Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Pipe-dream, and Problems that Arise from it


At Plimoth Plantation last November, several friends and I were between visitors and very bored. Massachusetts in the late fall doesn’t really encourage one to wander around outside, even in replica Pligrim clothing. Once the sun starts to dip towards the horizon and visitation dries up, everyone starts to congregate in three or four houses throughout the Colonial English village, and compete to see who can huddle up closest to the hearth without actually setting their clothes on fire. This particular day, a group of us started talking about what we would do if we were to find ourselves suddenly handed a blank check and told to use the money to create our own living history museum. Ideas were thrown around. Things got messy.

Fake John Alden suggested a first-person Pirate museum, somewhere down in the Caribbean. His fake wife Priscilla liked the idea of a Victorian house designed to showcase the history of the Spiritualist movement, complete with a séance. Someone else wanted to design a Revolutionary fort. Having just days before watched the classic Sergio Leone film “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” I began to think about the possibility of a Wild West living history museum, where the first-person interpreters would all portray cowboys, gunslingers, and saloon keepers.


This all started out as idle conversation, of course. But as November dragged on, we Pilgrims found that we would get a large rush of school groups in the morning, all of them eager to talk about Squanto and the first Thanksgiving. By the afternoon, these groups would be back on their warm school buses, and we would once again be huddled around our fires, talking to pass the time. And we began to expand on our original ideas. Given the opportunity, how would we organize these museums? How would they teach us about history? How authentic would they be?

This last question is one that living history museums struggle with constantly. The whole idea behind first-person interpretation is to immerse the visitor in a different world, a different time period. You’re half historian, half actor, and you play your role without a script. You dress, work, and eat the part, doing most activities in the same way that the people you represent would have done them. But sometimes the 17th century is just too… extreme for a modern person. A New Plimoth resident in 1627 would have relieved themselves into a clay pot the size of a tea kettle and then chucked the contents into the streets. If a museum today tried to be that authentic, the Department of Sanitation would close it down and chuck the staff out into the streets.

A Wild West museum comes with its own set of problems; some very similar, some completely unique. Chamber pots and outhouses would still have to be present, for the sake of appearances, but the Muzees would probably choose to use modern facilities, cleverly hidden in a barn or something. There would still be the conundrum of nineteenth-century prejudice; how authentically should the interpreter portray period attitudes towards women, African Americans, Native Americans, and other frontier minorities? How much affected bias can you get away with for the sake of education? How much should you be able to get away with?

Then there’s the constant balancing act between authenticity and the pop culture perception of a period. I guarantee that if this Wild West museum ever becomes a reality, every male staff member I hire is going to have seen the same Clint Eastwood films that I have, and they’re all going to want to be the Man with no Name. Given the chance, everyone is going to pass up roles as blacksmiths, telegraph operators, missionaries and common laborers. They’re going to dress up in a white hat and a poncho, and spend their days playing poker and ogling prostitutes at a saloon. A Most visitors would probably want their Wild West museum to have a daily event where gunslingers face off in the main street at high noon. Tumbleweeds blow by, revolvers are drawn, in a life and death contest to find out who’s the faster shot.

These are issues that every living-history museum must face, where the educational experience you’re trying to present must compete with the expectations of the public that finances your operations. And they’re issues that must be revisited, year after year, to determine whether your mission is focused more on changing a perception, or catering to it.

Come back in a few days to read more about my vision of a living history museum devoted to the Wild West. If you can’t wait that long, visit this site to see how an existing museum in Kansas has recreated one of the most recognizable periods of American history.

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