Sunday, August 25, 2013

Telling Lies

A while ago a visitor asked me if the sink in the Shapiro's bathroom is enamel or porcelain, I got to tell her truthfully that I'm not sure I'd know the difference. I told her it was purchased second-hand from one of the scrap metal yards, which is conjecture, but is very likely. I'm not sure why, while kneeling on the floor staring up at the base of the sink with a visitor this should pop into my head, but pop it did: " I bet if Mrs. Shapiro was confronted with a nosy visitor like this she would be tempted to lie."

That is a thunderously dangerous, but highly liberating thought. It is dangerous, because it is my job to inform the public about history as it occurred. But at the same time everything I say has some falsehood to it because I am not really mrs. Shapiro. My husband and I did not purchase the house in 1909, but Mrs. Shapiro and her husband did. So my job is to personalize facts, but I strive to make sure they are really facts, just delivered in a more theatrical manner.

I’m reading Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage. I’ll put up a book review when I’m done, but in the meanwhile I was struck by one of his points he makes about interpreters. He says interpreters should never lie. In fact, Joyce Thierer in Telling History makes a big deal about checking every fact and having at least three sources for every fact. But what about storytelling? What if we don’t have all the facts but have certain themes we want to get across?

In Shapiro we make a pretty big deal about Mollie’s birthday. It happens right in the middle of the summer, and is something most American kids can relate to. Getting a gift for Mollie’s birthday is how we connect kids to the past, and connect the Shapiros to the American culture they are learning. We don’t know what Mollie was given for her 10th birthday, we don’t actually know for sure that she was given a gift, but the museum has purchased a reproduction of a 1919 pogo stick that the kids who visit can take into the yard and try out. We call it Mollie’s birthday present even though her grandson is pretty sure she did not have a pogo stick while growing up. But at least some 1919 kids did have them, and trying out the pogo stick can help kids who have been stuck listening to museum folks and need to be active. Since those of us who are interacting with the visitors are doing so as Mrs. Shapiro, do we have a little more leeway to make up the story about the pogo stick being a gift for Mollie’s 10th birthday? Or is that lying?

I hope that most of the audience will forgive us these stories and see them as story telling. I am obviously not Mrs. Shapiro living in the year 1919. So is it more like seeing a play, or is it more like a scene in a documentary which is expected to reflect the actual events?

Many years ago when I was working as a museum garden intern, I lobbied hard to get a well put into the back yard garden where I was working. I was willing to concede that it could not be an actual well, but a wooden platform representing the well top and a well sweep could be very educational to the visitor. The argument I heard against it was that although there was evidence there was a well in the yard, we did not know where in the yard it would have been, so it would be inauthentic to just place it randomly. My arguement was that is was even less authentic to knowingly exclude a well, when we know that there was one. So is it more of a dis-service to the visitor to put the well in the wrong place, or to not indicate that folks back then had to work hard to get their water?

So back to lying. I justify letting visitors walk around the house with a mix of biblical hospitality and with the  fact that the Shapiro's rented the third floor to boarders. I treat most visitors like potential renters so they have an excuse to explore the house and I have an excuse to tell them about my family. As part of that I talk up the newness of the indoor plumbing, and the cleanliness of the kitchen. I am giving historical information about the technology and urbanization of sanitation, and I am giving cultural information about kosher meals in a gentile city. I hope that my visitors know that as Mrs. Shapiro I might be exaggerating the cleanliness of the kitchen, but I also hope that does not diminish the factual knowledge I am sharing. According to Mr. and Mrs. Shapiro, their daughter Mollie was so smart and good, she always finished her homework and did her chores. Was Mollie the perfect child? I doubt it, but she died young and as a good girl was the way her parents wanted to remember her.

But what about whoppers? Actual falsehoods? We make up so much of our characters out of the scraps left to us through the ages, that we all try very hard to give as accurate a presentation as possible. If visitors can not tell very deliberately that I may be stretching the truth (like saying that my daughter is always such a good girl) I try to avoid lies at all cost. But I bet Mrs. Shapiro lied, on occasion.

So now I’ll have to think about some lies I could tell as Mrs. Shapiro. Not to the visitors, that would be awful. But in the spirit of A-E Shapera’s Easy Street a lie through which I can include visitors, as a story I am telling that they are now in on. I already do something similar when folks ask how the peaches in the jar on the counter are preserved. When they ask I look around, lower my voice, and ask if they are police. When they assure me they are not I tell them that the peaches are in vodka, even though prohibition is gearing up all over the country. So I am informing them about food customs, but also the politics of the day, and including them in something that was illegal at the time, but now is considered quaint. Now I’m challenging myself to come up with a few more, see what I can do with some whoppers.


  1. As a fellow interpreter/re-enactor of history who constantly strives to be as historically accurate as possible (and yes, in my personal opinion and all, as well), I think if it's documented that there was a well in the garden, then put one in; the specific, exact latitudinal and longitudinal location within said garden is immaterial. As long as its placement makes sense with regard to working within a garden area. However, IMO saying a pogo stick was given to a child as a birthday present is a no-no because birthdays were not celebrated nor gifts given or parties held, etc. Children were not treated the way they are today, whether by their parents or society in general. By doing so, in a sense, one is re-writing history, adapting it to fit modern views, which we should not do. I think it's highly important (in fact, I think it's our job) that we look out to visitors from the past, through the eyes of those who lived in it, and not from the future back. We have to leave our modern eyes, thoughts, and pre-conceived notions at the door, so that we can help the visitor do the same. In any event, the pogo stick story has no basis in fact, whereas the well story does. And there are other ways to explain it; handmade children's toys in general, for instance. And yet, would a pogo stick be appropriate for a girl at that time? Perhaps it was too much "exertion" for a delicate female?! Views of women and girls, play and work, and so on, might be other topics to consider and possibly tie in (or out!). Again, just my view.

  2. Hi Carolina, thanks for all your insightful comments! Shapiro house is interpreted for the year 1919, so by then there were birthday parties, and working class girls were not considered delicate. It is possible that Mollie would have recieved a pogo stick, we just do not have any evidence to support her specifically having one, nor do we have any records saying what she did recieve on her tenth birthday.