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The Wages of History

Emotional Labor on Public History's Front Lines

Amy Tyson

Publication Year: 2013

Anyone who has encountered costumed workers at a living history museum may well have wondered what their jobs are like, churning butter or firing muskets while dressed in period clothing. In The Wages of History, Amy Tyson enters the world of the public history interpreters at Minnesota’s Historic Fort Snelling to investigate how they understand their roles and experience their daily work. Drawing on archival research, personal interviews, and participant observation, she reframes the current discourse on history museums by analyzing interpreters as laborers within the larger service and knowledge economies. Although many who are drawn to such work initially see it as a privilege—an opportunity to connect with the public in meaningful ways through the medium of history—the realities of the job almost inevitably alter that view. Not only do interpreters make considerable sacrifices, both emotional and financial, in order to pursue their work, but their sense of special status can lead them to avoid confronting troubling conditions on the job, at times fueling tensions in the workplace. This case study also offers insights—many drawn from the author’s seven years of working as an interpreter at Fort Snelling—into the way gendered roles and behaviors from the past play out among the workers, the importance of creative autonomy to historical interpreters, and the ways those on public history’s front lines both resist and embrace the site’s more difficult and painful histories relating to slavery and American Indian genocide.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Series: Public History in Historical Perspective


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pp. 1-2

Title Page, Copyright, Quote

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pp. 3-8

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-10

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-18

I owe a debt of gratitude to two women who have been instru mental in seeing this book come to print. Cathy Stanton has been this project’s champion, a model of intellectual generosity, and my sure-footed guide as I journeyed through the process of reshaping the ideas contained here. Not insignificantly, Cathy introduced me to Marla Miller, the series editor for Public History in Historical Perspective at ...

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Introduction: Customer Service Superstars

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pp. 1-24

After initial greetings in the lobby of the Fort Snelling History Center, my co-workers and I take our seats in the auditorium. Nearly fifty people—mostly seasonal workers hired either as gift shop clerks or costumed guides—are gathered for the annual spring training at this Minnesota historic site. Behind me, I hear male co-workers joking about the costume-measurement forms we guides are filling out: “Hey, ...

Part I: Public History’s Emotional Proletariat (1960–1996)

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pp. 25-44

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1. Performing a Public Service: From Historic Site to Work Site (1960–1985)

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pp. 27-54

On a spring Sunday in 1965, Mr. Richard J. Weiss—a life-long resident of Minnesota—visited Fort Snelling to fly kites with his children. While there, he and his family toured the old Fort’s buildings and visited the newly opened Fort Snelling State Park, which lay at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. Dismayed by what he saw, Weiss wrote a concerned letter to the Minnesota ...

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2. “Our Seat at the Table”: Interpreter Agency and Consent (1985–1996)

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pp. 55-84

In 1980, Gavin saw an ad in one of the local Twin Cities newspapers advertising a job for a blacksmith at Historic Fort Snelling. College educated and in his early thirties, Gavin admittedly did not have experience blacksmithing, but he had read books on the subject with great interest. He applied for the position, got the job, and began his first season at the Fort in 1981. Thrust into a living history work cul-...

Part II: Historic Fort Snelling’s Front Line (1996–2006)

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pp. 85-104

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3. The Wages of Living History: Rewards and Costs of Emotional Investment

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pp. 87-115

Oliver: The first year at the Fort was the honeymoon year. I felt like nothing could go wrong; when things did go wrong, I was either naïve enough not to know it or I didn’t care. I was just so grateful to be in a challenging, intellectually stimulating environment—certainly in comparison to retail—and the feedback I got from fellow interpreters and During the second year, cracks started to appear in the veneer—the ...

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4. Pursuing Authenticity: Creative Autonomy and Workplace Games

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pp. 116-144

Martin: When I was younger and I went to play with my friends, we would play army and run around in the woods. And sometimes I feel like if we would run around a little bit more at the Fort, that’s what we would be doing, you know? We have schedules we have to follow during our game of army, but it’s the same thing. I think that this is a key part of it: if you get to work with other people who are good inter-...

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5. Interpreting Painful Histories: Emotional Comfort and Connecting

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pp. 145-171

Jacob: I think it’s good that somebody talks about [slavery at the Fort], but I don’t want it to be me. I feel somewhat uncomfort-In Colonial Williamsburg—the country’s most well-known living museum—we can see the genesis of living history’s attempts to tackle the painful historical narrative of American slavery. With the stated aim of telling the story of eighteenth-century Williamsburg residents, ...

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pp. 172-178

Taking a historical perspective shows us that the mushroom-ing of first-person living history museums across the land-scape in the early 1970s was coterminous with the expansion of the service and knowledge economies. Largely charged with the tasks of performing preindustrial skills for postindustrial tourists, interpreters at these sites became the linchpins of living museums’ ability to produce ...


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pp. 179-216


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pp. 217-243

Back Cover

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pp. 244-244

E-ISBN-13: 9781613762684
E-ISBN-10: 1613762682
Print-ISBN-13: 9781625340238
Print-ISBN-10: 1625340230

Page Count: 232
Illustrations: 10 illus.
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Public History in Historical Perspective
Series Editor Byline: Marla Miller See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 867739495
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Wages of History

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Historical reenactments -- Psychological aspects -- Minnesota -- Fort Snelling.
  • Historical reenactments -- Psychological aspects -- Case studies.
  • Historic sites -- Interpretive programs -- Psychological aspects -- Minnesota -- Fort Snelling.
  • Historic sites -- Interpretive programs -- Psychological aspects -- Case studies.
  • Public history -- Minnesota -- Fort Snelling.
  • Acting -- Psychological aspects -- Case studies.
  • Fort Snelling (Minn.) -- History.
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