critiquing pop-culture approaches to history. The “House” shows, in cribbing from theconfessional, personality-driven format of reality TV, faced criticisms similar to those levied atliving history sites that use a “theme park” model to evoke the past (most notably ColonialWilliamsburg, as discussed in Richard Handler and Eric Gable’s
The New History in an Old Museum
). Nonetheless, the “House” shows are billed as educational programs intended to“debunk” the romanticized mythologies of American history, and they offer the imprimatur of public television and scholarly research as signifiers that the show participants are living out an“authentic” historical experience.
There are a number of interesting angles to pursue in investigating how the format of theshows impacts PBS’s educational goals. At some level, it seems likely that the programs werecreated as a response to living history museums themselves, obliquely recognizing that even the best museum interpretations are at some level a theatrical charade, because at the end of the daythe interpreters put on jeans, get in their cars, and go home to cook dinner on 21
centuryappliances. The “House” shows satisfy audience curiosity about how life would “really” have been lived in a full-time, unsanitized way that museums cannot. From another standpoint,however, the shows are really more like time travel than museum theater or even historicalreenactment, in that the project and any possible learning for the audience comes from watchinghow contemporary people deal with historical situations rather than from a representation of howhistorical people lived. The location of historiographical authority in the productions issomewhat unclear: on the on the one hand, having laypeople, as opposed to historians, take onthe immersive role of full-time historical living is a radical example of sharing authority for historical education; on the other hand, outside academic experts are on hand throughout the
PBS, “About the Series,”