History vs. Nostalgia

0 Posted by - February 18, 2015 - Interpretation

Photographs by Bob Segal

Giving tours is so much more than serving up information.

Information is central to sharing history, no doubt about it.  But I consider what I do – whether speaking or writing – the interpretation of history and architecture.  I am not just listing names, dates, and facts.  At my best, I am putting things in context, relaying stories, endeavoring to help people see something.  I am aiming for meaning.

This is the work of public history: interpreting history for the public, making it accessible, making it meaningful.   Thus I take this all very seriously as a historian with a mission.  It’s not just some summer job for me.


Lately I’ve been thinking about the place of nostalgia in the interpretation of history.  My stance has long been to eschew nostalgia – it’s not serious history, after all – it’s fun, it’s emotional, it’s just personal.  The word nostalgia comes from the Greek words nostos and algos, which describe the pain resulting from the desire to return to one’s home.  It is a longing to go back and reclaim something.

As much as I personally love antiques and vintage clothing and midcentury design and old buildings, I have liked to think that I am really in it for the history, pure and simple.  Nostalgia has had no place in my work.  I don’t talk about Chicago’s history from the standpoint of pining for the “old days.”

I learned in graduate school that the history of art and architecture is not about “I like this” or “this is familiar to me.”  Responding to art and architecture on a serious level must include context, analysis, “reading” the work, discerning its message and meaning.

But!  I recently decided to try something: to give in to nostalgia on one of my tours and see what happened.  Well, it was my Marshall Field’s store tour and it was Christmastime, an emotionally powerful combination;  how could I not?


I created a tour of the old store that had solid history as its foundation, but added some heavy-duty nostalgic bits (Uncle Mistletoe, anyone?).  Then I added lots of personal memories – short quotes that I had come across in my research: “I remember coming downtown with my grandmother and wearing white gloves…”  “I bought my wedding dress at Field’s…”

Well, not only was this tour popular, but I quickly discovered something: I didn’t need to add all those memories to my tour.  My tourees supplied them in spades!  I heard so many stories of visiting Marshall Field’s and working at Marshall Field’s  – wow, I learned much.   And I cut way back on what I said and allowed plenty of time to listen.

There was the woman who had intense childhood memories of getting lost in the store, the man who shared memories of his work as one of the display window staff, the woman who worked in the restaurant kitchen.  Many people shared memories of being children and being left alone in the famous toy department by their parents while they shopped – for a couple of hours!  There were memories of the bargain basement, of the creepy sub-basements, of the amazing book department, of the famous Walnut Room salad, of getting dressed up to come downtown….on and on.


And I discovered something else: people were emotionally touched by this tour experience.  What we were sharing wasn’t just interesting to them, it wasn’t simply: “Thanks, we learned a lot.”   I had people with teary eyes… I had people not wanting the tour to end…and I got more hugs at the end of this tour!

So, I wrestle with this idea now: how to tap into nostalgia in a way that makes sense, to not use it as a cheap method of sharing history, but to not discount it, either.  After all, interpretation is about making history accessible and meaningful.  If people are responding to history, maybe I’m doing something right.



  • Kevin Doerksen February 25, 2015 - 1:53 pm Reply

    Hey Wendy,

    Great article! Nostalgia is something that is almost visceral. It touches the innermost being of a person. As such, it is something that I do incorporate into my tours, especially with older clients. But the trick is to tie it in to the here and now, so it is not just a trip down memory lane. Weaving a narrative that incorporates all the disparate elements so vital to a good tour is, in my mind, the magic that we work on a daily basis. Love reading your blog!

    • Wendy February 25, 2015 - 2:05 pm Reply

      Kevin, thank you for your comment and for reading. That means a lot coming from you.

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