This week we returned to our regular reading with Amy Tyson’s The Wages of History, which is studied the use of costumed historic interpreters at Fort Snelling in Minnesota. Through this work Tyson examined how these workers on the “front line” of history understood their roles and the emotional and material effects the jobs on them. One of the main themes throughout the book was the idea that while the interpreters received emotional benefits and excitement form their work with the public, they also suffered emotional exhaustion from balancing their job as a character with their ‘real selves.’ One of the interesting points of The Wages of History was the belief that there was a deep “relationship between the production of public history and the performance of customer service” (28). This was an important idea because it highlights the business side of such sites since the interpreter must engage with the public in a way that the interpreter tries to make meaningful as well as much sure the visitors are happy. This tension of the interpreter connected to a term Tyson coined called the “public history proletariat,” which signifies a person “hired to carry out the educational mission of the historic site while also delivering individuated customer service” (36). This definition gets to the crux of Tyson’s study because she believes that more respect and benefits are needed for these front line workers, as they are the “linchpins” of the historical sites (15).
Tyson’s study of Fort Snelling also brought to light a number of interesting conflicts and pressure points in the working environment, the most notable being the difference in those identifying as interpreters and those as reenactors. This was a fascinating distinction since the reenactors were more interested in playing solider than engaging with the public in meaningful ways. Furthermore, this difference highlights another problem faced by interpreters at historic sites in that there is often a stigma that those positions were seen as ‘real jobs,’ since they are considered low paying social service jobs (114). However, Tyson points our repeatedly throughout the book that many interpreters invest a significant amount of time outside of work studying on their roles in order to better service the public, which shows the dedication that some have for the job. An additional common problem that Tyson found both through her time as an interpreter and through interviewing others was that there was a sense of feeling undervalued but the management. These was seen most clearly when the interpreters had to reapply for the same positions very year and when the Minnesota Historical Society cut both their vacation and sick time. Nevertheless, despite these conflicts and problems, Tyson stressed that many of the interpreters felt pride in the work and received “emotional return” from interacting with the public (88).
On a whole The Wages of History is an important book because it uncovers many of the problems and struggles facing historic interpreters. It also demonstrates the need to adequately train and support historic interpreters since they are the ones who really present the history to the visitors, and therefore they need to be well equipped to make sure the public gets as much out of their visit as possible. In additional, while I never have had experience working as a costumed historical interpreter, this book helped me understand the value of the role and made me appreciate the work they do more. Furthermore, as a public history student the work highlights the potential obstacles that I may face down the road while also showing the positive rewards that people in public history can experience.