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Fakelore, Story Creep, and Other Crimes Against History

by George Vogt on

By George L. Vogt
AASLH Member since 1994
Executive Director, Oregon Historical Society, Portland, OR

On a tour of Kyoto, we noticed an odd phenomenon. In several places, centuries-old historic homes and gardens had more recently become the property of religious organizations and thus became “temples” in the advertising and tour guides.   The ease with which new management ignored three centuries of history and misled visitors was startling, to say the least.

I mentioned to our leader, Doug Roth, that American museums face a related challenge, which the pros call “fakelore” or “story creep.” Here’s how it happens.

Almost all museums and historic houses use docents or guides to provide tours. The museum spends great time and effort to develop accurate story lines and train the guides to use them. But human nature being what it is, guides often find that certain parts of the story get laughs or nods from the visitors, which leads guides to walk farther and farther on the wild side of the facts and get bigger laughs and more nods. Some museum directors spend a lot of time stamping out new ghost stories.

The mayor of Charleston, Joe Riley, once overheard a carriage driver spinning tales of Tara and Gone with the Wind for customers who were hanging on every word. He was so incensed that he instituted a licensing program for guides, which includes “secret shopper” checks to make sure they are delivering facts not fiction. My colleagues have offered up a few other choice examples of history gone wrong.

“Baltimore homes are built of bricks brought over as ship ballast.” Nope, but try to tell the docents that. Baltimore sits on prime clay, and bricks were made on site. Besides, they are not dense enough to be good ballast.

As a child, Jerry Ford spent a week on Mackinac Island in the Boy Scout barracks. The carriage drivers loved to point out the barracks steps as the “first steps he ever stumbled down.” One Michigan Governor overheard the line and asked that the guides be retrained. Good luck.

And a real classic concerns the tunnels in Federal Hill near the Baltimore harbor. Dug as silica mines for glass making, the tunnels were described by one tour guide as the place where the trains on the Underground Railroad for slaves pulled into Baltimore. The museum director who overheard this writes, “I loved the idea that somewhere in Georgia there was a Harry Potter kind of secret depot serving a sort of underground subway hundreds of miles long, with a conductor (discreetly) crying, “All aboard for the Freedom Land.”

Quoting an old cartoon strip by Jeff Danziger, “History is what people will pay for.”

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