Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tacky Events at Public History Sites?

Here is a slick little video from the Public History program at Temple University about Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the annual haunted prison event there:

Eastern State Penitentiary is the most important prison museum in the United States, respected for its programs and the quality of its interpretation as well as the historic significance of the building. It is also home to the annual Terror Behind the Walls event where this nationally-significant historic site is turned into a fun house entertainment.

This Philadelphia Weekly article goes deeper into the controversy over the exhibit, which even Program Director XX admits "compromises the mission" of the museum. According to the article the event used to be much worse than it is now:

In the mid-’90s, “Terror”—which brought in new consultants to conceptualize the haunt—started transforming from the creepy candlelight tours of the first few years to something far more outrageous and sensationalized, with its actors recreating scenes specific to the prison’s history: Women crying because they’d been raped. Prisoners going crazy and climbing the walls due to the unyielding solitary confinement that the prison’s Quaker founders believed would cause inmates to reflect and repent their misdeeds. And a man standing on the roof stabbing himself, fake blood spurting all over the place.

The article also notes that Terror Behind the Walls is "a crucial cash cow" that "generated 65 percent" of the museums $4 million budget last year. I am shocked that a haunted house event could produce that much revenue--good for them!

I am interested in similar events--are there other historic sites that make compromises to host popular events in return for revenue and public support?


Katrina said...

Larry, it's common.

I have been to "haunted" tours at a number of public history sites that shall remain nameless. These range from the fairly lame "it's Halloween, so we're going to ditch our normal tour and give one that tells you all about the various myths/legends and nonsense we can think of to do with this city" (infuriating), and the fully costumed, lantern-under-the-chin, "I lived in 1783 and I drank the blood of children!!!!!" or "I'm a ghost, my husband killed me with an axe, and at night you can still hear my screams" type of thing.
If well-done and professionally acted, they can be entertaining, if not educational.
They're lousy for learning real history (and encourage some of the worst historical misconceptions too), but they are indeed a cash cow. What are you going to do?

Larry Cebula said...

Thanks, Katrina. Someone over at the NW History Facebook page said that most prison museums have a Halloween tour. If that is what it takes to keep the doors open I am all for it. Aside from Halloween hauntings, are there other common tacky events at historic sites?

Anonymous said...

Mount Vernon's Christmastime programming comes to mind. Last year they displayed the pardoned presidential turkeys. Additionally, they demonstrate and hawk "eighteenth century chocolate," which likely was not made there. Their evening program, Candlelight tours, includes packages of ginger snap cookies and hot cider. There's also a giant gingerbread model of Mount Vernon on display in the education center. These do not necessarily take away from the educational mission of the estate, but they certainly redirect much of the focus from history to something a bit different