David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

AmWest Post #12: “You ain’t from around here, are you?”

This clip from the film Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure demonstrates a phenomenon the late Hal Rothman, in his fascinating work Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth-Century West, argues was associated with tourism: The need to perform a certain image of a place. When I worked in the position that Jan Hooks depicted in this film (which, I should add, was not filmed at the Alamo and completely inaccurately depicts the place, not to mention how we did our jobs), one of the most common questions visitors asked me (besides the location of the basement) was some variation of, “You ain’t from around here, are you?” My accent–the result of a Pittsburgh-born broadcaster father and a Minnesota-born mother–belied the fact that I had grown up 15 miles away.

This phenomenon dovetails nicely with the subject of recent discussion in our American West class: Who should tell the history of a place or people, whether in an academic work, a public history production like an exhibition or historic site tour, or even participating in a tourist production? Should representatives of particular ethnic groups, or natives of particular places, have a greater right to tell the history of their people or place? In both academic and public history, a great deal of digital and physical ink has been spilled over this topic in recent years. The jury is out on that issue, and probably always will be.

While I’ve read some of that literature for academic and public history, I haven’t given that issue much, if any, thought for working in tourism. Perhaps that partially is from the the fuzzy line–one many of us in public history perceive is much more solid–between what is public history work and what is tourism work. Was my job at the Alamo–a front-line historical interpreter–a job in tourism or in public history/museums? I tended to think of it as the latter, because proper historical research influenced how I did my job–perhaps an elitist assumption on my part. But a large part of the constituency that I served was from outside of San Antonio, visiting the city–in other words, tourists. The Alamo is the most-visited site in Texas. So although I didn’t think of myself as such, I was employed in tourism.

Reading Rothman’s book added another dimension to the “you ain’t from around here” question. I had previously thought visitors were asking me that question in terms of legitimacy for historical interpretation, along the lines of what we previously discussed in class. Was someone with my accent, who had arrived as an infant in Texas with my family in 1980, not qualified to interpret that story?

But perhaps that question also came from an expectation, as Rothman details, of a certain way that tourism workers should act–as part of the backdrop, as part of what makes that place distinctive. (Addendum: My classmate Carol Apelt found the perfect quotation from Rothman to sum this up:”Tourist workers quickly learn that one of the most essential traits of their service is to mirror onto the guest what that visitor wants from them and from their place in a way that affirms the visitor’s self-image” [12]).

Was it not so much that I wasn’t qualified to represent that story (particularly at a site then managed by a descendants’ group) as I didn’t fit the expectation of how a local in San Antonio was supposed to sound?

That raises the question of to what degree our visitors distinguished, as we in public history often do, between us–a serious historical institution–and the tourist traps across Alamo Plaza.

How much study has been devoted to the place of public history work in the broader spectrum of tourism–particularly how visitor expectations of tourist sites influence visitor expectations of public history institutions? How do visitors know when they’ve walked into a public history institution versus a tourist trap? I suspect the distinction is intuitive, but beyond that, what are the expectations of each and how do they influence each other?

Suggestions for further reading would be most appreciated!

Commentary

This week I commented on Carol’s post on her experiences with expectations of the roles she should play as a Texan.

2 Comments

  1. David,

    Pee Wee Herman as the quintessential tourist is as comical as the farcical Alamo tour guide! Nice clip.

    I think you’ve hit on an important aspect of tourism: the disparity between what historians believe is important to impart and what/how much the public actually wants to know. It’s a shame that our society too often dumbs things down to a lowest common denominator (sound bites); authentic history does indeed suffer for it. On the other hand, if catering to the limited desires of the majority of tourists encourages more people to visit historical places like the Alamo, then perhaps we historians must swallow our pride. It reminds me of my years as a teacher: for all the students who were content to do the minimum required, there were the few who wanted more, asked more questions, exerted more effort. We see tourists like that, too. Both situations — teaching and tour guiding — confirm that many things in life are Rothman’s devil’s bargains.

  2. It seems a chicken and the egg thing, dunnit? Tourists come to to an area or site to see something special, and their interest causes the something special to change, to transform into a facsimile of the real. For example, the beauty of the mountains results in ski lodges and snowmobile trails and things that mar the original pristine beauty. And eventually such things can progress all the way to something like the modern fabrication that is Las Vegas, where fabrications of Paris and other famous tourist locations abound as attractions themselves. Somewhere in all this I suspect there’s a social psychology study waiting to happen.

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