The first thought that may come to mind when reading the title of this book is the old saying “the wages of sin is death.” The second thing that might come to mind is a book of a similar title produced in the 1980s related to a discussion on the actual income of historians working in the public realm. This book is neither. What Tyson has accomplished in this book is a very long overdue conversation about the lives, stresses, triumphs, and motivations of those historians who bring the past alive to so many visitors in America’s living museums, in this case Historic Fort Snelling, operated by the Minnesota Historical Society.
Tyson begins her discussion with a look at the history of the fort as it transitions from a historic site and shrine to the past, to something much more attuned to a living-history classroom where real history is taught. The task was not as easy as it may sound, although it had been done elsewhere. In some ways, the fort was creating the science of living-history interpretation as it went along. Next, the author looks at the living history interpreter at Fort Snelling as an important part of the educational machine—a critically important part whose value in the profession is most often underappreciated by both museum and public individuals. It is often hard for academically trained historians to accept that a well-trained and effective docent in a living-history [End Page 156] site will have more impact on the public’s understanding of history than a university full of professors.
This is where the book gets really interesting and lives up to its creative title. The historical interpreter is often profoundly affected by the role that they have taken. Unlike an actor who dons a role and then discards it when finished, the historian/interpreter is so vested in the historical portrayal that they often seek to improve, refine, and better understand the history that he or she is presenting. Historical interpreters are in the front line of America’s history business and it shows. Hard work, low pay, and constantly having to improve one’s work take a toll on workers both physically and emotionally.
The last two sections of the book discuss the techniques used by historical interpreters to better understand their positions and the lengths to which many go to better understand what they do and how to do it better. The book concludes with a conversation about the challenges that living history has in the interpretation of difficult history, such as slavery, treatment of minorities, and traditional gender roles. The challenge of doing so often flies in the face of what the visitor is interested in experiencing as well as what the interpreters from the modern world feel comfortable doing.
If the book has a shortcoming it is in this final chapter, which seems tacked on. It is a well-written and meaningful discussion, but it opens a door that public historians have struggled with for generations and one chapter hardly does the subject justice. This minor point aside, Tyson has written a book that those interpreters, with whom she once worked, would be proud. It should be an eye opener to anyone who is interested in the real trenches of history, located not in the walls of the academy, but in America’s museums. The Wages of History is a valuable read and should be on the reading list of every graduate public history or museum program in the country. [End Page 157]
BRIAN HACKETT is a professor of public history at Northern Kentucky University, where he helped build the master of arts in public history program. He authored a book and developed an exhibit honoring the one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary of St. Elizabeth Hospital and serves as a consultant for the Ludlow Historical Society.