There is no truth in history

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For many years I believed a fundamental part of my job as an actor in Barkerville was to tell the truth.  My mind was changed while defending my Master’s thesis a few years ago. A theatre history professor challenged me on “truth” in reference to museum work.

“There is no truth in history” she said.

“Then what is there?” I asked.

She said: “There is interpretation.”

Museum actors are called Interpreters.  That’s what we do.  We interpret history.

We can’t tell you the truth, because all history is really just an interpretation of events, as we understand them to have happened, filtered through the biases and experiences of the person telling the story.

The story.

The story is all that we interpreters really have.

I was once asked to provide a definition of museums for an Applied Theatre conference panel, and this is what I came up with: museums are where we keep our stuff and our stories.  Barkerville is a big collection of stuff that belongs to the people of British Columbia – buildings, artifacts, documents – stuff.  But without stories, stuff is just stuff.

That’s where interpretation comes in.  The stuff in Barkerville lives through the stories we tell every day – stories that have been passed from mouth to ear to mouth to ear over the course of 151 years.  Every interpreter in Barkerville learns the stories that came down to us, at first from the miners and townspeople and reporters of the gold rushes, and then from the generations of interpreters who came before us.  A novice interpreter’s stories might have jagged edges but will be infused with the enthusiasm of newly discovered treasures, whereas a veteran interpreter’s stories will have edges that have been smoothed and oiled and seasoned with time.

When I walk the streets of Barkerville now and catch a snippet of the town tour, or hear a familiar line from the Waterwheel show, or overhear an interpreter chatting with a visitor, I hear the stories that have hovered in my life for twenty years.  It feels like a warm hand on my shoulder.  Every interpreter before and after me has his or her own interpretation of these stories that breathe life into our old town every tourist season.

Do we tell the truth in Barkerville?  Nope.  We can’t.  What we do tell, however, is the essence of what happened in a place that has one big story made up of an infinite number of smaller stories.  We step into the personas of those who walked before us, and we try to provide an authentic experience for our visitors.  And hopefully, in doing so, we give the visitors some stories to take away and make their own.

So, the next time you visit our site, please take a moment to consider how each story has lived in Barkerville from the moment the first person interpreted what he or she saw or experienced and took the time to tell someone about it.

– Danette Boucher

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The above one-panel cartoon by Dirk Van Stralen, along with the accompanying editorial by Danette Boucher, is the third of twenty weekly entries that will be logged – and subsequently blogged – as part of a 2013 collaboration between Barkerville Historic Town and The Prince George Citizen aimed at introducing some of the quirkier advantages to living, working, and playing in the Cariboo Goldfields. We hope you enjoy!