by Jeff A. Webb
It’s never good to eavesdrop. But sometimes the temptation to anonymously listen in on how others see things is irresistible. During a recent visit to The Rooms to see the latest acquisitions at the Art Gallery, I wandered over to the museum. As a member of their advisory committee a couple of years ago I had been privy to some of the insider discussions of how visitors experience museums. I now find that I cannot engage with the exhibits themselves, instead I am always thinking about the extra-textual and extra-design concerns that went into what we see. I also cannot help myself; I pay surreptitious attention to the other museum goers, and wonder what is going on in their minds.
View of St. John’s Newfoundland and Labrador, featuring “The Rooms”
(provincial museum, archives and art gallery). Taken from Signal Hill.
During this most recent visit, I could not help but hear a man of about my age explain, with a confident manner, to a family of Asian tourists, how the settlement of Newfoundland had been illegal. He repeated the old story about how the people who settled were all evading the Royal Navy by hiding in remote harbours. The text of the exhibits he pointed to don’t support such a story, but he used the maps, drawings, and artifacts to illustrate his own lecture. And it was a very different story than was on the wall.
For the last 50 years, no professional historian has believed that Newfoundland was settled by refugees from British anti-settlement policies. Such an interpretation was put to rest in the late 1960s by the geographer C Grant Head and the historian Keith Matthews. And an increasingly sophisticated and fascinating history of settlement has been written by archaeologists and historians since then. But, for some reason, the old myths remain stuck in many people’s imaginations.
It’s not as if us historians had not made an effort to close the gap between our professional knowledge and the public’s knowledge. The history department at Memorial has taught new interpretations of the past to several generations of Newfoundlanders since 1970. More recently the university-sponsored Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador Website provides a nuanced account that is accessible to school age children. The Newfoundland Historical Society’s A Short History of Newfoundland and Labrador explicitly challenged myths in a narrative written for the general public. Textbooks, such as Sean Cadigan’s Newfoundland and Labrador: A History, also synthesise the modern scholarship on this and many topics. Yet in the case of the process of settlement, as with the fate of the Beothuk, and the story of Confederation, the misinformed view continues to be repeated.
Surveys say that people trust museums to give them accurate information more than they trust universities or the media – it likely has something to do with the belief that they are seeing authentic artifacts and the idea that “seeing is believing.” But people don’t read lengthy panels of text on the wall, or even brief panels of text. Museum interpreters are thus caught in a difficult position, nuance and multi-factored explanation requires more words than simple assertions. Such pithy sentiments as “people hid from the Navy,” “the referendum was rigged,” or “the Beothuk were murdered for fun” all take fewer words than providing an extensive text which provides a nuanced account. While more complete explanations are intellectually satisfying, people are easily fatigued.
Sometimes, it’s the sensational nature of the old stories that make them so memorable when contrasted with careful analysis. Myths also provide psychologically satisfying post facto explanations. That such stories lack supporting evidence, or that the real story is more complex, is largely irrelevant to the question of belief.
It’s not just laziness though. People will choose to believe things about the past even when it is explained to them why historians don’t agree with that interpretation. I have had people express disbelief when I told them well accepted “facts” about the past, even when the unsupported assumptions they have are less plausible. Psychologists tell us that people believe things that their peer group believe, because the approval of our community is more important to us than the facts. I still think evidence and intellectual rigour are rewarding, but, sadly, I am not surprised when nineteenth century myths come from the mouths of twenty-first century people.
Jeff Webb is an associate professor in the Department of History at Memorial University.