“Ask A Slave” and Unintended Meanings
September 11, 2013
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These videos have been making the rounds and I wanted to comment on this all. Yes, they are clever — even very clever. Yes, Dungey is talented and this is an imaginative way to promote herself as an actress and hit some social consciousness bells along the way. I respect her and her project and look forward to seeing how students react. But at the same time, it made me squirm on so many levels and raised some red flags.
The Stupid-Visitor-Question-Story genre is a staple of museum culture– and as Handler and Gable amongst others have pointed out, that is not always a good thing for either visitors or museum staff. Interpreter-visitor encounters are usually imagined as being a charming educational moment. But often these are in realty tense tug-o-wars with smugness on both sides and a high degree of trying to embarrass as well. At least visitors have the option to ask intentionally stupid questions to make their friends laugh–I suspect that that is in fact what is behind many if not most of these stories–visitors intentionally screwing around with staff. In that way, visitors get a double bang: make friends laugh in the moment and have the more incredulous repeat the feat over and over. Hey presto, a manner of immortality.
On the other hand, for interpreters, encounters are full of risk. Staff may suspect that they are being screwed with, but face employer retaliation if they get too snarky. Interpreters have to treat every question as real and have to be engaging in responding – their continued employment depends on it. Thus, the Stupid-Visitor-Question-Story genre becomes a sort of spiritual haven for people who are paid poorly, work their asses off in often harsh conditions (being in a blacksmith shop or a recreated eighteenth-century kitchen all day sucks now as it did then) and also will never be granted much intellectual respect or credibility from academe. These folks often see themselves (rightly or wrongly) as permanent second-class citizens in historyland. Most lack the kinds of schooling and publishing records academe cherishes, but do have often very detailed fine- grained knowledge of their fields. On top of that, they often have an intuitive knowledge that comes from experience—-something that is immensely valuable to museums and visitors, but always just a bit suspect to “book learning” historians. Buy an experienced interpreter a drink and they will tell you how irritating visitors are. But buy them a second drink and they will tell you what arrogant exclusive jerks historians can be.
What worries me about these film clips is the stupid visitor story being too public a performance. I see it as only encouraging visitors to play at this even more. But worse still, I worry for how museums (read employers) will see this. They are famous for retaliation and are always deeply concerned about public image. I don’t imagine that Mount Vernon is at all happy about this sort of “unmasking” and I wonder what HR policies may ensue not just there, but elsewhere as well. It is fun to laugh—and Dungey is good at making us do that. But, museums are workplaces and interpreters are staff, often very vulnerable staff at that. These clips viewed that way are so very full of issues of domination and resistance. The very title “Ask a Slave” is far more meaningful than most gleeful watchers might know.