So many people respond to me with the comment, “Oh, I would love to live in the 18th Century, the ‘20’s, the Civil War” etc. when they hear what I do for a living.
I usually respond with a smile and ironic comment that life in the past was not really as wonderful as the movies or some books depict.
Life in the past, even our own relatively recent past, sometimes seem as the ideal, the one place that we either remember or imagine where life was so much simpler, more real or easier. Understandable, especially with the turmoil and uncertainty of the present world that swirls about us every day.
Having had the pleasure of having a job where every day I lived the life of a 19th Century middle class woman when I was an interpreter for the National Park Service in Harpers Ferry, W.Va, I can say that beautiful dresses are fun to wear, but very hard to cook in, not to mention hot.
Since I have had the blessing to have “lived” in both the 19th and 21st Centuries I can say that I prefer the latter. Aside from the practical applications we need for everyday living: running water, air conditioning, refrigerators; I like to think that the social awareness we live with today is much preferable to the way people commonly believed even 20 years ago.
Never again would I want to live in a world where a child could be facing a life of slavery or prejudice. An existence of hiding their emerging sexuality for fear of reprisals and persecution. No, I love that I have lived to see an emerging tolerance for all people regardless of who they look like or who they love.
The “romance” of the past is just that, a pretty idea. The reality was often far from the way it is commonly depicted in movies and literature–good and bad.
Searching and presenting the entire story is so important in our job as historians. It is the trust of future generations that we should hold dear and never forget that responsibility.
For those of us who work and sometimes “live” in the world of preserving and interpreting the past we should always remember to include a stiff dose of reality in our presentations and exhibits. We need to show our visitors that the whole story is so much more interesting and important to convey.