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A Few Simple Tips for Public Historians Working with Confrontational Visitors

by Nick Sacco, NPS Park Guide, Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site on

An interpreter at Mackinac State historic Parks, Michigan.

An interpreter at Mackinac State Historic Parks, Michigan.

This article was originally posted on Exploring the Past and is re-posted here with permission from the author. 

Public historians who work in interpretation and education often find themselves in a uniquely different setting from that of a classroom history teacher. A classroom teacher typically has at least sixteen weeks to learn about his or her students and to build a relationship with them. The teacher typically works with those students from sixty to ninety minutes per classroom session, and the really good ones blend a range of pedagogical techniques throughout the semester that simultaneously foster teamwork, historical empathy, a better understanding of historical content for a given time period, enhanced reading, writing, and research skills, and a heightened appreciation of the importance of history in our daily lives.

Public historians share many of these same goals when working with their many publics, but the amount of time we have to communicate with them is much shorter. In my work with the National Park Service I typically get one ten-minute introductory talk to build a relationship with visitors of all different backgrounds and spark an interest in history within them. My interpretive narrative changes and evolves with each group I work with in the hope that I can meet people where they are on their own journey through history. In the public history world you must quickly learn how to work in small time spaces like mine. Moreover, you never know who will walk through that door to visit your site on a given day, which is simultaneously exciting and nerve-racking.

 

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Those who work the front lines with their many publics are often trained to study historical content, put together an interpretive program based on a knowledge of that content, focus on exposing “multiple perspectives” to the past through the eyes of various historical actors and, if possible, make connections to present-day circumstances. These objectives are noble and challenging, especially because the historical content we interpret and the present-day connections we make are inherently political. If you work in public history long enough, you will run into a visitor who will object to the historical content you share, your intent to go beyond the historical perspective of White Anglo Saxon men, and the connections you make between the past and the present. These interactions can be difficult and emotionally draining. The recent news of increasingly hostile anti-immigrant comments from visitors to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City is but one example of tour guides experiencing a great deal of challenging visitor feedback about their interpretive stories and the messy politics of the present.

We are trained to understand the past but less often trained to deal with the present. While public historians should be prepared for confrontational visitors, how to work with these visitors to turn heated confrontations into meaningful interactions that promote learning and understanding is often left unsaid. What follows are a few simple tips that I’ve employed in my own interactions with confrontational visitors over the years.

Respectfully challenge visitors to further explain and defend their claims.

The purpose of education in my view is to encourage learning, which I broadly define as a change in thinking about and understanding of the world through experience, study, and interaction. When I experience a confrontational visitor, my first desire is to turn the interaction into a learning opportunity through dialogue. Public historians need to be well-versed in historical content and methods, but they also need to be effective conversationalists. Good public history practice is as much about being a respectful, attentive listener to visitor feedback as it is about effectively communicating historical content. When public historians demonstrate their willingness to listen, they establish trust with visitors and open the door for respectful interactions. They might also learn something from a visitor during the process!

 

An interpreter at a Minnesota Historical Society site.

Interpreters at a Minnesota Historical Society site.

When a visitor says something I might disagree with, I try to respectfully challenge that claim by encouraging the visitor to keep talking rather than telling them outright that they’re wrong. I like to use the following prompts:

“Tell me more.”

“What sources did you rely on to make that conclusion?”

“Where did you hear that claim? I’ve heard a few different viewpoints on this topic.”

“I want to better understand your perspective. What you do mean when you say…”

“There’s been a lot of debate about this topic. Have you read [enter a relevant work of scholarship] before? It might offer a different perspective worth considering.”

“Thanks for sharing your perspective. What made you interested in this topic?”

Each of these prompts challenges visitors to defend their position while also encouraging them to continue sharing their perspective with someone who’s willing to respectfully listen to them. I particularly like “tell me more” and “what sources did you rely on” because they put the onus on the visitor to explain and defend themselves. After listening and providing a few prompts to get the visitor talking, you then put yourself in a position to share your perspective and use your historical knowledge to direct the visitor towards resources they can use to learn more after the interaction has taken place. None of this is rocket science, but these prompts have been my best tools for challenging confrontational visitors.

 

Gettysburg Battlefield

Gettysburg Battlefield

Different circumstances require different sorts of responses from public historians.

While public historians should always strive to encourage visitor feedback and constructive dialogue, there are times when the best option is to stop the conversation and let it go. Some visitors will simply refuse to listen to you or give you the respect you deserve as an educator and scholar. Your emotions, self-respect, and dignity come first, and sometimes saying “we’ll just have to agree to disagree” is the only path forward.

There are other times where clearing up misinformation and historical inaccuracies stated by visitors requires a response more forceful than a dialogic method. For example, a visitor once argued to me that Abraham Lincoln was a slaveholder. It was necessary, in my view, to simply state right off the bat that such a claim is inaccurate and to explain that Lincoln lived in free states his entire adult life save for his time in Washington, D.C. I felt like we needed to be on the same page on this matter before engaging in a dialogue about Lincoln’s political views towards slavery.

So, in sum, each individual interaction with a visitor has unique circumstances attached to it. Public historians must determine on an individual basis how they’ll respond to the confrontational visitor, whether that be through dialogue, a more assertive approach that corrects inaccurate information, or a decision that the conversation is too heated and should be ended.

Never put labels on visitors. Challenge what they say and do rather than making claims about who they are.

The social commentator Jay Smooth says it best in the below video when he argues that if you hope to get through to a person and give yourself a chance to change their perspective, it’s more effective to focus on what they say then making claims about who they are. We don’t know the personal lives of our visitors or how their life experiences have shaped their particular perspective of the world. When the focus is on speculating about someone’s motives or putting labels on that person, the conversation turns into name-calling and the potential for a genuine learning opportunity is lost. Furthermore, your ability to hold someone accountable for their views becomes much tougher when you focus on names instead of words and actions. In my own work I often encounter visitors who believe the American Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. The easy response would be to call out the person’s incorrect view and accuse them of being a neo-Confederate. A more productive response would challenge that person using the above prompts to ask them how they came to that conclusion. Rather that saying that the person is a neo-Confederate, I can respectfully state, using my knowledge of historical scholarship and contemporary debate, that what they’re arguing sounds like something a neo-Confederate might say.

You might also find this video helpful:

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