I have been a fan of Chef Gordon Ramsay for a long time, but at the start of this pandemic my wife and I decided to start watching every episode of the American version of “Kitchen Nightmares,” the popular show in which Ramsay takes a week to help a struggling restaurant on the brink of collapse. (The British version is better, but I’ve already seen all of those episodes!). In watching around 60 or 70 of these episodes over the past few months I’ve noticed certain explanations–excuses, perhaps–used by the owners of these failing restaurants that often make me think of the way we talk about struggling public history sites.
A consistent theme of Kitchen Nightmares is that many of the featured restaurants have been left in a time machine. A menu that hasn’t been updated in 30 years. Decor that is smelly and out of date. Disgusting walk-in refrigerators. Frozen food that’s lazily thrown in the microwave (sometimes defensively claimed to be FREEZER-FRESH FOOD). An ownership team that doesn’t communicate with staff, has lowered its standards of excellence, and is quick to cast blame on others. Oftentimes, when Chef Ramsay asks these confused owners why they think their restaurants are struggling, they argue that their food is a 10 out of 10 and that “this town doesn’t appreciate good food.” The old ways of doing things have been working just fine and we don’t want to alienate our loyal customers, they say.
Does any of this rhetoric sound familiar to those of us working in public history? Interpretive programs with content that is out of date and has nothing new to offer visitors. A historic house tour that is really just a glorified furniture tour and does little to tell visitors why history is important and gives no room for visitors to share their own perspectives during the experience. Museum exhibits that feature the same artifacts that were there twenty years ago. A hesitance to revise educational programming at the risk of alienating “loyal” visitors. An ownership team that does not communicate well and is unresponsive to staff needs. A Board of Directors that is out of touch with the struggles of frontline staff and does not respect the ideals of diversity, inclusion, accessibility, and equity. A culture that is anxious to point fingers and cast blame on others rather than taking an honest view inwards. “Young people just don’t respect history! They have to be on a phone all the time.” It’s not us, it’s them!
The term “revisionist” is sometimes used by critics of new approaches towards studying history. These are the people I envision as the disgruntled restaurant owners in Kitchen Nightmares who want everything to be the way it was in 1980. Medical scientists are rarely accused of being revisionists for trying to develop new medicines and cures for deadly diseases, but for a multitude of reasons there is a preference in some quarters for history to be told the same way it was thirty or fifty years ago. In reality, revisionism is fundamental to historical practice. Historians make new primary sources discoveries, revisit old interpretations, and constantly think anew about the many meanings the past may offer for today’s society. The same line of thinking should be embraced in public history as well.
Bruce Catton’s version of Civil War history from the 1950s and 1960s was readable, intriguing, and very popular. His writings influenced a generation of historians to study the American Civil War, and they influenced the way history was interpreted at Civil War battlefields like Gettysburg and Vicksburg for a very long time. I enjoy Catton as much as anyone. But those writings were a product of an earlier time and are now themselves a part of history. And those writings have their own shortcomings. Catton rarely, if ever, discussed the political issues of surrounding the conflict and most certainly avoided discussing slavery except as an issue on the periphery. His analysis of military strategy and tactics has been questioned by subsequent historians. Catton was a lovely author, but his interpretations need revision. Trying to write or interpret history at a public history site the way it was in 1965 is not going to work moving forward.
So . . . the big, broad lesson from Kitchen Nightmares is for public historians to stay up with the latest scholarship, regularly communicate with fellow staff members and colleagues in the field, and to never get too rooted in tradition or the idea that “this is the way we do things around here.” A very crappy 2020 should be the catalyst for change, not the excuse for doing more of the same. Otherwise you could very well find yourself in your own public history nightmare.