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Posted on Jun 22, 2011 in History News

Entertaining, Yes – But Is It History?

Gerald D. Swick

An article in today’s New York Times puts the spotlight on how historic sites are changing the way in which they present their messages, in response to visitors’ changing expectations.

This article focuses on Indiana’s Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, described as "a hybrid of historical society, amusement park, 19th-century village and high-tech theater. Its history inspires it to try to tell history in a different way: not as fact but as experience."

Those "experiences" include a multi-million dollar interactive show about Confederate cavalryman John Hunt Morgan’s raid in Indiana in 1863; pioneer fur trappers, blacksmiths and others; a participatory drama, "Follow the North Star," in which visitors are meant to get insight into the experiences of slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad; etc.

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It all sounds much more exciting than traditional visits to historic sites, especially for young’ns in the group. Heck, I wanna go there, and I’m no young’n.

But is it history?

The park’s president and chief executive, Ellen M. Rosenthal, is presented in the article as saying, "the goal of the park was to treat history not as something completed, but as something lived, something that grows out of people’s experiences and understanding."

It’s hard to argue with the concept that history is not something completed. But as the article’s author, Edward Rothstein, points out, "for history to become lived experience, we don’t just need sensations of fear and pride. We need context."

Here’s a link to the full New York Times article.

Attention spans getting shorter and shorter. Today’s tourists, accustomed to Hollywood special effects and exciting electronic games, want to be entertained, not merely informed, by history.

What do you think? How can—or should—historic sites, especially those without multimillion dollar budgets, respond the the evolving audience for heritage tourism?

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