Nothing terrifies a public historian more than a question that comes out of left field. Whether it is a question that simply makes you want to laugh or has you wanting to raise your eyebrows, sometimes visitors just say the strangest things! That being said, this post is not in any way intended to be a criticism of such questions. Rather, it is meant as an examination of the thought process behind the question itself and how, as a public historian, one can answer those strange questions.
During my first summer as a front-line historian at Appomattox Court House (as part of the Civil War Institute’s Pohanka Internship program), I spent a good deal of my time in the McLean House. Though the structure standing today is not the original building, the home is decorated roughly as it would have been in the 1860s. One steamy Virginia afternoon, two young women came through the door. They were interested in the history of the house, so I shared the story of Lee’s surrender with them and encouraged them to explore the rest of the building. They made their way up the stairs and as the floor above me creaked with their movement, I heard giggling. I almost went to see if they had a question, but I decided to wait instead. When they returned downstairs, one of the women encouraged the other to ask her question. The other young woman turned to me and queried, “When did they invent toilet paper?”
That question threw me for a loop. Still to this day when people want to know the weirdest thing I have been asked, I tell them this story. The two ladies and I had a good chuckle about it, but still I felt the need to try to answer their question, though it was a strange one. I am no expert in how Victorians dealt with their bodily functions and I could not begin to make an educated guess to answer that question. So what was I to do?
My solution was to ask the visitor a follow-up question. Though it might sound obvious, in a situation where you’re grabbing at straws for an answer, this is a very powerful method for getting to the bottom of a tough question. I asked the ladies why they wanted to know about toilet paper. Had they seen the chamber pot upstairs? With these follow-up questions, it became clear that they had seen the chamber pot and were curious about the differences between Victorian and modern hygiene habits. Our conversation also wandered into the realm of the environmental impact that armies had on the regions they traveled through. We had a productive half hour conversation and both young ladies left satisfied with the discussion, even though I did not answer their initial question.
What would have happened if I had laughed in their faces? What would have been the outcome had I not taken the time to get to the root of their question? Perhaps nothing would have happened – perhaps these two young women would have left simply without a second thought – but it also could have left a very negative impression on them. As I went through training for a second Pohanka internship, I will never forget reading an email a visitor had sent detailing his experience at the site. He explained how he had asked a question and a historian laughed at him. This gentleman walked out of the visitor’s center feeling “about two feet tall.” When a public historian takes this avenue of approach, not only does he or she virtually destroy the experience of the visitor at their site, but also undermines the visitor’s interest in engaging with history for years to come. Such a visitor would be very unlikely to ask a question at a museum or historic site ever again, and that truly is a great tragedy.
Nine times out of ten when a visitor asks a seemingly ridiculous question out of left field, what they are really asking you is not the question that they first vocalize. More often than not, that first question is an attempt to break the ice or to skirt around what a visitor feels is an embarrassing question. Sometimes it is just poorly worded. The most important thing that any interpreter can do is to show that the visitor’s question is legitimate, even if it is strange. Show interest. Engage with these visitors. We have all been in their shoes at some time or another. Do your best as a public historian to satisfy the visitor’s curiosity, but most of all show you care and that understanding the question is important to you.