The other day I was preparing handbooks for the newest members of my Board of Directors and my eye fell on a copy of our Code of Ethics. All staff, members of the Board and volunteers must adhere to the provisions outlined in this document. Included in the Code is a section on interpretation. It states, in part, that interpretation shall be based on sound scholarship and documentation and must not dilute or ignore historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment and popularity.
This may seem like a no-brainer but it is a real and ongoing concern to those of us in the trenches. The pleasure of working with the public is getting to see your research reach people, witnessing the proverbial light bulb go on. The important thing is to make sure that look of enlightenment is based on the discovery of information that is actually true.
In my travels I have witnessed to my dismay, visitors at a historic site respond with fascination to a guide who told the old saw “there are few closets in this house because they were taxed as rooms.” I have read an exhibit label that said, in essence, “women’s skirts would catch fire when they cooked on a hearth and kill them and was the second leading cause of death for women next to childbirth.” Apologies and omissions are a little harder to spot but I’ve heard things like so-and-so owned slaves but he was a kind owner and did not like it but that was the way it was back then.
Mythbusting has been an interest of mine for more years than I like to admit. I have given presentations to numerous groups on how to identify and combat myths. The most important part of my presentation is not the debunking of individual scurrilous stories but impressing upon my audience of the importance of adopting and cultivating a culture of historical accuracy at their particular site. You would think that this is just common sense but historical myths and worse, conscious distortions of history happen every day. Is it a problem that can be solved, an illness that can be cured? Not entirely.
We can’t entirely rid our culture of these myths because of the nature of our public history reality. In the U.S. anyone can open a museum or historic site for any reason. Though most sites have the best of intentions, most also do not have professional staff who can help with getting interpretation on the right track. So that leaves volunteers gleaning information from visitors, other volunteers, popular culture and visits to sites similar to their own (which creates a self perpetuating chain of myth). I am encouraged by greater availability of information online and in print, but I believe it is the duty of those of us in the profession to offer our assistance – not in a mean or know-it-all way – to organizations with fewer resources. So let’s go bust some myths!