Emily McCartan 11/9/11 AMCV 2650 Final Paper Proposal Living History on TV: PBS and the Construction of Historical Identity

In 2003, because it sounded like much more fun than college, I convinced my parents to let me apply for indentured servitude in 17th century New England. PBS did not select me to be a participant in the “Colonial House” show, successor to “Frontier House” and the BBC’s genrepioneering “1900 House,” but I watched it when it aired the following fall and indulged myself with the sanctimonious (and false) certainty that I could have chopped more wood with greater historical accuracy while complaining less than the chosen “colonists.” For my final paper, I am interested in exploring how these shows deploy a highbrow take on the reality TV format in an effort to present ostensibly educational programs about daily life in various historical contexts, and in how they challenge or reinforce popular conceptions of those histories in doing so. As a unique approach to public history, the “House” shows put in play a number of the themes we have discussed in class: not only the promises and pitfalls of innovative ways to engage audiences, but also the challenges of reimagining historical narratives in ways that are inclusive and provocative without being essentializing, appropriative, or horribly off-putting. For the sake of scope, I plan to focus on the American programs: “Frontier House,” aired in 2002; “Colonial House,” 2004; and “Ranch House,” 2006 (probably using “Colonial House” as my main case study with illustrative examples drawn from the other two). PBS has maintained thorough websites for each of the programs, which give ample insight into the professed values and educational choices of the production as well as the (mediated) experiences of the participants. As an entry point into discussing how the shows blend education and entertainment (sometimes successfully, sometimes problematically), I plan to review the literature on living history and open-air museums, which offer some useful comparison points for

critiquing pop-culture approaches to history. The “House” shows, in cribbing from the confessional, personality-driven format of reality TV, faced criticisms similar to those levied at living history sites that use a “theme park” model to evoke the past (most notably Colonial Williamsburg, 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.1 There are a number of interesting angles to pursue in investigating how the format of the shows impacts PBS’s educational goals. At some level, it seems likely that the programs were created 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 day the interpreters put on jeans, get in their cars, and go home to cook dinner on 21st century appliances. 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 historical reenactment, in that the project and any possible learning for the audience comes from watching how contemporary people deal with historical situations rather than from a representation of how historical people lived. The location of historiographical authority in the productions is somewhat unclear: on the on the one hand, having laypeople, as opposed to historians, take on the 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
1

PBS, “About the Series,” Frontier House, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/frontierhouse/project/series.html.

shows to pass judgment on how the participants are performing according to historical standards. (The audience, under the reality TV paradigm, is invited to judge along with them, potentially making the participants more subjects of voyeuristic scrutiny than empowered educators.) Likewise, the show documents the impossibility of making 21st century people adhere to centuries-old social codes, as when clashes emerged in “Colonial House” when “not all the colonists, whether it was law or not, wanted to attend the Sabbath services.” 2 Attempts to problematize the tensions inherent in constructing present-day identities based on a past with radically different values, however, are largely incomplete. While the PBS approach engages its participants and audiences with some of the disconnects between popular views of history and gritty reality, it does not deeply address the why either the disconnects or our contemporary encounters with them are relevant to present-day society. In reading producer commentaries about the impetus behind the shows, it seems clear that PBS wants to be seen as espousing a populist social-historical stance on everyman American history, deploying the novel media format of reality TV to offer a more immediate and intimate perspective than other approaches could yield.3 And yet while the shows succeed in deglamorizing the work, dirt, and stress of period lifestyles, the participants’ post-production comments reinforce the conventional sentiments characteristic of contemporary American engagement with its history: valorizing hard work, family bonds, and a curious blend of community solidarity and rugged self-reliance.4 The shows themselves likewise chose to underwrite their narratives through identification with the most traditional characters from
2

Beth Hoppe, “Interview with the Executive Producer,” Colonial House, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/colonialhouse/behind/answer9.html. 3 Hoppe, “Interview with the Executive Producer,” Colonial House, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/colonialhouse/behind/answer4.html. 4 Tammy Wyers, “Meet the Colonists,” Colonial House, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/colonialhouse/meet/meet_wyers_tammy.html.

American popular history: the Pilgrim, the homesteader, and the cowboy. While PBS may have been “debunking” the romanticized vision of these most iconic figures, Troulliot could compellingly argue that they are participating in the continued silencing of lives that offer equally emblematic, if even less telegenic, versions of American history. The shows perpetuate the idea that the typical “American experience” was one of agrarian pioneerism. While some cast members (particularly those with non-white ancestry) are shown grappling with how truly they feel included in this manifest-destiny narrative, the shows ultimately offer very little to complicate the validity this traditional construction of national identity. There are obvious reasons (practical, legal, ethical, and marketing) that PBS did not produce programs called “Sharecropping House,” “Millworker Tenement House,” or “Immigrant Railway Laborer House.” And there is certainly value in examining popular and conventional ideas through a different lens. But on the whole I think “House” franchise raises more questions than it answers about how trying to “relive” history, whether in an open-air museum or on television, results in a reimagining rather than a recreation of the past. I am interested in how these shows can illustrate the ongoing canonization of American heritage as a construct that both informs and is shaped by attempts to reexperience particular visions of the past.

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