I need to start this post with a major shoutout to the Civil War Trust. I was lucky enough to be awarded one of their student scholarships for this summer’s annual conference entitled “The Road to Appomattox.” I spent the weekend touring historic Richmond and meeting Civil War enthusiasts from across the country. It was a wonderful experience filled with people who love history as much as I do but also by people who care so deeply about preserving history that I was constantly reminded about how the future is in my hands. Sounds pretty daunting…
Nonetheless, I’m so thankful for my little history “vacation” and that would not have been possible without the Trust and their generous scholarship donors.
One of the tours I embarked on during the conference focused on the historic homes and gardens of Richmond. We visited three absolutely gorgeous plantations: Westover, Shirley, and Berkeley. Though the three plantations were similar, their historic interpretations could not have been more different. Westover Plantation was showcased to us by a woman who resides in the house and gives tours to the public. Her tour combined historic anecdotes of the house with her own personal experience of growing up and now raising her own family in the house. Shirley plantation featured an incredibly knowledgeable and engaging tour guide that gave a traditional house tour. The tour at Berkeley plantation was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. The tour guides dress in period clothing and combine a video with a walking tour of the outside of the grounds.
I found each tour to be enjoyable but there was just one thing that got under my skin the whole time we were at Berkeley…I
knew I was being lied to. At one point during the tour, our guide mentioned that there was a hole in one of the outer walls of a building. He pointed our attention upwards and mentioned that the damage was from an 1862 attack on the Army of the Potomac. He then proceeded to fill us in on a little secret; he said since we were “historical enthusiasts” he couldn’t lie to us and so he let us in on a little known fact. The cannonball in the wall was placed there by the workers at Berkeley plantation. The hole is historically accurate but the cannonball itself was added for the effect.
Now this might seem like a minor thing to some but it certainly struck a chord with me. Why would you blatantly lie to the public in a way that makes them believe that is an authentic cannonball in the wall from a battle in the 19th century. Sure, the hole is real but is it even plausible that a cannonball would’ve lasted that long throughout the course of history without substantial damage? I’m unsure but it seems unlikely. After knowing about this little white lie, I found myself questioning every fact I was told throughout the rest of the tour.
So why do we do this? Why do we lie to the public about history when it is our duty as historians to present the facts of the past? Personally, I think it speaks volumes to our assumptions about a public without a formal historical education. The fact that our tour was let in on the “secret” of the cannonball showed that we were held in some kind of higher regard since the guide expressed guilt in lying to us (his words, not mine). Are other visitors not respected in the same way? It almost seems as though we don’t expect audiences to notice anything out of the ordinary and question the cannonball so it is kept for dramatic effect. Well, sure. Maybe not every tour will ask about the cannonball. But what if they do? Do you say you lied? Or is there a “plan B” story in the queue ready to save the day?
This speaks to the larger idea of shared authority. Mainly, shared authority focuses on incorporating stories and voices of those previously silenced by the white-washed, male-centered version of history that has been a staple of the past. Many scholars on the topic support the incorporation of diverse stories and Nick Sacco says,
history is best viewed through multiple perspectives.
I agree. History is best when it can offer a variety of interpretations on a subject. Since the public history movement gained speed in the 1990s, this story of our past is beginning to shift to a more inclusive one. While this is wonderful, other points of shared authority are important to explore as well.
A less central point about shared authority is that we can also trust our audiences to be educated; and deserving of the truth. Even if they don’t have a formal history education from a University or College, are we actually doing any good by lying to them and presenting a false history? Not at all. If anything, we’re hurting ourselves and the future of our field. So why do we do it? Maybe we have a flare for the dramatics. Maybe these tall tales draw in larger audiences which can help with funding endeavors. No matter the reason, this false interpretation needs to stop.
Once we can present a clear, diverse, and truthful version of our past then we will be on our way to preserving history for future generations. Until that day however, it is our job as historically curious audiences to question interpretation and seek the truth in interpretation. I hope that Berkeley plantation can keep this in mind for the future and join in our common goal to fulfill all aspects of shared authority.