Accuracy and reality in historical interpretation – a reflection on ideas of inclusion, representation and relevance

I can still clearly recall my excitement when I travelled to Melbourne, from my job teaching in Katherine (NT), for my second interview at the State Library of Victoria, where I was to be offered the position of Education Officer – Medieval Programs.  I had met a range of interesting and inspiring future colleagues, I had been taken through the amazing maze of buildings that made up the Library and I had even handled a Medici Manuscript.  Before I had even begun, I was completely sold on this new professional path I had taken.

I have a great personal interest in Medieval History and I was delighted to be able to spend my working hours playing the role of storyteller to others.  I loved finding the fascinating, obscure and shocking stories and capturing children’s interest by retelling them with as much drama and intrigue as I could muster.  What’s more, this role opened to me a new avenue to use my skills in Education and open the minds of children to new ideas, an idea that had romantically motivated me to enter the teaching profession in the first place.

At the conclusion of the State Library’s Medieval Manuscripts exhibition, my role became more focused on Victorian and Australian history, and other programs relevant to the Library’s collection and services.  I was enthusiastic in delivering the mission to make students feel like it was their library: relevant, useful and accessible to them.  I also considered myself progressive and willing to share the difficult and uncomfortable stories as well as the fun and happy ones.

But since those first months working in the cultural sector I have travelled a path of my own personal and professional learning and now, 11 years on, while I still love and believe in the sector I work in, I have a more complex and less romantic idea as to my role, responsibility and influence.

The Museums Galleries Australia Conference #MGAconf2018 I attended this year held strong to its theme: Agents of Change.  Many presentations and conversations challenged participants to question who our organisations are representing and how we are representing them, as I explored in my summary posts (1a, 1b, 2, 3).  Since attending the conference, I have been reflecting more deeply on the role and responsibilities of the cultural heritage sector, particularly in my own work of historical recreation.

Currently I work at the Sovereign Hill Costumed Schools and my day-to-day work is to deliver a 2-day education program for school groups: engaging children (aged 9-12) in historical immersion through the recreation of Victorian-era schooling during the Ballarat gold rushes.  Our highly successful and popular program seeks to support the student’s learning by providing them with a social-cultural context to their history studies.  By offering them a comparison of something familiar to them: schooling, with what it would have been like for their peers 160 years ago, they have an opportunity to discover what has changed over time.  Children and teachers love the program and we have seen many examples of children carrying memories of the experience in to adulthood – a powerful museum experience indeed.

In between this role and my previous role at the State Library I was an Education Officer at Sovereign Hill working in larger and broader Education Service that delivers short work-shop style school programs more typical of other institutions.  In some of these programs, we tackled some challenging ideas of racism (particularly against the Chinese miners) and sexism.  As part of my role I researched and developed new ways for us to explore and share these and other topics using digital technology and social media.

I was attracted to move into the Costumed School program because of how unique, powerful and well-loved it is.  Stories of funny and/or memorable interactions had lured me towards this powerful cultural experience.  Another element that attracted me was the authentic role-play nature of the program.  It fulfilled my own dreams of reliving history and I was sure I would then be able to fulfill the similar dreams of countless children.  Thus effectively and joyfully passing on my love of history.

What I failed fully appreciate, however, is how much my joy stemmed from my own personal history, values and sense of identity.  The story I am telling about Colonial Australia (and even those I told about medieval Europe) are relatable to my contemporary culture and spoke to my cultural history; notably at pivotal historical markers of opportunity and development.

Increasingly I can see nuanced challenges to the story we are telling and the personal context of the children participating in the program.  Our program is a representation of the heteronormative Anglosphere of the 19th century British empire.  The Sovereign Hill Museum, itself, is increasingly representing the diversity of the goldfields, exploring ideas of social upheaval and the previously unacknowledged Indigenous stories.  Our program, however, is limited to the representation of formal education as provided by the British government for, mostly, British students.

I, myself, am a cisgender able-bodied Caucasian woman of English/Welsh ancestry.  This history represents my cultural heritage.  Our participants, however, increasingly have different stories, including those who are culturally diverse, recent immigrants/refugees, disabled and of non-binary gender identities.

Many may argue that our program is a neutral representation of British colonial history.  We do strive to recreate ‘how it was back then’.  However, I can more clearly appreciate how complicated the nature of our representation is.  The conversation around the myth of neutrality discussed via #museumsarenotneutral further challenges me to look more deeply at discriminations I may be inadvertently perpetuating.  The likes of Nathan Sentance, Brian Lobel, Nikki Sullivan and Craig Middleton brought such provocations to us, as keepers and tellers of social and cultural history, to consider how our omissions make us anything but neutral.

Thus, we come to the challenge of the juxtaposition between the contemporary reality, our more holistic acknowledgement of the reality of history, and the desire to tell an ‘accurate’ story of the past.  A 19th century Anglican goldfields classroom would not have seen the broad cultural diversity represented in contemporary Australian society nor made accommodations for disabled or gender diverse children.  My 21st century recreation of this classroom, however, is filled with an extremely diverse range of students (and visitors) and we actively make accommodations to ensure access to the experience for students with particular religious, medical or other needs.

Our inclusion comes with little acknowledgement of the historical inaccuracy of this part of the recreation.  By including these children, without acknowledging the wrongs of how they would have been excluded in the past, are we doing them a disservice?  Surely past injustices must be acknowledged, represented and accepted before they can feel truly included.

We are further challenged by the age of our participants and the immersive role-play style presentation of the program.   We don’t present it to them as an audience, we immerse them as active participants.  These elements have been integral to the success of the program and its long-term effect on the participants.  But within the model that we deliver, which relies heavily on emotional engagement leading to affective learning (as studied by Dr Margaret Zeegers), children are personally invested and emotionally connected to their own first-person experience and the social bonds they form with their peers.  As an interpreter/educator/facilitator, it is a delicate juggle between believability and make-believe, behavioural management, emotional coaching and historical learning.

On discussing this topic with my former colleague, he also brought to my attention the question of the ethical consideration of using child audiences as subjects in an exploration of diversity and representation of the Victorian goldfields.  Should they simply be free to participate in the experience without having their own diversity interrogated?  I would like to think that we could find a way to allow them to connect their own identity with their recreated experience without exploitation.  But I don’t have a clear vision on how to achieve that.

I am encouraged by our industry’s growing role as change-makers and as places of diverse and challenging story-telling.  I feel proud of the bold provocations my colleagues in many different institutions have brought to the fore.  However, it does seem, in my experience, that social history museums and heritage sites, across the world, have lagged behind their arts/science/literature peers.  Some outdoor museums and heritage sites face further challenges: the competition of tourism viability (as an essential income stream) with the desire for accurate recreation of history.

The outdoor museums I have visited, like the one I work in, have shown a great drive to brand themselves as ‘happy places’.  Places of fun and pleasure with enjoyable learning opportunities.  Challenges and oppressions are shown but, for the most part, only for those examples of oppression we have faced (to some extent at least) as a contemporary mainstream society: serfs by lords, free men by government, workers by industry, women by men. Those examples of oppression that have not been broadly accepted as true or unjust in mainstream society are more often avoided.  I would suggest in an Australian context these would include: Indigenous dispossession and mistreatment, immigrant minorities, gender and sexual diversity.  These are topics that are still ‘open for debate’ in our contemporary political discourse.  If an issue has not reached a level of popular acceptance, those institutions that rely heavily on ticket sales are perhaps inclined to avoid them.

The other challenge is a desire for Outdoor Museums to be an accurate recreation of history.  Many outdoor museums hold strongly to this desire for historical accuracy as it is seen to be what drives their visitation: come and see what it was like back then.  But our recreated museums have never been accurate.  We have always accepted variations as a necessity in many instances: toilets, for example.  Disabled access.  Emergency and safety systems.  Smell.  Which begs the questions, how do we decide what variations are acceptable?

The juxtaposition of modern necessities (ie a smoke alarm) can provide an ideal opportunity for conversation and learning with visitors.  Outdoor museums often strive to create a backdrop of authenticity so there is a challenge around the notions of truth and accuracy when challenging historical exclusions.  As there are not always people or information available to offer the important explanations, can we afford to have more complex and sensitive juxtapositions, around topics such as identity and oppression, go unexplained?

All my reflections have led me to a place of questioning: where to from here?  How do we bridge the gap between our perceived historical accuracy and the absence of vital, but difficult, stories?  How can we ensure our audiences can find their own stories within ours?

Is one answer in digital interpretations?  This was something I began to explore a number of years ago and there are ever-increasing opportunities to enhance and extend interpretation on digital platforms.  Indeed our organisation is making some progress with this, particularly through the work of Alice Barnes and the Hidden Histories resource.  But perhaps there are further opportunities around connecting to audiences’ sense of identity and encouraging them to engage and question how these stories relate to them.  Perhaps encouraging the co-creation of social-based content so that visitors can reflect on and challenge stories presented, or indeed omitted.

Are there other examples of organisations who have embraced these challenges and provided their visitors with innovative ways to show what is missing from their ‘accurate’ interpretation of history?   Are there examples of visitors as participants finding, connecting and sharing their missing stories within the context of a social history recreation?

I hope that we can continue to break down the barriers towards acknowledgement and connection so that our institutions continue to thrive as places of learning and growth.  I also wonder, if our story increasingly does not represent the full range of those we engage in its telling, do we risk becoming obsolete?

An aside: the views and questions in this piece are purely my own and do not represent the organisation I work for or the museum I work in.  I recognise my limits to perceive the depths and intersectionality of the issues discussed due to my position of privilege.  I do not seek to speak on behalf of those omitted, but rather share my own personal and professional learning in order to seek deeper understandings for myself and encourage reflections in others.

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