Saturday, June 4, 2011

Boston 1775 Sets the Record Straight on Paul Revere

As we reported yesterday, Sarah Palin, when asked what she saw during her recent visit to Boston, had some problems explaining exactly what happened on Paul Revere's famous ride.

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. sets the record straight and notes that some of the websites that criticized Palin's also got a few things wrong.  (Actually, Palin may not have been too far off about the "bells" ringing).

Here is a taste of Bell's post:

It sounds like Palin got an accurate description of Revere, the Lexington alarm, and his adolescent bell-ringing at Old North Church during her travels, but that history got garbled in her attempt to spin it into modern right-wing talking points (“Put the government on warning!” “We need our arms!”). The result was her typical stew of folksy phrases without logical or grammatical connections.

In the comments section of my previous post on Palin's encounter with Revere, "CG" makes some good points about the way visitors to historic sites understand what they see:

What if we take her summary of Paul Revere's ride as the summary of an actual average American visitor to a history museum. We all have "lenses" through which we learn history, and granted her's are not average, but no visitor comes out of a museum (or reads a history book) with the narrative the curators (or authors) intended. (As a former history museum curator and aspiring author, this is infinitely frustrating.) Apparently she visited Old North Church, the Paul Revere House, and Bunker Hill while in Boston. I wonder how the narrative she told about Revere's ride compares to the narrative those museums exhibit? I'm sure that before she visited these museums, her Revere narrative, if she had one--and who does besides us dorks?--would have been even more disappointing. I'm sure those museums had some influence on what she said, even if how she said it is uniquely her own creation.

Anyhow, it's a basic public history question that isn't asked enough. What and how do people with a sketchy conception of history learn from lovingly crafted historical exhibits? In my experience, it's usually NOT what the curators expect. 

While historians certainly have a responsibility to clarify historical misinformation that comes out of the mouths of politicians, perhaps the most important lesson we should learn from this whole Sarah Palin-Paul Revere incident has something to with how average visitors process what they see and learn from historical sites.  I am sure public historians have grappled with this question before.