Teaching Public History with King of the Hill (redux edition)

Peggy: If we don’t learn from the past, what’s the point of even having one?
Vance Gilbert: That’s going in the brochure!

“What is public history?”

Although we exist in different interdisciplinary fields and seek varied vocational attainment, perhaps the one thing that truly unites us as public historians is that we’ve all had to flub our way through precisely that question.

It’s a topic that I devote a lot of space to in my undergraduate public history classroom, because grappling with this question is often the start of an intellectual process that ends with a new appreciation for power and the production of history. And because this process is so important, I start it off with a long look at a fictional museum of prostitution from the cult television show King of the Hill.

Yes, I’ll explain.

There are a number of broad questions that I instruct students to think about as they consider what public history might be and what public history might do:  who owns, or controls, the past?; are historians guilty of sanitizing or simplifying problematic narratives?; what happens when new research or interpretation challenges long held beliefs and assumptions about the past?; can the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of profit coexist? We explore these questions through case-studies, exhibits, landscapes, essays, interviews, photographs – through the national and the local. It’s helpful, however, to have one case study to rule them all that captures the context in which public historians work and the challenges they face. That’s where the Arlen Museum of Prostitution comes in.

The Arlen Museum of Prostitution is featured in the ‘Harlottown’ (S10E04) episode of King of the Hill, and its original air-date just happens to coincide with my first graduate seminar in public history in 2005. It begins with a day trip by the Hill family – conservative patriarch Hank, wife Peggy, and pre-teen son Bobby – to a nature spot that captures Hank’s nostalgic longing for his boyhood summers goofing off at a rock formation shaped like a tea kettle. It’s a wholesome connection to mediocre piece of local Texas history, and Hank enjoys it in the same way that some people actually enjoy hard peppermint candy. To Hank’s dismay, however, the family finds the tea kettle rock vandalized. The trip is ruined, and Hank and Peggy experience more frustration when they find that none of Arlen’s elected officials are interested in saving the tea kettle from progressive, graffiti-covered obscurity.

Faced with the government’s indifference to Arlen’s cultural landscapes, Hank and Peggy set out to do what any good historian would do in their shoes: they try to shame public officials into caring with some razzle dazzle historical research. And razzle dazzle it is, because Peggy accidentally discovers that their beloved town of Arlen started life as brothel.

Hank begs Peggy to ignore her discovery, but Peggy is enchanted by the idea that Arlen – a place that boasts multiple civic amenities named after football players – was once Harlottown, a thriving sex mecca born from the entrepreneurial spirit of founding mothers.  To Peggy, Arlen’s lost history both vindicates her usefulness as an amateur historian and her social position as a woman in an community that is built on exaggerated masculinity and traditional values. She publishes the story of Harlottown in the local paper to great fanfare from the city’s manager and local chamber of commerce kingpins, who see Arlen’s scandalous past as the basis for new revenue streams.

Suddenly, planning for the Arlen Museum of Prostitution (with a gentlemen’s reading room and erotic bakery) is underway, accompanied by an inaugural harlot-themed heritage festival. What Peggy imagined as a new, rich, complicated history for Arlen becomes nothing more than the basis for shallow, R-rated tourism. The final straw comes when Arlen becomes the host of the Texas Adult Video Awards and the town is flooded with adult film performers. “I should have let the past stay buried,” Peggy wails, blaming herself. Even the adult film performers find something amiss in Arlen’s quick transformation into a pseudo-red light district. As implied experts in the wages of sin, the adult film performers wistfully encourage residents to come together to protect their tiny corner of wholesomeness and family values. The greedy city manager who brainstormed the Arlen Museum of Prostitution is exiled and the town bestows the tea kettle rock formation with the status of Arlen’s premier heritage attraction, complete with boring historical marker.

This episode has no shortage of commentary on the practice of researching and interpreting local history. Each time I show ‘Harlottown’ to students I am endeared by Peggy’s sincere desire to present her lovingly researched narrative to the world, confident that it will remain her narrative. She’s not prepared to see the ‘facts,’ as they were, appropriated for political or financial gain. Hank’s reaction also hints at the realities of local history. He implores his wife to ‘let the past stay buried’ for the sake of the town’s reputation and spends the episode glued to a useless petition to disavow to Arlen’s scandalous history. But we can’t make the past go away, and we can’t own history, and those are the core truths of our profession.

Of course, examining a semester’s worth of case studies – Monticello, the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibit, Little Big Horn, Mount Rushmore, the Whitney Plantation, the Old North Church, the recently proposal National Lynching Memorial, and others – allow us ample opportunity to consider these questions in a more studious way. But for the emerging public historian, analyzing ‘Harlottown’ is a light-hearted exercise in  introducing and exploring exploring the field’s more complicated questions.

I published an earlier version of this essay in May 2015. Shortly after, I received a quick note from the episode’s co-writer, Greg Thompson, who had this to say: “I co-wrote this episode and am thrilled that a real life historian has dusted it off and said brainy stuff about it. An inspiration for the episode, by the way, was New Hampshire’s Old Man of the Mountain, which collapsed in 2003.”

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