Tour Guides and Misinformation

Lesson of the week: If you use the Sons of Confederate Veterans as your main historic resource, you’re gonna have a bad time.

“What is the obligation of a public historian when the history you are presented at a historic site is not right? Do you smile and nod? Politely correct the presenter? “

I actually did correct a tour guide once (about infant skulls & how the bones fuse together). It was awkward and spoiled the rest of the tour. However, Larry Cebula’s publicly posted e-mail dialogue is an equally terrible way to go about correcting erroneous historic information. Sure, he states in the comments that he hoped his “tone” was okay, but that concern is sort of negated by the fact that he publicly posted the e-mail and its (equally unprofessional & totally unreadable) response. Edit: Apparently all the names were pseudonyms. Whoops!

Internet & professional etiquette aside, I do believe it is our important duty to help correct our fellow historian’s work. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, the key in doing so is to not treat the error-maker like they’re a total buffoon.

A decent person would welcome the constructive criticism and/or help. They would adjust their research as needed or, at the very least, explain why they have chosen not to make your suggested changes.

A non-decent person is not  worth wasting your time correcting. If, for example, I tried to have a conversation with  Sons of Confederate Veterans or  the National Center for Constitutional Studies I would probably be met with hostility. No ground would be gained. These people are too far gone.

With my decent person theory in mind & having just read the piece about the Virginia textbooks, I know what you’re probably thinking, “If we don’t nip this bad information in the bud, then it’s going to get into our children’s textbooks!”  A couple thoughts: 1) Perhaps having an incorrect textbook isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It could provide an opportunity to teach kids the importance of not assuming everything written is true. This is a critical skill, especially in an age where kids are participating in online discussions at earlier ages than their predecessors. 2) Perhaps instead of instantly jumping on  the Virginia textbook author’s, Joy Masoff, case the PhD’s quoted in the article could have volunteered their time and expertise to help with the next edition of the book.

One thought on “Tour Guides and Misinformation”

  1. What about if historians, instead of focusing on what certain groups or individuals are doing wrong, go on a broad offensive by creating museum pieces, documentaries, etc about how to spot “bad” history? More of a bottom up approach? There is bad history everywhere, not just in the south, and if people are more aware of the prevalence of misinformation being spread through museums, then museums et al would not be able to function as they always have been. The SCV group aside, I think that most museum folks are doing the best they can. It would be beneficial for the public at large to get an education on the workings of museums and how bad history has a tendency to creep in. Thinking about our museum tour, and all the random things in storage, a neat exhibition would be about the history of museums – and how the focus has changed over the years and the residue left from past decisions that still affect us today. I think the public needs to be aware fork in wood, piles of chairs, thousands of pieces of linen, and why the two headed calf is part of our collective history.

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