What’s History Worth?

Reading about the USS Olympia’s preservation history on the heels of Igor Kopytoff’s  work on commodification got me thinking, once again, about why history matters and what it is worth.

Appraising Artifacts

Conversations in the Archives and Manuscripts course I’m taking and in Studies in American Material Culture have both touched on the practice of appraising materials donated to an institution committed to their preservation. These appraisals are necessary because they allow the donor to quantify their gift when calculating their tax responsibility but they also seem self-defeating. If the aim of the gift is that it be preserved in perpetuity (and there is much debate about that unattainable aim) then the gifted material is assumed to never be available for purchase. It thus becomes priceless, decommodified, not for sale. Users of an archives might find informational or evidentiary value in a document or set of papers, but within the archival context they have no monetary value.

Kopytoff describes this as “singularization,” a process by which items are withdrawn from the market to serve as symbols. This process is largely the purview of people in power and serves to reify their position. Even seemingly neutral artifacts in a museum en masse support the status quo. Historic preservation is a singularization process. Individuals can put a lot of time and money into  preservation projects, the result of which is a singularization. Since 1966, however, if preservation is done in accordance with certain guidelines, that investment can earn reward in the form of tax credits.

So even withdrawing objects from a common market does not always strip them of monetary value. In the context of a museum which charges admission, the artifacts on display combine with the signage (and, as we shall see, the human labor) to justify that fee. An artifact on display is part of the equation of exchange and thus has an ongoing monetary value as part of the museum whole. What portion of the total admissions revenue (and donor revenue, and grant revenue) does each item earn?  In fact, when arrayed with other artifacts, an item’s value may surpass its pre-museum sale price (for instance a mass-market product seen alongside its relatively rarer forebears). (How) can we quantify the historical (that is scholarly, evidentiary, intrinsic) value as separate and different from its auction value?

Valuing History Work

To break up the black box of the museum, what portion of revenue is earned by staff, how much of that is paid to those staff in wages, and how does that commodification affect the history at play?

I work as a tour guide at a historic site and during the Halloween season we lead flashlight tours in conjunction with a haunted house on the property. The haunted house brings financial stability to the year-round historic tours but sometimes appears to undermine the nuanced history of the daytime programming. This week I was wrapping up a flashlight tour when one of the guests started teasing apart the contradiction of a capitalist enterprise of the haunted house with the other work we do. At one point she said something along these lines:

“We shouldn’t have to pay you; or I mean you should get paid, it’s just that this stuff, racial inequality and everything, it’s foundational.”

She went on to lament the lack of investment in public education, but I think she had made her point. To her, not only was the haunted house problematic, but so was the fee the site charges for daily admission. While she found the educational work to be valuable, her desire for it to be universally accessible made a cost to visitors inappropriate.

In The Lowell Experiment, Cathy Stanton highlights the failure of many employed historians to fully reckon with their place in a capitalist system. Amy Tyson, in The Wages of History, tells the stories of frontline history workers (often seasonally employed) who are all too aware of their (powerless) place in the economy, but are reluctant to agitate for better compensation or job security because they see their jobs as fulfilling or worthwhile.

Historians employed at historic sites and museums, whether they are employed full-time or seasonally, find their work commodified, exchanging data and interpretation for salaries or wages and (sometimes) employment benefits. History has served to be lucrative as a kind of edu-tainment, and many of us in the public history field desperately hope that somewhere out there is a job for us.

Yet I think we–or perhaps I–have yet to reckon fully with what it means to have our passion rendered valuable in monetary terms. I have Stephen Metcalf’s primer on Neoliberalism on my mind and find the implication of society as a market deeply troubling. Kopytoff described culture as the bulwark against commodification; if culture itself becomes just another market, what are the implications for history work? If we are peddling history as a kind of edifying entertainment, how can we tackle topics which make our customers uncomfortable? The vast majority of historic sites portray history in marketable ways.[^] How are the expectations of history-visitors shaped by past experience? How do these expectations shape brouhahas such as the Enola Gay debacle or the rhetoric around monuments?

Does history work have to be financially compensated to be valuable? Does being financially compensated undercut history work? How can one survive and do critical history work outside of the academy? If I, like the seasonal interpreters in Tyson’s study, willingly accept less pay in recognition of passion (or mission) for the work, do I do anyone a favor? How does my extensive financial safety net as a white cis-male with a network of family and friends affect my willingness to work for less than a thriving wage?

I remember a conversation with a friend in which I wondered what wage I might expect at a job after obtaining my degree. “But do I work harder than someone working for minimum wage?” I asked, and could only answer: “No.”

I’m left with more questions than answers, as is usually the case when the topics are thorny and the stakes are things like standard of living and personal meaning. As I enter the job market in the near future, these are questions I have to keep asking. If I cannot find answers, I must find a way to come to terms with the questions.


[^] Seth Bruggeman’s study of the Nantucket Whaling Museum, for instance: Bruggeman, Seth C. 2015. “‘A Most Complete Whaling Museum’: Profiting from the Past on Nantucket Island.” Museum History Journal 8, no. 2: 188-208.

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