revere arranged for the famous lantern signal to be hung from the Old North Church to alert the other riders in case he was captured. In Charlestown, across the river from Boston, Dawes and others awaited word of how the British troops would move: "By land" if they were marching across Boston Neck; or "by sea" if they were crossing the Charles River in longboats. It was "by sea," but a poorly organized operation. It took hours for the British troops to cross the Charles.

Setting out around 11 p.m., Revere and Dawes both reached Lexington by separate routes and warned Hancock and Adams, stopping along the way to alert local patriot militia -- the Minute Men -- that "The Regulars are coming out." Then they were joined by a young physician, Samuel Prescott, and headed for Concord. British soldiers on patrol stopped them, Revere was captured and his horse taken from him; Prescott escaped.

By then, the word had spread among the farmers and merchants, those Minute Men who had been training as a militia for months, to await the British at Lexington and Concord Greens. In the early morning of April 19, 1775, shots were exchanged between the rebels and Redcoats. Who fired the "shot heard round the world" is a mystery. But as the British later trudged back to Boston, they were attacked constantly. Veteran troops of the world's most powerful army took heavy losses that would shock London. The die was truly cast. The American Revolution was under way.

The truth of Revere's ride, the long road to American independence and the real people behind that extraordinary moment is a far more compelling narrative of intrigue, courage and a life-and-death battle for power than the "bedtime story" version most of us recall from half-remembered third grade poetry.

But we prefer holding onto a tidy scenario of pride and patriotism that is neither accurate nor memorable, if we remember at all. Instead, we settle for ignorance, as periodic surveys of American knowledge of history routinely prove. Or we cobble together a sketchy narrative combining fact and fiction to comfortably fit our political agendas.

That is sad. And dangerous. It is sad because history is compelling, fascinating and instructive -- if we tell the real story.

But it is also dangerous when people "cherry pick" pieces of the story to suit their purposes, when the foot is cut to fit the shoe. A sanitized but incomplete, or worse, wildly inaccurate, version of history can be cited to support just about any political stand. Like scripture, the words and deeds of the Founders, mixed with bits and pieces of American mythology, are trumpeted to support positions on every issue from individual rights, states' rights, gun rights or gun control, to taxes, immigration, public prayer and, most dangerously, taking the nation to war.

When American history is gutted, innocently, ignorantly or deliberately, the outcome can be deadly. If we are told that there is no separation of church and state in the First Amendment, that the Founders worked tirelessly to end slavery or that the Revolution was all about taxes on tea, we are hearing half-truths or outright fabrications. Our extraordinary history deserves better. The truth shall set you free.

By the way, Paul Revere, a true American hero who took enormous risks, served in the militia during the Revolution but was later accused of cowardice. A court martial acquitted him in 1782 and he lived a long, prosperous life, dying in 1818 at age 83.

And Longfellow? He too suited historical facts to fit his purposes. An ardent Abolitionist, he wrote his poem in 1861 to inspire patriotic sentiment among fellow Unionists, turning Revere's ride into a symbolic warning as the nation confronted the next great crisis -- the Civil War.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Public Vs. Academic

Hey everyone,
So it's been awhile, but believe me, I've been doing my share of history! I got moved off of the microfilm and into manuscripts, which has been incredibly exciting. But this morning I don't have a ton of time, so I'm going to just give you a paper that I wrote a long time ago (in 2007, in fact) about public versus academic history. It's not my best paper ever, and I was much, much younger then-- four years age-wise, of course, but also, as my historical education has gone, I know much more now. There are things I would change now, both about the style and the content, but overall I think it's still pretty solid. I wrote it for my internship in Public History, in which I worked in Foodways (the 18th-century kitchens) in Colonial Williamsburg. Enjoy! (Also, you might notice that since writing this paper my position on historical accuracy has changed, see the previous Why History? entry!)

In his article “History is a Luxury: Mrs. Thatcher, Mr. Disney, and (Public) History,” Douglas Greenburg asks, “Are entertainment and serious history really antithetical, as some argue?” [1] Through the course of the past semester, I have found myself debating the same thing. For the past four months I have been an intern with the Foodways division of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. This entails dressing in period costume, learning to cook using colonial implements (or, in my case, learning how to cook at all), compiling recipes for a planned Colonial Williamsburg cookbook, and, most importantly, interpreting the Governor’s Palace Kitchen and the Peyton Randolph Kitchen to the public.

The breach between public historians and academic historians is a major component within the field of history, but before participating in this NIAHD course I did not know that such a breach existed. According to James C. Curtis, part of the reason for this wide gap between public and academic history is that “we are never quite sure whether museums should be popular, and whether history should appeal to the masses… popularize is a term of derision.”[2] Another reason for the split is the fact that academic historians tend to question the legitimacy of public historians, or even to discredit their work as “present[ing] a distorted past because the present imposes its present-day ideology on it.”[3] After working in Foodways, I would have to argue that while we do try to entertain the public, we try equally as hard to present them with an accurate rendering of the colonial kitchens. As to the claim that our interpretations as public historians are colored by our present-day ideology, I would have to argue that it is impossible not to be influenced by the present; I do not believe that even one academic historian has written a book without some kind of contemporary bias. Furthermore, in response to the claim that popularization is derisive, I can only say that as public historians we strive for popularity with the public. The mission at Foodways is to teach and to entertain the public; we try to “tantalize [their] tastebuds,”[4] or at least their olfactory senses. This seems antithetical to the academic mission of conducting scholarly research, the findings of which will be distributed almost solely to other historians. However, the historical knowledge of the staff at Foodways is in no way inferior to that of the academic historians who have authored several of the texts referenced in this paper. In comparison with academic historians the knowledge of the public historians may be more specialized and their research more limited and specific,[5] but they are historians, nonetheless, and they transmit their findings in a personal way to the public.

One of my favorite parts of my Foodways internship was participating in Chocolate-Making Day, which occurs the first Tuesday of every month. The first time that I went to the Governor’s Palace Kitchen was the first Tuesday of February, thus I was thrown into the process of interpreting chocolate-making without delay. Jim Gay, my internship ‘mentor’, who specializes in chocolate-making and the history of chocolate, leads the program. Through a combination of interpretation and actually watching the chocolate-making in action, the Foodways staff connects the process to the public. While answering questions and sometimes correcting long-believed fallacies, they always engage their audience with history. To make chocolate, first one must have cacao beans, or as they were called in the colonial period, cacao nuts. The nuts must be roasted over the fire in a process similar to roasting coffee beans—they can have a dark, medium, or light roast, though the light roast tastes somewhat sour and fruity, and the dark roast might burn out a bit of the chocolate flavor. Periodically, Jim would hand out nuts to either me or Barbara to have us test them for flavor. The optimal flavor was one that tasted somewhat nutty and, for lack of a better word, chocolate-y. After the nuts have reached their perfect roast, they must be peeled out of their shells, a bit like peanuts. Except unlike peanut shells, which are discarded, cacao nut shells are saved in a separate dish to make a tea; in Europe this drink was considered low-class and vulgar, but in the United States, Jim says, George Washington petitioned one of his friends for the shells so that Mrs. Washington could make her favorite light tea.[6] After tasting cacao nut tea, I agree with Mrs. Washington—the drink was very much like a breakfast tea, but with a bitter, nutty aftertaste much like the aftertaste of a piece of dark chocolate.

As we shelled, tourists circulated into and out of the kitchen, most of them attracted by the smell. While they exclaimed over seeing chocolate made, Jim interpreted the story of the nuts and the story of chocolate in the colonial period. Chocolate as we know it today is mostly West African chocolate, and a lower-quality bean type than the colonists used (because they didn’t know there was a lower-quality bean type). However, at the Palace Kitchens, we use only the best cacao beans. At the time, the best beans came from Venezuela. Due to the proximity of South America to the British Colonies in North America, and the fact that it wasn’t heavily taxed, chocolate was not an item reserved only for the landed gentry. Rather, chocolate could be found at a reasonable price at nearly any store. According to Jim, there are some reports of chocolate being served at army camps and to prisoners.[7] However, chocolate gets its elitist reputation from Europe, where it was heavily taxed. In the colonies that would become the United States, there were seventy chocolate makers. In London, there was one. In Paris, there was one.[8] At this fact, many of the people for whom we interpreted were shocked. They had always been under the impression that chocolate was nearly impossible to get, not that it was commonplace in nearly every household. The pervasiveness of this fallacy is great; the other day, on a walk with a friend, I brought up the subject of chocolate. She told me all she knew about it was that it was reserved for the aristocracy only—she was surprised to hear that she could have bought it in colonial shops.

Given the depth of Jim’s knowledge about chocolate and his ability to put his knowledge into action, can we say that he is any less of a historian than the academic with a position at a university? Some would argue yes. James Krugler writes that “the critical difference is that academic scholars formulate their own questions, whereas the public historian ‘answers questions posed by others.’”[9] Furthermore, an academic scholar might find fault with Jim and the rest of the Foodways staff for having appeared on the Food Network in a show entitled Dinner Impossible[10] in which they help a professional chef cook a colonial meal. Judging from the public’s reaction to the staff in the days after the episode aired, the show was a success, but academic historians would probably find such a display of history somewhat too public. Yet, James C. Curtis argues that “we cannot simply ignore the fact that we live in a country saturated by mass media…Even a mecca like Colonial Williamsburg estimates that it reaches more people through its media programs than it attracts to the restored city itself.”[11] If a program on the Food Network generates both interest in history and revenue, it should be considered valuable to the discipline. Or would academic historians argue that profiting from history cheapens it? If that is the case, I pose the following question: without funding, how can history hope to sustain itself against the tide of Hollywood movies and television-show based theme parks that have flooded the entertainment markets? Though I am an advocate of completely accurate history down to eye color, even I can concede that in order to ensure that history has a future, historians must do something to keep the public interested—history needs funding as much as it needs students.

Academic historians do not criticize public history just because it holds popular appeal. They bring up valid arguments as to the reasons why they feel that it is less legitimate than scholarly history. One of the main questions involving living history museums, such as Colonial Williamsburg, is “can it live?”[12] In his article “Living History: Simulating Everyday Life in Living Museums,” Jay Anderson proposes two answers to that question: yes, if somewhat modified, and no. Anderson contrasts the two opposing viewpoints through historian James Deetz and historian Robert Ronsheim. Deetz “argued that living history should be taken to its logical conclusion—first person interpretation in a completely re-created cultural landscape…Deetz contended that living museums should re-create…facsimiles of entire cultures.”[13] However, this is an optimistic view; living museums as mini-societies entirely reproduced may be too great an undertaking, perhaps even impossible. Robert Ronsheim argues “The past is dead and cannot be brought back to life…Nor can any material re-creation ever be complete or authentic.”[14] This is not to say that Ronsheim finds living history unimportant; on the contrary, he says that living history is an essential tool that “can aid the visitor to a clearer perception of the past.”[15] Yet, if living history museums can’t offer completely accurate representations of the villages and towns they strive to interpret, academic historians feel validated in their belief that public history is somehow less legitimate than their own brand of study.

Before starting my internship, I held the belief that Colonial Williamsburg was a Deetzsian paradise: everyone would be in character living and thinking just like a colonist. However, after the first day at the Governor’s Palace Kitchen it became quite clear that we were not there to make people feel like they had walked into an alien culture. Rather, we were there as interpreters, presenting the past to the public, giving it our evaluation, and then letting them take what they wanted from our rendition. In this sense, Foodways operates not as an experiment in time-travel, but rather along the lines of Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation. Anderson writes that at Colonial Pennsylvania Plantation “the medium of research, finding out how ordinary people actually once lived…became the message. Historiography itself became the exhibit. Both staff and visitors shared the same perspective; they were people living in the present, curious about…their counterparts in the past.”[16] This method of presenting living history produces a brilliant compromise between trying to turn museum sites into cultural facsimiles which would inevitably be riddled with flaws in accuracy, and “avoid[ing] dealing with specific portions of the past,”[17] as Ronsheim claims academic historians are able to do. In the colonial kitchens, the Foodways staff and I are not portraying specific chefs, slaves, or scullery maids. Instead, we are like the public that we speak to, despite our colonial clothing. When we interpret, we know what a modern refrigerator is, and we can bring up the contrasts in colonial cooking versus cooking today. As people just like them, we can connect to the public in a more personal way than we could if we acted like electrical ovens were creations from the Twilight Zone (which we also would not be able to reference). However, this method of interpretation without specific character has its cons, especially when members of the public do not understand that we are not pretending to be colonists; even when they do understand, often our colonial mode of dress captivates their attention more than our historical knowledge.

Perhaps it is the costumes—and the theatrics, in general—of public history that causes academic historians to so despise the sub-discipline. Anderson writes that “the primary functions of living history [are] research, interpretation, and play.”[18] The word ‘play’ is often associated with theatre, and theatre does not have a clean record when it comes to accurate portrayals. James C. Curtis explains that in many cases historical films tend to be filled with inaccuracies, usually “merely reflect[ing] some literary stereotype of the past.”[19] Because theatre all too often takes liberties with creative license, perhaps the academic historians have taken a logical step by assuming that living history museums, with their “costumes (period costumes), props (artifacts), and sets (historic sites),”[20] will take the same license with history. However, from my experience, this is not the case. The staff at Foodways is very knowledgeable about the history that they are presenting, and present nothing that they do not know for a fact. Furthermore, like academic scholars, they conduct their own research, even if it is on a specified topic. On the other hand, I know that not every reenactor is a historian, nor do all reenactors conduct historical research. Perhaps the academic historian forgets about the PhD’s in the field of public history when he or she stumbles across a bank clerk in costume, out for a weekend of leisurely reenactment. From this encounter, the academic historian may therefore decide that public history, with its appeal to the masses, must not be a serious endeavor. Yet, according to James Gardner, public history is an extremely important endeavor: public historians must correct the old, comfortable myths taught in our schools and enlighten the public to the challenge of interpreting history.[21]

Douglas Greenberg asserts, “History is public property. Like it or not, many Americans regard their national and local past as a possession not to be tampered with by scholars…[History] speaks directly to their identity and sense of nationhood…people believe that they know something about it and…they resent being told that they do not.”[22] In working with the public, I have found that this argument rings very true. Correcting people about the availability of chocolate usually leads to shocked smiles and utterances of, “Well, I had no idea!” but sometimes correcting long-held beliefs isn’t so simple. Sometimes the corrections are little things, like that ice cream was actually a popular food item, or that a child would have had beer to drink instead of hot chocolate. Occasionally, these statements don’t go over too well. Even when you explain that the Governor’s Palace had an ice house, some people still refuse to belief that it was possible for ice to still be there in August. Sometimes people are offended at the concept of giving a child alcohol, even after we explain that water was often too dangerous to drink.

At other times, people get defensive. Once, when I was cooking drinking chocolate (a process different from chocolate-making), a man who lived in Hershey, Pennsylvania, decided to explain to me and Jim about how chocolate was made. Furthermore, he contended that he knew the man responsible for M&M’s. When Jim tried to tell him about the difference between colonial chocolate-making and Hershey’s chocolate-making, the man didn’t want to hear it. He also seemed offended at the idea that the earliest chocolate recipe found in Virginia is a prototype almond M&M. He seemed to like living history, but only insofar as he could project his own knowledge onto it. Another day, a woman came into the Governor’s Palace Kitchen and said, “The leading cause of death among women in the colonial period, other than childbirth, was by bursting into flame while cooking over an open fire. Don’t you ever worry about that?” When Barbara responded that she was mistaken, the woman grew indignant. Barbara explained that our clothes were entirely cotton, which doesn’t catch on fire as easily as polyester blends, and therefore a person catching on fire was not usually a hazard in the kitchen. Still, the woman persisted, saying that she had earned her degree in History and Women’s Studies and she knew she was right. Barbara decided to just let it go. Later, Jim told me that he had only found one report of anyone ever dying in a kitchen fire and, according to the report, the person had been somewhat drunk at the time.[23]

Yet, slavery is the most sensitive subject to interpret, especially at the Peyton Randolph Kitchen. Peyton Randolph and his wife owned twenty-seven slaves between the two of them; we are fairly certain that they had a slave-woman as their main cook. Therefore, presenting in the Randolph Kitchen can sometimes become clouded with modern emotions and, at times, even aversions. Slavery tends to be something that most people try to forget existed in a place as ‘quaint’ as Colonial Williamsburg. Regardless, slaves were an important part of the social fabric and do not deserve their virtual banishment to the recesses of the present-day tourist mindset; yet, if they are remembered the situation becomes an uncomfortable one. Nor do slave-owners deserve the one-sided treatment that they tend to receive from the public: that they were fundamentally evil men and women intent on bringing down a race. The issue of slavery is far more complicated than a short conversation with a stranger in a kitchen can possibly allow for, and that makes the Foodways staff guilty of avoidance. When asked about slaves at the Governor’s Palace, we brush over the topic—after all, the Governor had two trained chefs in the kitchen, not slave labor. But at the Randolph Kitchen the situation requires more handling. Generally, the public is shocked at the number of slaves owned by Peyton Randolph. How, then, do we redeem the qualities of the man as an intellectual and politician? How can we make the public understand that in the colonial era the mindset was entirely different from the mindset of the twenty-first century? How can we judge a man who lived in a world of different ideologies and assumptions? It is this kind of history that James Gardner refers to when he says that we must challenge the public: “Telling the Truth About History [sic] may be painful but can also be liberating. This isn’t about being partisan or presenting a political point of view but about challenging visitors to think, to engage in the past in all its messiness.”[24]

Being an intern put me in an interesting position. As a student intern, I fulfilled the role of the public by listening and learning from the Foodways staff, but to the public, the second I put on my colonial costume, I became the historian. As Jim once told me, “When you’re in costume, people cease to think of you as a living person. If you cut yourself, they don’t realize that you might need a Band-Aid.”[25] In this sense, I could see from two perspectives. As a member of the public, I felt that I could evaluate the pros and cons of the interpretation that was given in the kitchens. On a basic level, certain members of the staff would leave it up to the tourists to ask questions, without giving any direction for the discourse. At these times, the public would stand awkwardly in the kitchen, and then leave after a comment about the beautiful food. However, for the most part the staff members were skilled at the give and take between themselves and the public. And, as a member of the public, I could appreciate the entertainment value of the kitchens. For example, every staff member had their ‘hook’ to draw people in—whether it was through examining the exotic look of the dishes or saying, “I’m just the crazy guy in the kitchen!”[26] Through these introductions, they drew in the public (and me). Then they continued their interpretation, interesting the public in the history of the kitchen, the colonial food, and the colonial dining experience.

However, I was not simply a visitor to the Colonial Williamsburg museum—I was dressed in a colonial costume and hard at work preparing the colonial food that the public so admired once it was displayed. In this capacity, I learned the both the joys and the difficulties of interpreting a living history museum. Though most of the public took interest in the prepared food, engaging them in history was a bit more difficult. Though they liked to have the colonial cooking implements explained, such as the clockjack and the Dutch Oven, some didn’t want to hear a speech about what dining with the Royal Governor would have entailed. Given only a few minutes to grab the attention of the public, and further to explain to them the complexities of daily life over a period of several generations, is not an easy thing—perhaps this is why academic historians find public history of little value. What, exactly, does the public get from such a short brush with the past? And, to keep their attention for the few minutes we’re given, don’t we, as public historians, make concessions to entertainment? Furthermore, what of importance does public history, with its focus on the specifics of everyday life, contribute to the body of historical knowledge?

To attempt to answer these questions, I must first explain that in the course of my internship I was both historian for the public, interpreting the colonial lifestyle to anyone who wandered into the kitchen, and a researcher behind-the-scenes. For part of my internship, I focused on helping to compile a cookbook that will hopefully soon be published through the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. This research involved searching through colonial cookbooks for the recipes given on a master list and making copies. Though this sounds like an easy task, it could at times be arduous, both in the amount of copying and the fact that the master list tended to give the wrong page numbers for recipes, or worse, the wrong titles for recipes. However, due to these errors, I ended up reading quite a bit of the colonial cookbooks with which I worked. All of them had essentially the same language to explain their recipes; they never gave any temperatures, cook times, and rarely any concrete measurements beyond the most essential of the ingredients. For example, a recipe may say to use six eggs and a pound of flour, followed by instructions to add some butter, and sugar to taste. Yet, it is exactly this vagueness of the materials that I researched which allowed me to understand the value of reenactment and living history museums. In a library, the colonial cookbooks are of little value; even in a modern kitchen they are virtually unusable. But in the kitchens of Colonial Williamsburg, with the proper tools and space for which the cookbooks were written, their text comes to life.

What does the public get out of living history and museums? If all goes to plan, the public gets “history in usable, tangible, and visible forms.”[27] Moreover, the public should find that its long-held assumptions are challenged by living history; as evidenced above, even a simple conversation could radically change a belief. Gardner asserts that the public needs to be involved with the history being interpreted. Public history should “be broad enough to encompass the diverse experiences of the American people and the multiple political and ideological perspectives of our visitors.”[28] The public should find that the history they encounter in museums or at living history sites sparks an intellectual interest. Visitors to museums should find in public history not only answers to their questions, but they should question their presumed answers. Museums do not present an unbiased picture of the past, nor should the public expect them to do so. They should find themselves engaged by the interpretation of the museum, but they should understand that “museums have shifted…to issues of significance and meaning.”[29]

Do public historians make concessions to entertainment? Yes, of course. But “museum historians stand with one foot planted in popular scholarship and the other in academic scholarship.”[30] They understand that history sells, and “public historians… who wish to reach a larger and broader audience must heed this fact.”[31] So, are entertainment and serious history antithetical? Through my internship I have come to the conclusion that they are not. This does not mean, however, that I would advocate the Disney-fication of living history museums. Theme parks have their own place on the entertainment spectrum, and though I believe that living history museums can share certain aspects of theme parks, such as costumed interpreters interacting with the public, Colonial Williamsburg should not try to emulate the Disney machinery. Theme parks and living history museums share one thing in common: they attempt to attract the public through exhibitions. But living history museums should not view the materialistic, escapist, mindlessness that has led to the success of theme parks as their ticket into the future. Their mission is separate: museums are resources for understanding and learning about the past, not pleasant places to take the family for a senseless diversion (although museums should be pleasant places). And, while it is possible for historical accuracy to be lost to entertainment value, especially in Hollywood films, in living history museums history can be well-researched, completely accurate, and fun at the same time. In the Colonial Williamsburg kitchens, a fact was never uttered without absolute certainty, yet the public still found their experience entertaining. Perhaps this is not a credit so much to historians, but to history itself.

Without living history, much valuable knowledge would be lost. Not only would the cookbooks prove useless and dull, but the everyday phenomena which the people of the past took for granted would remain a mystery. Unless one has actually moved around in a full skirt and felt the tightness of a corset while trying to bend over to fill a fireplace with charcoal, one can not fully appreciate the trials of the past. Without learning how the oven feels at ‘bread heat’ or at ‘custard heat’, the cookbooks mean nothing. Furthermore, without living history, the taste of syllabub, the complexities of flavor in a colonial-style home-brewed beer, and the art of sweetening and spicing chocolate to perfection could well have been lost to the passage of time. Krugler asks us to “imagine landscape without Historic St. Mary’s City, without Old Sturbridge Village without Colonial Williamsburg, without Monticello. How much poorer our understanding of life in early America would be.”[32] Perhaps the knowledge garnered through reenactment isn’t always academically ‘valuable’ to the body of historical knowledge; after all, you can’t write down the exact difference between a dash of cinnamon and a pinch of cinnamon. Nevertheless, living history adds substance and flavor to the blandness of brittle textbooks.



[1] Douglas Greenberg, “History is a Luxury: Mrs. Thatcher, Mr. Disney, and (Public) History, Reviews in American History, Vol. 26, no. 1, Special Issue: The Challenge of American History. (Mar., 1998) p. 303

[2] James C. Curtis, “Clio’s Dilemma: To Be a Muse or to Be Amusing,” Material Culture and the Study of American Life, ed. By Ian Quimby, Winterthur, De.: The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1978 p. 202

[3] John D. Krugler, “Behind the Public Presentations: Research and Scholarship at Living History Museums of Early America,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 48, no. 3 (Jul., 1991) p. 349, 356

[4] Barbara Scherer, April 21st, 2007

[5] Krugler, p.362-363

[6] Jim Gay, May 1st, 2007

[7] Jim Gay, April 3rd, 2007

[8] Jim Gay, February 6th, 2007

[9] Krugler, p. 362

[10] Robert Irvine, “Ye Olde Dinner Impossible”: Dinner Impossible. Food Network, Feb. 7th, 2007

[11] Curtis, p. 202

[12] Jay Anderson, “Living History: Simulating Everyday Life in Living Museums,” American Quarterly, Vol. 34, no. 3 (1982) p. 297

[13] Anderson, p. 298

[14] Anderson, p. 298

[15] Anderson, p. 298

[16] Anderson, p. 300

[17] Anderson, p. 299

[18] Anderson, p. 290

[19] Curtis, p. 204

[20] Anderson, p. 291

[21] Gardner, p. 15, 18

[22] Greenberg, p. 300

[23] Jim Gay, April 12th, 2007

[24] Gardner, p. 18

[25] Jim Gay, February 8th, 2007

[26] Dennis, May 3rd, 2007

[27] Barbara Franco, “Public History and Memory: A Museum Perspective,” The Public Hisotrian, Vol. 19, no. 2 (Spring, 1997), p. 66

[28] Gardner, p. 17

[29] Gardner, p. 15

[30] Krugler, p. 384

[31] Greenberg, p. 303

[32] Krugler, p. 385

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Historical Inaccuracies... For the Better?

A few days ago my mother sent me this article from the Washington Post. The author, Steve Luxenberg, loved the movie The King's Speech but was appalled by the portrayal of the events after he looked up the 'true' history at home. He writes, "Then I ruined it. I mentioned to my wife that I might check some facts. "Don't spoil it," she groaned."

(King George VI)

Luxenberg then proceeds to give us the facts: first, that the stammer of King George VI (also known as Bertie) was not nearly as bad as it's made out to be in the movie. Next, Luxenburg quotes Peter Conradi, a journalist who wrote a companion book to the movie who supposedly knows the 'real' history like the back of his hand. Conradi said in reply to British historian Andrew Roberts' critique of the film, "Roberts is right to point out that Tom Hooper, the director, has tinkered with some of the basic facts, such as having Winston Churchill back the abdication of Edward VIII, which put a reluctant Bertie onto the throne in December 1936, whereas Churchill instead spoke out in favor of Edward and his romance with Wallis Simpson."

Luxenberg seems appalled by 'cinematic storytellers' altering history in order to, as he puts it, "search for a manipulated 'truth.'" Not too long ago, I would have been right there on that boat with him. When The Tudors started I critiqued everything about it-- from Jonathan Rhys Meyers good looks to Natalie Dormer's blue eyes and everything in between-- but ultimately, after having watched two seasons, in the end I have found only one historical sticking point: the 'suicide' of Cardinal Wolsey. Here's why: not only did Cardinal Wolsey not commit suicide in real life, he wouldn't have considered doing so as a Cardinal in the Catholic Church. He would have believed that such an action would have damned him to Hell for eternity. In reality, Cardinal Wolsey was just an old man who died on his way to the Tower. But even in the 'reality' of the television series, the action didn't make sense. They made Wolsey out to be a strong man who believed he could bounce back from anything. The last scene with him before his suicide is with his 'wife' (legally he couldn't marry, but they had been together for 20 some years and they had several children together-- *actual historical fact*) and him promising to come back to her. Not the words of a man who commits suicide a scene later. They didn't even make him seem on the edge of defeat, honestly. I still had hope that this Wolsey might make a strong reappearance, except I knew he was going to die on his way to the Tower of natural causes. The forged suicide didn't even seem necessary to the forward motion of the plot. But, had the show convinced me of the character of Wolsey's reasons for committing suicide, I might have been on board.

Why? Because cinema/television is a version of public history, and these historical portrayals have their merits. After hearing the creator of The Tudors explain that he cast Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as a very good looking Henry VIII because that's how the people living in the 16th century viewed him, it made sense. He was seen as a young, good-looking, vivacious prince that at his coronation brought about a renewed sense of hope in the kingdom. Instead of trying to be 100% historically accurate, the series creator was trying to create history through the eyes of historical figures using our standards. An interesting concept, no?

In The King's Speech Winston Churchill example, I was convinced that the character of Churchill had reason to be alarmed by the relationship, and that contrived fact moved the plot forward. Necessary components to storytelling. Hey, I'm right there with you!

Perhaps most importantly, although Luxenberg writes "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice..." he was not fooled. The movie interested him enough that it gave him impetus to look up the 'actual' history. Would he have ever known Churchill's stance on the relationship of Edward and Wallis if The King's Speech had never been made? Probably not. And I think that might be the most important aspect of historical storytelling: for people who care, it provides them with an insight into an era, person, or event they might not otherwise have cared about. When I was little, I learned all there was to know about the 'actual' story of Pocahontas-- would I have cared without the Disney movie? Probably not. I probably wouldn't have even heard of Pocahontas until college. So while yes, that movie is extremely inaccurate, it interested me enough to make me look up the facts. With the internet and all its information at our fingertips, historical movies are more important tools of education than ever.

Movies are not and have never claimed to be bastions of academic history; they are for public consumption, and as such must appeal to the public. Would I like them to be perfect? Huh. Maybe. But would even I, a historian but also member of the general public, like them as much?

So while I still find it incredibly fun to watch historical movies just to point out the historical inaccuracies, I've come to appreciate them in all their flawed glory.

(Colin Firth as King George VI)

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Wonderful Piece of Work

(cross-posted from Abigail and the Great World)

I got Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff for Christmas, and I finished it last night. Absolutely fantastic book! Highly recommended. I'm not usually much on popular histories, but I do love biographies, and as far as the writing goes this one was top notch. Very readable, lots of sumptuous detail, and a great grasp of the history, it seems (though I'm no historian of antiquity, to be sure). Seriously, I couldn't put it down. As with Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman, the story compelled me to keep turning the pages, and the writing brought me not only to the political but the emotional heart of things. While this one didn't make me cry (probably due to lack of any extant primary source material), it certainly fascinated me and made me question the way we understand history, politics, events, and societies of the past.

Schiff seemed to understand the limitations of her sources, but there were still a few times when I questioned her tactics. I guess that's what taking Historiography courses will do to you. There were also a few issues with punctuation which I felt like her editors should have picked up on, but what can you do?

Her main purpose was to set Cleopatra in context, to demystify her, as it were. After giving us a rundown of the legends surrounding the woman-- that Cleopatra was overly sexed, that she cast spells and enchantments on Caesar and Antony, that she brought brought two Roman men to their ruin, even that she killed herself with a snake-- Schiff makes the assertion that Cleopatra's history was written by the winners while she was the loser. Most tellingly, those winners were Roman's who didn't look kindly on genuinely powerful women.

Schiff looks at the sources-- Roman, of course-- to figure out where the chroniclers are telling the truth, where they are embellishing, where their own cultural prejudices played into their interpretations. Since we know very little about Cleopatra's upbringing, Schiff reconstructs a typical noble Egyptian/Macedonian education, which was illuminating. She brings to life ancient Alexandria in full color and glory. She sets austere Rome back to the days of the Republic, when the city was made of brick, not marble. She looks at the other societies in the East, and examines the politics among them like a master chess player, charting out the ramifications of each move, and getting into the logic behind every play. Of course, some of this must be attributed to modern historians who have recently published some new and revealing books on ancient Alexandria and even Cleopatra herself (Schiff's bibliography includes Cleopatra Reassessed by Susan Walker and Sally-Ann Ashton and Cleopatra: From History to Myth edited by Susan Walker, which, though I haven't read them, seem to have probably been rather important to Schiff's main purpose... which was to 'reassess' Cleopatra and to separate the history from the myth... hmmmm maybe that's what these professional historians have been doing lately, too).

Overall, a fun, fast, beautiful, and informative read for anyone interested in Cleopatra, or the ancient world in general.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Mystery Solved!

Remember when I told you about Grizzle Cale? How, among all of the Elizabeths, Marys, Sarahs, Annes, and Catherines, there was a lone "Grizzle?" Remember how I couldn't believe it and wondered what her parents were thinking and where on Earth did they come up with the name Grizzle? Well, last night the mystery was solved!

I met up with an old friend/professor of mine, Carter Hailey, and while catching up on life (which, of course, includes a discussion of my many hours at the microfilm reader with 18th-century court order books) I mentioned that one of the stranger things I had come across was a woman named Grizzle Cale. "Grizzle," I said. "Grizzle. Can you imagine? I can't even think what that would be short for! Maybe her parents just wanted her to stand out so they came up with something crazy." Then Carter said, "No, I know where it comes from, I think. I think it might be the 'z's that are throwing you off." I paused. "What do you mean?"

"It's from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales," he explained. Griselda or Grisele, apparently, was the 'patient wife', and the name became synonymous with virtue and obedience. Instances of Grissel, Grisele, Griselda or-- get this-- Grizzel (dum dum dum!!!) come up fairly frequently in English literary works through the sixteenth century, and three operas called Griselda came out between 1721 and 1735. Though they were Italian operas, it is extremely conceivable that an Englishman would be familiar with the works since the Italian opera was all the rage in London during the 18th century.

Of course, that just solves one mystery. Now a million more questions arise: was Grizzle first generation colonial American? Was she born in England? It's quite possible that even if she wasn't, her parents were born in England-- the microfilm often has people come forward to declare that they have recently imported themselves from Great Britain into the colony as indentured servants or otherwise. Did her parents see one of these operas or hear about it in the streets of London? Even if they were all colonial by birth, perhaps they had been affluent and her father was educated enough to have read Chaucer. Perhaps they had been poor but he had been lucky enough to attend a grammar school. Perhaps they read about the operas playing in London in one of the colonial newspapers. Perhaps they were still affluent and Grizzle herself had been educated!

And what did Jacob Cale think of his wife? Did he expect her to be really quite as obedient as her name suggests? Was she fiery or docile? Did she fit her name or rebel against it?

If only there were some way to know the answers.

Just one of the tantalizing bits of history; the thrill of discovery, followed by the never-ending and often unanswerable questions. But hey, at least Grizzle isn't quite such a mystery anymore!